Autor: UNOi

Fecha: 4 de junio de 2013

Learning more about language learning

  By Elaine Gallagher     Who was Vygotsky?  How do his theories apply to constructivism and language learning?  The PNIEB (Plan Nacional de Inglés en Educación […]


Foto: Diego Devesa Laux
Foto: Diego Devesa Laux

By Elaine Gallagher    

Who was Vygotsky?  How do his theories apply to constructivism and language learning? 

The PNIEB (Plan Nacional de Inglés en Educación Básica) in Mexico, but being adapted by other countries, is based on a variety of theories, each of which will be described periodically in various issues of UNO  NEWS English Corner. The basic theory of language acquisition is that it’s a complex interaction between people, emphasizing social and cultural relationships, higher order thinking, group work, listening, and production. This eclectic approach is intended to reach the learner in a variety of ways, recognizing that we all learn using a variety of ways.


Social / cultural: Vygotsky

This is one of the main philosophical aspects that the PNIEB sees as important.

Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory

Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory is the work of Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934), who lived during the Russian Revolution. Vygotsky’s work was largely unknown to the West until it was published in 1962, almost 30 years after his death.

Vygotsky’s theory is one of the foundations of constructivism. It asserts three major themes.

Major Themes:

1. Social interaction plays a fundamental role in the process of cognitive development. In contrast to Jean Piaget’s understanding of child development (in which development necessarily precedes learning), Vygotsky felt social learning precedes development.

He stated: “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: First, on the social level, and Later, on the individual level. First, between people (inter-psychological) and Then inside the child (intra- psychological).”  (Vygotsky, published posthumously in 1978).

2. The More Knowledgeable Other (MKO).                                   

The MKO refers to anyone who has a better understanding or a    higher ability level than the learner, with respect to a particular task, process, or concept. The MKO is normally thought of as being a teacher, coach, or older adult, but the MKO could also be peers, a younger person, or even computers.

3. The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).                                          

The ZPD is the distance between a student’s ability to perform a task under adult guidance and/or with peer collaboration and the student’s ability solving the problem independently. According to Vygotsky, learning occurred in this zone.

Vygotsky focused on the connections between people and the sociocultural context in which they act and interact in shared experiences (Crawford, 1996). According to Vygotsky, humans use tools that develop from a culture, such as speech and writing, to mediate their social environments.

Initially children develop these tools to serve solely as social functions, ways to communicate needs. Vygotsky believed that the internalization of these tools led to higher thinking skills.


The social cognition learning model asserts that culture is the prime determinant of individual development. Humans are the only species to have created culture, and every human child develops in the context of a culture. Therefore, a child’s learning development is affected in ways , large and small, by the culture–including the culture of family environment–in which he or she is enmeshed.


Culture makes two sorts of contributions to a child’s intellectual development. First, through culture children acquire much of the content of their thinking, that is, their knowledge. Second, the surrounding culture provides a child with the processes or means of their thinking, what Vygotskians call the tools of intellectual adaptation. In short, according to the social cognition learning model, culture teaches children both what to think and how to think.

Cognitive development results from a process whereby a child learns through problem-solving experiences shared with someone else, usually parent or teacher but sometimes a sibling or peers.Initially, the person interacting with child assumes most of the responsibility for guiding the problem solving, but gradually this responsibility transfers to the child.

Language is a primary form of interaction through which adults transmit to the child the rich body of knowledge that exists in the culture.

As learning progresses, the child’s own language comes to serve as her primary tool of intellectual adaptation. Eventually, children can use internal language to direct their own behavior.

Internalization refers to the process of learning–and thereby internalizing–a rich body of knowledge and tools of thought that first exist outside the child. This happens primarily through language.

A difference exists between what child can do on her own and what the child can do with help. Vygotskians call this difference the zone of proximal development.

Since much of what a child learns comes form the culture around her and much of the child’s problem solving is mediated through an adult’s help, it is wrong to focus on a child in isolation. Such focus does not reveal the processes by which children acquire new skills.

Interactions with surrounding culture and social agents, such asparents and more competent peers, contribute significantly to a child’s intellectual development.

How Vygotsky Impacts Learning:


Since children learn much through interaction, curricula should be designed to emphasize interaction between learners and learning tasks, projects, pair work, teamwork, cooperative learning experiences.


With appropriate adult help, children can often perform tasks that they are incapable of completing on their own. With this in mind, scaffolding – where the adult continually adjusts the level of his or her help in response to the child’s level of performance–is an effective form of teaching. Scaffolding not only produces immediate results, but also instills the skills necessary for independent problem solving in the future. 


Assessment methods must take into account the zone of proximal development. What children can do on their own is their level of actual development and what they can do with help is their level of potential development.

Two children might have the same level of actual development, but given the appropriate help from an adult, one might be able to solve many more problems than the other. Assessment methods must target both the level of actual development and the level of potential development.

Now you have some basic information about Vygotsky, at least enough so you can participate in a conversation about his language learning theories.


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