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Lev Vygotsky and Second Language Learning

Robert Jeens

Yonsei University

Author Note

Robert Jeens,

College English Department, Yonsei University

Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Robert Jeens, College English

Department, Yonsei University, International Campus, SongdoKwanak-ro 85, Yunsoo-gu,

Incheon, South Korea, 406-840



This paper examines the psychological theories of Lev Vygotsky as they have been applied to

second-language teaching. It begins with a discussion of the general development theories

Vygotsky introduced, particularly the social context of learning, the importance of language

as a tool for development, the zone of proximal development and the importance of a more

knowledgeable other. It then moves on to how these theories should be applied to education,

specifically, the role of the teacher in the classroom, the importance of imitation, scaffolding

and the evaluation of the zone of proximal development. Lastly, it looks at how Vygotskys

theories and techniques have been found effective in the field of second-language teaching

with reference to private and inner speech and teacher-led and mutual scaffolding in the

second language classroom.


Lev Vygotsky and Second Language Learning

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who was active in the early 20th Century. He

theorized in many fields beyond this papers purview, but had a great deal to say about the

role of language in human development and the implications of this for education. There is

much controversy about his work. He wrote a great deal and held different positions upon

several issues before he died at the young age of 37 in 1934 and left unfinished manuscripts

and thoughts, which his successors have chosen to interpret in different ways. Also, his works

have been translated and so his messages have differed depending upon the translations used.

Lastly, he was a Marxist intellectual, navigating the academic world of the Stalinist Soviet

Union, a fact which has discomfited many. Nevertheless, his insights into human

development and the implications of this for education in general and language education in

particular have become very influential since the 1980s and seem very relevant in the context

of second language education in the early part of the twenty-first century.This article will take

a general look at his theories of child development and the role language plays in it, discuss

how these theories have been applied to education generally, and then narrow further to

discuss the research that has been done into his theories with regard to second language

development and their application in the classroom.

1. Vygotskys Theories

Vygotskys central point is that a childs development only takes place in a social

context: every function in a childs development first appears as an interpersonal exchange

until it is internalized.His work contrasts with that of Piaget, who claimed that children reach

certain developmental stages through intrapersonal development, so that they are then ready

for a higher state of learning. Vygotsky claimed that it is interpersonal learning that propels

development. Every function in the childs cultural development appears twice; first, on the

social level, and later, on the individual level; first between people (interpsychological), and

then inside the child (intrapsychological). (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 57) For Vygotsky,

development entails qualitatively different stages of intellectual and emotional maturity, as

thinking processes become more complex, abstract, logical and nuanced. Because these

developmental stages are reached through a process of a childactively interacting with the

outside world, sociocultural forces are crucial to shaping a childs learning and development,

so that parents, teachers, peers and the larger community all shape how he or she will interact

with his or her environment. For example, two children of the same age, one in an upper-class

British boarding school and the other working in the coal mines near Newcastle, will have

very difference paths of development, as will those from other similarly divergent cultures.

There are limits to human development because of our biology, but we cannot reach them

without social interaction so that concepts or skills are shared interpersonally and are then

internalized by the learner (Lantolf and Appel, 1994).

Of great importance to language teachers, Vygotsky sees language and human

development as inextricably linked. While children have a pre-language stage, once they

acquire language, there is an interplay between language and development, so that as

childrens development progresses, it is manifested in a more complex use of language, and

this more complex use of language spurs their development. And for human beings, the

interaction between thought and language makes meaning; therefore, we can only understand

the world around us through the intermediary (Vygotsky called it a psychological tool) of

language.Language is the critical human ability that enables us to think and talk about things

not just grounded in physical reality but also to philosophize and conjecture about abstract

notions that go beyond our immediate reality. It follows that our thoughts are influenced by

the language we speak. The specific words and grammar of our language help shape our

outlook (Steiner, 2007). An example might be the word rice. In English, we have one word,

rice, whereas in Korean, there are three: byeo (rice in the field), sal (uncooked rice) and bab

(cooked rice), illustrating the relative importance of that crop in our different cultures.

Learning a new language entails incorporating the new outlook of that language

Another point with relation to language: Vygotsky delineated three types of speech:

inner, private and outer. Inner speech is nonverbal speech which is focused inward, as we talk

to ourselves. Private speech is verbal, but also directed inward and is more common in

children. Outer speech is communicative language. All are crucial to our development, and

Vygotsky observed that complex tasks or concepts require more complex inner or private

speech to master, as we discuss with ourselves how we will successfully complete them.For

example, a child completing a puzzle may say, Hmm, where? Lets seeMaybe here. No?

What about and so on.Therefore, we talk ourselves into development (Lantolf, 2003, p.


The zone of proximal development is probably Vygotskys best-known concept.

[T]he distance between the actual developmental level as determined through independent

problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem

solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers (Vygotsky, 1978, p.

86).There are a few important points to make about this. First, the zone of proximal

development is not simply about tasks that a child can do with adult assistance: those tasks

are simply representative of the development stage of a child and, rather than just learning a

set of skills, must be directed towards that development (Chaiklin, 2003). Next, Vygotsky

saw the zone of proximal development as a way to measure a childs potential level of

cognitive development, what a child is capable of rather than what the child already knows.

Teaching should be oriented not towards the yesterday, but towards the tomorrow of child

development (Vygotsky, 1993, pp. 251-252).Another very important point is that effective

instruction only takes place within the zone of proximal development: if a student does not

need assistance to complete a task, no learning has taken place and if a student is unable to

complete a task even with assistance, no learning can occur. Finally, the zone of proximal

development is open to divergent paths. It is not a single line of development, but multiple

possible paths depending on the learner, teachers, culture and other factors (Chaiklin, 2003;

Del Rio, 2007).

Unlike those who see a learner as able to develop on his or her own, Vygotsky

stresses the role of a more knowledgeable other. This other (a teacher, more knowledgeable

peer, parent) is the person who collaborates with a child, within the zone of proximal

development, through a series of organized learning activities, to guide the child to a higher

stage of development. Children develop through unstructured activities and play with their

peers, but these alone are not enough. This marks a break from the pure progressivists, who

see students as being able to control their own learning, even to the subjects they take or the

aspects of the subjects they study. Vygotsky believes that students should be allowed to study

what they want as much as possible, but more knowledgeable others have an important role

to play in presenting curriculum or an outline of a curriculum that, in their more experienced

view, they see as vital to the student (Daniels, 2007).

2. General Implications for Education

When it comes to the roles of teachers and learners, Vygotsky made some contradictory

statements that can be somewhat reconciled in the end. [D]irect instruction in concepts is

impossible. nothing but a mindless learning of words. Such knowledge turns out to be

inadequate in any meaningful application (Vygotsky, 1993, p. 170).Here he seems to reject

traditional teaching. In this view, Vygotsky urges teachers to collaborate with students rather

than dictate to them. Teachers should create a community of learners in which all the

participants learn from each other. Also, teachers must tailor instruction to the individual

student, creating activities that appeal to their individual drives and lie within their individual

zones of development. On the other hand,he saw the teacher as the leader in the classroom

and his opinion changed over time to embrace some direct instruction of particular kinds. It

has been recognized by his followers that a teacher has a limited amount of time and

resources to engage a large class, can engage more than one student at a time, and can

intervene at certain critical points in the learning or developmental process with some effect

rather than spending 1/30 of every hour with one of all 30 students in a class (Daniels, 2007).

Imitation, for Vygotsky, is a valid instructional tool. It is part of the process through

which development becomes internalized. This is not the repetition of behavioralists or

audio-linguists, but intentional and self-selective behavior on the part of the learner(Lantolf

and Appel, 1994).I heard a good example in a restaurant a few days ago. A one-year-old child

was upset and yelled, Anjima. (A grammatically incorrect rendering of Dont do it.) His

father, hearing it, said, Hajima? (Dont do it?) and the baby said Eung (Yes). One minute

later, the baby was again upset and roaredHa-ji-ma! The baby had successfully internalized

the language through imitation.Imitation can also be very creative, as the learners apply what

they have imitated to other situations. For example, a student might have been unable to solve

a math problem, but when the teacher solves it on the blackboard, comprehends, and then is

able to apply this new solution to new problems.

The technique most associated with Vygotsky is scaffolding. Scaffolding

encompasses the different methods a more knowledgeable othercan use to move a student

through the zone of proximal development. A complex task, higher than the students actual,

unassisted level is given to the student, and the students role is supported and simplified to

produce a successful outcome. Gradually, as the student improves, the support is withdrawn

until the learner can complete the task unassisted. Some of the rules that have been worked

out for successful scaffolding are these. Scaffolding can only take place within a learners

zone of proximal development. It must be collaborative (the student works with others),

interactive (both sides are dynamically giving and taking) and contingent (the plan can

change depending upon the circumstances). This often takes place in face-to-face interactions

with students, either one-on-one, in small groups or in full-class discussions and often

involves just helping students through a reasoning process by engaging in strategies such as

asking leading questions, finishing a students thoughts, beginning a solution for a student

and letting them finish it, or defining unknown terms (Kozulin, 2003).

So far, the stress has been on the role of the teacher in the scaffolding process, but

there is also collective scaffolding or mutual scaffolding in which groups of peers work

together in a supportive arrangement to mutually produce a result that none of them could

have alone.The key to this is creating a community of learners in which students will support

each other to maintain pursuit of the successful completion of a task. In this case, a classroom

will support many overlapping zones of proximal development in which discussion,

questioning and criticism are used among the learners, so that they support and negotiate their

learning and development (Donato, 1994).

Vygotsky worked out a completely new method for evaluation; he set out to measure

childrens zones of proximal development. He found this to be a much better predictor of

future success than a standardized I.Q. test, as two children might have the same I.Q. but

different zones of proximal development.A true diagnosis must provide an explanation,


prediction, and scientific basis for practical prescription (Vygotsky, 1998, p. 205).As

opposed to traditional static assessment, this has been labelled dynamic assessment, in

which the assessor must actively collaborate with the student to bring the student to his or her

full potential. In brief, we ask the child to solve problems that are beyond his mental age [as

measured by independent performance] with some kind of cooperation and determine how far

the potential for intellectual cooperation can be stretched for the given child (Vygotsky, 1998,

p. 202). In order to produce the best possible result, learners are given feedback and

scaffolding. The key question becomes how much and what kind of help a learner needs to

complete a task.

Lidz and Gindis (2003) describe two standard types of dynamic assessment:

sandwich and cake. In a sandwich dynamic assessment, the examinees are given a

pretest, equivalent to a static test. Then they receive instruction in the skills or principles of

the problem solution outlined in the pretest. Finally, there is a posttest, generally an alternate

form of the pretest. A cake dynamic assessment is more complex and involved but also

more precise. It requires one-on-one interaction between an examinee and examiner. The

examinee tries to solve an item. If correct, he or she moves on to the next item on the test.

However, if the examinee is not successful a series of hints, designed to make the solution

successively more explicit, are provided by the examiner. If this does not work, the examiner

models the problem solution and then presents the next item. The type of and amount of help

an examinee needs to complete the tasks is what is measured. Unfortunately, they do not

share a common schema to show the evaluation. For example, a person could have an I.Q. of

100, or a student might receive 89% on a test. How is a learners performance on a dynamic

assessment presented, either in reference to his or her past or future performance, or in

relation to others?

3. Vygotsky and Second Language Teaching

Vygotsky was primarily concerned with the interaction of first language development and

cognitive development in children, but his followers have applied his theories widely in

second language learning as well,studying the use of inner and private speech and utilizing

scaffolding as successful techniques for adults learning the skill of a second language and not

just children undergoing cognitive development (Storch, 2002). This has led to some

controversy, but also quite a large amount of good research and teaching.

Although some claim that Vygotsky advocated a purely dialogic approach to second

language teaching, in line with how he believed the first language was acquired, this is not

true. In fact, he advocated a modified grammar-translation method in which students would

be taught grammar and vocabulary, translate poetry and prose and then engage in

conversation practice. He believed that students first need general principles and then

activities that allow them to test these principles and ground them in concrete reality

(Langford, 2005). Generally, Vygotskys conceptualized the learning of native and foreign

languages as moving in opposite directions.A child easily uses a native language but

without conscious awareness of its grammatical or lexical bases. Conversely, a foreign

language learner consciously learns that languages grammar and lexis but cannot use them

fluently and without conscious awareness until much later, if ever(Lantolf, 2003).

Vygotskys theories on the role of inner speech have been largely confirmed and

expanded with relation to second language learning. De Guerro (1994) defines inner speech

as the medium for the formation, expression, and development of verbal thought and has

found that, in the classroom, second language learners often mentally practice what they will

say before they say it: as well, they mentally practice new words and pronunciation, answer

questions in their mind, and use inner speech for the memorization of new items. As

Vygotsky observed, inner speech increases with the difficulty of the task given to learners in

their second language.Lantolf (2003) pointed out that inner speech is especially useful for

beginning to intermediate second language learners. In addition to the uses above, they use

inner speech for self-questioning, self-corrections, the repetition of others utterances and

experimenting with the second language.

So inner speech is used to work out what learners want to say before they say it, but

it is also used to socially involve learners in supposedly passive classroom activities. Lantolf

(2003) found that, when participating in a whole-class activity answering questions about an

L2 listening, students used inner speech in the following ways: 1) to positively reinforce their

answers, 2) to avoid calling out a possibly incorrect answer, 3) to make sense of aquestion

asked by the teacher, and 4) to get practice in using the language.Even regular grammar

exercises can be used in a Vygotskian way. Mondadaand Pekarek-Doehler(2004) investigated

a teacher asking students to verbally transform sentences in a whole-class setting. Students

used inner speech before answering to both self-correct and imitate teacher corrections. When

students were silently listening in to a dialogue between other students and the teacher or

doing individual seat work, through inner speech, they were still socially interacting with

each other and the teacher. All of this essentially reinforces Vygotskys beliefs in the efficacy

of some very traditional second-language teaching methods.

Walqui (2006) has identified six types of scaffolding that are particularly useful for

second language learners, particularly those trying to engage in complex academic tasks in a

second language such as writing or comprehending academic texts. 1) Modeling:students are

given clear examples of what is requested of them for imitation. For example, they might be

given an example paragraph before they write their own or an activity could be modelled

before they undertake it in pairs. 2) Bridging: students build on previous knowledge and

understanding to learn new concepts. A common activity is to activate students prior

knowledge. This can be done very specifically or more generally, depending upon the need,

through discussions, pretesting or using anticipatory guides. 3) Contextualizing: put the

reading into a context. Students often have a great deal of difficulty reading textbooks

because information is often presented in isolated bits in very difficult language. Teachers can

use multimedia, demonstrations, discussions or metaphors and analogies provide a context

for text in order to make it more accessible. 4) Schema building: help students to find the

main ideas in a reading or listening before trying to find the details. Various ways of doing

this include discussing pictures, sub-headings and graphs or charts in a text as a way to

preview or review it. Or the students might be asked to transform textual information into a

graphic organizer. Basically, the idea is to help students make connections and process new

information. 5) Re-presenting: this involves having students move information from one

genre to another. For example, students may read a passage about a historical era but then be

asked to write and perform a short skit about that era. Or they take information from a text

using an organizer (schema building) but then have to re-present that information in a

paragraph in their own words. 6) The last scaffolding technique is developing metacognition.

This is the ability to monitor ones current level of understanding, decide when it is not

adequate, and apply an appropriate learning strategy. These strategies can and should be

taught and practiced.

Gibbons (2003) also looked at how teachers can scaffold through students zones of

proximal development to help them develop more the formal, academic language required of

them in school. The subjects were 60 grade 5 science students, 92% of whom were ESL

learners, in two classrooms in Australia. The students were required to do experiments, orally

report their results to the class and then write a report. This sequence required the students to

move linguistically from a more context-dependent, conversational context to a more formal,

more academic, less context-dependent and more challenging context. The study focused

specifically on the scaffolding the teacher provided at the oral report stage, to move the

students to the higher register required for writing a successful report. She found this

scaffolding to consist of the teacher modeling and focusing on key lexis or grammar, either

through explanations or interactions with the students, and by directing students attention to

commonalities between the group reports, to help them find generalizations. These highly

successful techniques include1) mode-shifting through recasting, 2) signaling learners to

reformulate, 3) indicating the need for reformulation, and 4) contextualizing personal

knowledge. 1) In mode-shifting through recasting, a teacher asks a student to recount and

then recaps, re-represents or re-contextualizes the dialogue using more complex, academic

language. The same grammatical construction is used, to give the new lexis a context and

signal equivalence between the old and new lexis. 2) Signaling learners to reformulate

involves a teacher asking a student for clarification to elicit more information and accuracy

from a student. Keys to making this technique successful are precise and contingent teacher

interventions that stretch language learners to the outer limits of their capabilities so that

they can take responsibility for making more comprehensible output to the audience (Gibbon,

2003, p. 262). 3) When a teacher indicates a need for reformulation, he simply tells the

student to use more appropriate/academic language, which has already been modelled, and

then leaves it to the student to do it. 4)Recontextualizing personal knowledge is teacher talk

that includes both subject-specific language and the subject itself, so that a teacher discusses

the relationship between them. The key concept to making all of these different scaffolding

methods successful, Gibbon says, is contingency. The teacher must validate student

utterances and build on them, and judge the need for and quality of assistance needed by a

student from moment to moment. This conscious collaboration between the students and

teachers is exactly how Vygotsky saw development as occurring.

Mutual scaffolding has been shown to work in very complex ways among groups

or pairs of L2 learners (Donato, 1994). Swain and Lapkin (1998) followed students doing a

jigsaw task that had them use a set of numbered pictures, of which each student had half, who

used them to write a paragraph together. They were extremely active in mediating language,

instructing and modeling for each other. The dialogue between them took place in both L1

and L2 and provided new language forms in the L2, so that the end product (the paragraph)

was the product of two learners, in which each learned from the other. However, the results

can be very divergent depending upon the desire/ability/other factors of students to use these

strategies. The same study found considerable variation according to the pairs participating in

the activity. The main pair spent 23 minutes on task, but the class average was ten minutes

and one group did the work in four. There was also a great variation in the amount of

communication between the students, especially for confirmation of language patterns. One

group spent 17 minutes on task and only spoke about form twice. Two conclusions were

reached: for this type of mutual scaffolding activity to be successful requires motivated and

trained students as well as a teacher skilled in bringing these sorts of activities to a successful

conclusion and, in the end, the students need final teacher feedback on whether their co-

constructed solutions to their language problems are correct.

Storch (2002) further refined and reinforcedDonatos and Swain and Lapkins studies

by defining four patterns of interaction between second language learners doing pair work:

dominant/dominant, dominant/passive, collaborative, and expert/novice, and found that only

two efficiently create learning. She found that mutuality,the level of engagementwith each

others contributionsrich in reciprocal feedback and sharing of ideas (Storch, 2002, p. 127)

to be the key to successful language learning. 1) Dominant/dominant interactions were

characterized by low mutuality and high equality. These relationships were characterized by

exasperation and anger, with both students offering opinions and neither accepting those of

the other. There was little knowledge transfer and many missed opportunities for learning. 2)

In dominant/passive interactions, there was low mutuality and high equality. Generally, one

student dominated the other, while the other rarely was rarely asked for or ventured opinions.

Again, there was little knowledge transfer and many missed opportunities. 3) Collaborative

interactions were characterized by high mutuality and high equality, so that the partners

considered and debated each others opinions and incorporated both into their work. 4) In

expert/novice interactions, there is high mutuality and low equality, so that even though one

partner is dominant, that dominant partner actively seeks the novices opinion and seeks to

include that person in the activity. In the last two patterns, collaborative and expert/novice,

members constructed knowledge together and this was successfully appropriated, internalized

and subsequently utilized by these partners. Two major teaching points come out of these

findings, besides the idealization of the types of pair work. First, the patterns of relationships

between partners were found to be stable over the course of a semester, so teachers need to be

aware of the type of interactions going on in the classroom and change partners if less

effective patterns emerge. Also, as found in other studies, above, even in the effective

partnerships, students sometimes reached incorrect conclusions and so there is a need for

final teacher feedback on their output.

Some final thoughts about Vygostky and his relevance for teaching second languages.

First, it needs repeating that Vygotsky conceived of the zone of proximal development and

scaffolding activities as ways to help children reach higher levels of mental development

rather than as simply helping students to complete tasks to increase their knowledge or skills

in particular areas, and that is probably exactly what is happening in much adult foreign

language teaching. To be effective, Vygotsky believed that the over-arching goal is the former

rather than the latter. And, while he equated an increasing ability to use complex language in

a childs first language as analogous to mental development, it is unclear that this same

process of mental development occurs as an adult learns a second language. Second, to be

effective, teaching must be done in the zone of proximal development and scaffolding needs

to be gradually withdrawn to push studentsdevelopment. Third, the notion of dynamic

assessment challenges traditional notions of static testing. Should we measure what the

students know now or their potential capability? If so, how can we report those findings?

Fourth, his theories and the research about them emphasize the role of the teacher in helping

learners reach their potential rather than just unstructured individual learning opportunities.

And we have seen how some very traditional techniques can involve the student in social

learning. Lastly, pair and group work are very useful and lead to real learning but the students

need motivation and training for these techniques to be successful. Overall, successful

scaffolding requires teachers very skilled at interacting with their students at crucial times to

support their learning, just enough to be successful, and at putting together and supporting

groups of students to engage in mutual scaffolding.



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