• Vygotsky’s Theory of Cognitive Development

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Sociocultural Theory 

The work of Lev Vygotsky (1934, 1978) has become the foundation of much research and theory in cognitive development over the past several decades, particularly what has become known as sociocultural theory.

Vygotsky’s theory comprises concepts such as culture-specific tools, private speech, and the zone of proximal development.

Vygotsky believed cognitive development is influenced by cultural and social factors. He emphasized the role of social interaction in the development of mental abilities e.g., speech and reasoning in children.

Vygotsky strongly believed that community plays a central role in the process of “making meaning.”

Cognitive development is a socially mediated process in which children acquire cultural values, beliefs, and problem-solving strategies through collaborative dialogues with more knowledgeable members of society.

The more knowledgeable other (MKO) is someone who has a higher level of ability or greater understanding than the learner regarding a particular task, process, or concept.

The MKO can be a teacher, parent, coach, or even a peer who provides guidance and modeling to enable the child to learn skills within their zone of proximal development (the gap between what a child can do independently and what they can achieve with guidance).

The interactions with more knowledgeable others significantly increase not only the quantity of information and the number of skills a child develops, but also affects the development of higher-order mental functions such as formal reasoning. Vygotsky argued that higher mental abilities could only develop through interaction with more advanced others.

According to Vygotsky, adults in society foster children’s cognitive development by engaging them in challenging and meaningful activities. Adults convey to children how their culture interprets and responds to the world.

They show the meaning they attach to objects, events, and experiences. They provide the child with what to think (the knowledge) and how to think (the processes, the tools to think with).

Vygotsky’s theory encourages collaborative and cooperative learning between children and teachers or peers. Scaffolding and reciprocal teaching are effective educational strategies based on Vygotsky’s ideas.

Scaffolding involves the teacher providing support structures to help students master skills just beyond their current level. In reciprocal teaching, teachers and students take turns leading discussions using strategies like summarizing and clarifying. Both scaffolding and reciprocal teaching emphasize the shared construction of knowledge, in line with Vygotsky’s views.

Vygotsky highlighted the importance of language in cognitive development. Inner speech is used for mental reasoning, and external speech is used to converse with others.

These operations occur separately. Indeed, before age two, a child employs words socially; they possess no internal language.

Once thought and language merge, however, the social language is internalized and assists the child with their reasoning. Thus, the social environment is ingrained within the child’s learning.

Effects of Culture

Vygotsky emphasized the role of the social environment in the child’s cognitive development.

Vygotsky claimed that infants are born with the basic abilities for intellectual development called “elementary mental functions” (Piaget focuses on motor reflexes and sensory abilities). These develop throughout the first two years of life due to direct environmental contact.

Elementary mental functions include –

o Attention o Sensation o Perception o Memory

Eventually, through interaction within the sociocultural environment, these are developed into more sophisticated and effective mental processes, which Vygotsky refers to as “higher mental functions.”

Tools of intellectual adaptation

Each culture provides its children with tools of intellectual adaptation that allow them to use basic mental functions more effectively/adaptively.

Tools of intellectual adaptation is Vygotsky’s term for methods of thinking and problem-solving strategies that children internalize through social interactions with the more knowledgeable members of society.

For example, memory in young children is limited by biological factors. However, culture determines the type of memory strategy we develop.

For example, in Western culture, children learn note-taking to aid memory, but in pre-literate societies, other strategies must be developed, such as tying knots in a string to remember, carrying pebbles, or repeating the names of ancestors until large numbers can be repeated.

Vygotsky, therefore, sees cognitive functions, even those carried out alone, as affected by the beliefs, values, and tools of intellectual adaptation of the culture in which a person develops and, therefore, socio-culturally determined.

Therefore, intellectual adaptation tools vary from culture to culture – as in the memory example.

Social Influences on Cognitive Development

Like Piaget, Vygotsky believes that young children are curious and actively involved in their own learning and discovering and developing new understandings/schema .

However, Vygotsky emphasized social contributions to the development process, whereas Piaget emphasized self-initiated discovery.

According to Vygotsky (1978), much important learning by the child occurs through social interaction with a skillful tutor. The tutor may model behaviors and/or provide verbal instructions for the child.

Vygotsky refers to this as cooperative or collaborative dialogue. The child seeks to understand the actions or instructions provided by the tutor (often the parent or teacher) and then internalizes the information, using it to guide or regulate their performance.

Shaffer (1996) gives the example of a young girl given her first jigsaw. Alone, she performs poorly in attempting to solve the puzzle. The father then sits with her and describes or demonstrates some basic strategies, such as finding all the corner/edge pieces, and provides a couple of pieces for the child to put together herself, and offers encouragement when she does so.

As the child becomes more competent, the father allows the child to work more independently. According to Vygotsky, this social interaction involving cooperative or collaborative dialogue promotes cognitive development.

To understand Vygotsky’s theories on cognitive development, one must understand two of the main principles of Vygotsky’s work: the More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).

More Knowledgeable Other

The more knowledgeable other (MKO) is somewhat self-explanatory; it refers to someone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, concerning a particular task, process, or concept.

Although the implication is that the MKO is a teacher or an older adult, this is not necessarily the case. Often, a child’s peers or an adult’s children may be the individuals with more knowledge or experience.

For example, who is more likely to know more about the newest teenage music groups, how to win at the most recent PlayStation game, or how to correctly perform the newest dance craze – a child or their parents?

In fact, the MKO need not be a person at all. To support employees in their learning process, some companies are now using electronic performance support systems.

Electronic tutors have also been used in educational settings to facilitate and guide students through learning. The key to MKOs is that they must have (or be programmed with) more knowledge about the topic being learned than the learner does.

Zone of Proximal Development

The concept of the more knowledgeable other relates to the second important principle of Vygotsky’s work, the zone of proximal development .

This important concept relates to the difference between what a child can achieve independently and what a child can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner.

Vygotsky consequently focuses much more closely on social interaction as an aid to learning, arguing that, left alone, children will develop – but not to their full potential.

He refers to the gap between actual and potential learning as the zone of proximal development (ZPD) – and argues that it is only through collaboration with adults and other learners that this gap can be bridged.


The zone of proximal development is the gap between the level of actual development, what the child can do on his own, and the level of potential development, what a child can do with the assistance of more advanced and competent individuals.

Social interaction, therefore, supports the child’s cognitive development in the ZPD, leading to a higher level of reasoning. It is generally believed that social dialogues have two important features.

The first is intersubjectivity, where two individuals who might have different understandings of a task, arrive at a shared understanding by adjusting to the perspective of the other.

The second feature is referred to as scaffolding. Adults may begin with direct instruction, but as children’s mastery of a task increases, so the adult tends to withdraw their own contributions in recognition of the child’s increasing success.

For example, the child could not solve the jigsaw puzzle (in the example above) by itself and would have taken a long time to do so (if at all), but was able to solve it following interaction with the father, and has developed competence at this skill that will be applied to future jigsaws.

ZPD is the zone where instruction is the most beneficial, as it is when the task is just beyond the individual’s capabilities. To learn, we must be presented with tasks just out of our ability range. Challenging tasks promote maximum cognitive growth.

As a result of shared dialogues with more knowledgeable others, who provide hints, instructions, and encouragement, the child can internalize the ‘how to do it’ part of the task as part of their inner or private speech. The child can then use this on later occasions when they tackle a similar task on their own.

Vygotsky (1978) sees the Zone of Proximal Development as the area where the most sensitive instruction or guidance should be given – allowing the child to develop skills they will then use on their own – developing higher mental functions.

Vygotsky also views peer interaction as an effective way of developing skills and strategies.  He suggests that teachers use cooperative learning exercises where less competent children develop with help from more skillful peers – within the zone of proximal development.

Evidence for Vygotsky and the ZPD

Freund (1990) conducted a study in which children had to decide which items of furniture should be placed in particular areas of a doll’s house.

Some children were allowed to play with their mother in a similar situation before they attempted it alone (zone of proximal development) while others were allowed to work on this by themselves (Piaget’s discovery learning).

Freund found that those who had previously worked with their mother (ZPD) showed the greatest improvement compared with their first attempt at the task.

The conclusion is that guided learning within the ZPD led to greater understanding/performance than working alone (discovery learning).

Vygotsky and Language

Vygotsky believed that language develops from social interactions for communication purposes. Vygotsky viewed language as man’s greatest tool for communicating with the outside world.

According to Vygotsky (1962), language plays two critical roles in cognitive development:
  • It is the main means by which adults transmit information to children.
  • Language itself becomes a very powerful tool for intellectual adaptation.
Vygotsky (1987) differentiates between three forms of language:
  • Social speech, which is external communication used to talk to others (typical from the age of two);
  • Private speech (typical from the age of three) which is directed to the self and serves an intellectual function;
  • Private speech goes underground , diminishing in audibility as it takes on a self-regulating function and is transformed into silent inner speech (typical from the age of seven).

For Vygotsky, thought and language are initially separate systems from the beginning of life, merging at around three years of age.

At this point, speech and thought become interdependent: thought becomes verbal, and speech becomes representational.

As children develop mental representation, particularly the skill of language, they start to communicate with themselves in much the same way as they would communicate with others.

When this happens, children’s monologues are internalized to become inner speech. The internalization of language is important as it drives cognitive development.

“Inner speech is not the interiour aspect of external speech – it is a function in itself. It still remains speech, i.e., thought connected with words. But while in external speech thought is embodied in words, in inner speech words dies as they bring forth thought. Inner speech is to a large extent thinking in pure meanings.” (Vygotsky, 1962: p. 149)

Private Speech

Vygotsky (1987) was the first psychologist to document the importance of private speech.

He considered private speech as the transition point between social and inner speech, the moment in development where language and thought unite to constitute verbal thinking.

Thus, in Vygotsky’s view, private speech was the earliest manifestation of inner speech. Indeed, private speech is more similar (in form and function) to inner speech than social speech.

Private speech is “typically defined, in contrast to social speech, as speech addressed to the self (not to others) for the purpose of self-regulation (rather than communication).” (Diaz, 1992, p.62)

Private speech is overt, audible, and observable, often seen in children who talk to themselves while problem-solving.

Conversely, inner speech is covert or hidden because it happens internally. It is the silent, internal dialogue that adults often engage in while thinking or problem-solving.

In contrast to Piaget’s (1959) notion of private speech representing a developmental dead-end, Vygotsky (1934, 1987) viewed private speech as:

“A revolution in development which is triggered when preverbal thought and preintellectual language come together to create fundamentally new forms of mental functioning.” (Fernyhough & Fradley, 2005: p. 1)

In addition to disagreeing on the functional significance of private speech, Vygotsky and Piaget also offered opposing views on the developmental course of private speech and the environmental circumstances in which it occurs most often (Berk & Garvin, 1984).


Through private speech, children collaborate with themselves, in the same way a more knowledgeable other (e.g., adults) collaborate with them to achieve a given function.

Vygotsky sees “private speech” as a means for children to plan activities and strategies, aiding their development. Private speech is the use of language for self-regulation of behavior.

Therefore, language accelerates thinking/understanding ( Jerome Bruner also views language in this way). Vygotsky believed that children who engage in large amounts of private speech are more socially competent than children who do not use it extensively.

Vygotsky (1987) notes that private speech does not merely accompany a child’s activity but acts as a tool the developing child uses to facilitate cognitive processes, such as overcoming task obstacles, and enhancing imagination, thinking, and conscious awareness.

Children use private speech most often during intermediate difficulty tasks because they attempt to self-regulate by verbally planning and organizing their thoughts (Winsler et al., 2007).

The frequency and content of private speech correlate with behavior or performance. For example, private speech appears functionally related to cognitive performance: It appears at times of difficulty with a task.

For example, tasks related to executive function (Fernyhough & Fradley, 2005), problem-solving tasks (Behrend et al., 1992), and schoolwork in both language (Berk & Landau, 1993), and mathematics (Ostad & Sorensen, 2007).

Berk (1986) provided empirical support for the notion of private speech. She found that most private speech exhibited by children serves to describe or guide the child’s actions.

Berk also discovered that children engaged in private speech more often when working alone on challenging tasks and when their teacher was not immediately available to help them.

Furthermore, Berk also found that private speech develops similarly in all children regardless of cultural background.

There is also evidence (Behrend et al., 1992) that those children who displayed the characteristic whispering and lip movements associated with private speech when faced with a difficult task were generally more attentive and successful than their ‘quieter’ classmates.

Vygotsky (1987) proposed that private speech is a product of an individual’s social environment. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that there exist high positive correlations between rates of social interaction and private speech in children.

Children raised in cognitively and linguistically stimulating environments (situations more frequently observed in higher socioeconomic status families) start using and internalizing private speech faster than children from less privileged backgrounds.

Indeed, children raised in environments characterized by low verbal and social exchanges exhibit delays in private speech development.

Children’s use of private speech diminishes as they grow older and follows a curvilinear trend. This is due to changes in ontogenetic development whereby children can internalize language (through inner speech) to self-regulate their behavior (Vygotsky, 1987).

For example, research has shown that children’s private speech usually peaks at 3–4 years of age, decreases at 6–7, and gradually fades out to be mostly internalized by age 10 (Diaz, 1992).

Vygotsky proposed that private speech diminishes and disappears with age not because it becomes socialized, as Piaget suggested, but because it goes underground to constitute inner speech or verbal thought” (Frauenglass & Diaz, 1985).

Educational Implications

Vygotsky’s approach to child development is a form of social constructivism , based on the idea that cognitive functions are the products of social interactions.

Social constructivism posits that knowledge is constructed and learning occurs through social interactions within a cultural and historical context.

Vygotsky emphasized the collaborative nature of learning by constructing knowledge through social negotiation. He rejected the assumption made by Piaget that it was possible to separate learning from its social context.

Vygotsky believed everything is learned on two levels. First, through interaction with others, then integrated into the individual’s mental structure.

Every function in the child’s 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). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals. (Vygotsky, 1978, p.57)

Teaching styles grounded in constructivism represent a deliberate shift from traditional, didactic, memory-oriented transmission models (Cannella & Reiff, 1994) to a more student-centered approach.

Traditionally, schools have failed to foster environments where students actively participate in their own and their peers’ education. Vygotsky’s theory, however, calls for both the teacher and students to assume non-traditional roles as they engage in collaborative learning.

Rather than having a teacher impose their understanding onto students for future recitation, the teacher should co-create meaning with students in a manner that allows learners to take ownership (Hausfather, 1996).

For instance, a student and teacher might start a task with varying levels of expertise and understanding. As they adapt to each other’s perspective, the teacher must articulate their insights in a way that the student can comprehend, leading the student to a fuller understanding of the task or concept.

The student can then internalize the task’s operational aspect (“how to do it”) into their inner speech or private dialogue. Vygotsky referred to this reciprocal understanding and adjustment process as intersubjectivity.”

Because Vygotsky asserts that cognitive change occurs within the zone of proximal development, instruction would be designed to reach a developmental level just above the student’s current developmental level.

Vygotsky proclaims, “learning which is oriented toward developmental levels that have already been reached is ineffective from the viewpoint of the child’s overall development. It does not aim for a new stage of the developmental process but rather lags behind this process” (Vygotsky, 1978).

Appropriation is necessary for cognitive development within the zone of proximal development. Individuals participating in peer collaboration or guided teacher instruction must share the same focus to access the zone of proximal development.

“Joint attention and shared problem solving is needed to create a process of cognitive, social, and emotional interchange” (Hausfather,1996).

Furthermore, it is essential that the partners be on different developmental levels and the higher-level partner be aware of the lower’s level. If this does not occur or one partner dominates, the interaction is less successful (Driscoll, 1994; Hausfather, 1996).

Vygotsky’s theories also feed into the current interest in collaborative learning, suggesting that group members should have different levels of ability so more advanced peers can help less advanced members operate within their ZPD.

Scaffolding and reciprocal teaching are effective strategies to access the zone of proximal development.

Reciprocal Teaching

A contemporary educational application of Vygotsky’s theory is “reciprocal teaching,” used to improve students” ability to learn from text.

In this method, teachers and students collaborate in learning and practicing four key skills: summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting. The teacher’s role in the process is reduced over time.

Reciprocal teaching allows for the creation of a dialogue between students and teachers. This two-way communication becomes an instructional strategy by encouraging students to go beyond answering questions and engage in the discourse (Driscoll, 1994; Hausfather, 1996).

A study conducted by Brown and Palincsar (1989) demonstrated the Vygotskian approach with reciprocal teaching methods in their successful program to teach reading strategies.

The teacher and students alternated turns leading small group discussions on a reading. After modeling four reading strategies, students began to assume the teaching role.

The results showed significant gains over other instructional strategies (Driscoll, 1994; Hausfather,1996).

Cognitively Guided Instruction is another strategy to implement Vygotsky’s theory. This strategy involves the teacher and students exploring math problems and then sharing their problem-solving strategies in an open dialogue (Hausfather,1996).

Based on Vygotsky’s theory, the physical classroom would provide clustered desks or tables and workspace for peer instruction, collaboration, and small-group instruction. Learning becomes a reciprocal experience for the students and teacher.

Like the environment, the instructional design of the material to be learned would be structured to promote and encourage student interaction and collaboration. Thus the classroom becomes a community of learning.


Also, Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development on learners is relevant to instructional concepts such as “scaffolding” and “apprenticeship,” in which a teacher or more advanced peer helps to structure or arrange a task so that a novice can work on it successfully.

A teacher’s role is to identify each individual’s current level of development and provide them with opportunities to cross their ZPD.

A crucial element in this process is the use of what later became known as scaffolding; the way in which the teacher provides students with frameworks and experiences which encourage them to extend their existing schemata and incorporate new skills, competencies, and understandings.

Scaffolding describes the conditions that support the child’s learning, to move from what they already know to new knowledge and abilities.

Scaffolding requires the teacher to allow students to extend their current skills and knowledge.

During scaffolding, the support offered by an adult (or more knowledgeable other) gradually decreases as the child becomes more skilled in the task.

As the adult withdraws their help, the child assumes more of the strategic planning and eventually gains competence to master similar problems without a teacher’s aid or a more knowledgeable peer.

It is important to note that this is more than simply instruction; learning experiences must be presented in such a way as to actively challenge existing mental structures and provide frameworks for learning.

Five ways in which an adult can “scaffold” a child’s learning:

  • Engaging the child’s interest
  • Maintaining the child’s interest in the task e.g., avoiding distraction and providing clear instructions on how to start the task.
  • Keeping the child’s frustration under control e.g., by supportive interactions, adapting instructions according to where the child is struggling.
  • Emphasizing the important features of the task
  • Demonstrating the task: showing the child how to do the task in simple, clear steps.

As the child progresses through the ZPD, the necessary scaffolding level declines from 5 to 1.

The teacher must engage students’ interests, simplify tasks to be manageable, and motivate students to pursue the instructional goal.

In addition, the teacher must look for discrepancies between students” efforts and the solution, control for frustration and risk, and model an idealized version of the act (Hausfather, 1996).

Challenges to Traditional Teaching Methods

Vygotsky’s social development theory challenges traditional teaching methods. Historically, schools have been organized around recitation teaching.

The teacher disseminates knowledge to be memorized by the students, who in turn recite the information to the teacher (Hausfather,1996).

However, the studies described above offer empirical evidence that learning based on the social development theory facilitates cognitive development over other instructional strategies.

The structure of our schools does not reflect the rapid changes our society is experiencing. The introduction and integration of computer technology in society has tremendously increased the opportunities for social interaction.

Therefore, the social context for learning is transforming as well. Whereas collaboration and peer instruction were once only possible in shared physical space, learning relationships can now be formed from distances through cyberspace.

Computer technology is a cultural tool that students can use to meditate and internalize their learning. Recent research suggests changing the learning contexts with technology is a powerful learning activity (Crawford, 1996).

If schools continue to resist structural change, students will be ill-prepared for the world they will live.

Critical Evaluation

Vygotsky’s work has not received the same level of intense scrutiny that Piaget’s has, partly due to the time-consuming process of translating Vygotsky’s work from Russian.

Also, Vygotsky’s sociocultural perspective does not provide as many specific hypotheses to test as Piaget’s theory, making refutation difficult, if not impossible.

Perhaps the main criticism of Vygotsky’s work concerns the assumption that it is relevant to all cultures. Rogoff (1990) dismisses the idea that Vygotsky’s ideas are culturally universal and instead states that scaffolding- heavily dependent on verbal instruction – may not be equally useful in all cultures for all types of learning.

Indeed, in some instances, observation and practice may be more effective ways of learning certain skills.

There is much emphasis on social interaction and culture, but many other aspects of development are neglected, such as the importance of emotional factors, e.g., the joys of success and the disappointments and frustration of failure act as motivation for learning.

Vygotsky overemphasized socio-cultural factors at the expense of biological influences on cognitive development. This theory cannot explain why cross-cultural studies show that the stages of development (except the formal operational stage ) occur in the same order in all cultures suggesting that cognitive development is a product of a biological process of maturation.

Vygotky’s theory has been applied successfully to education. Scaffolding has been shown to be an effective way of teaching (Freund, 1990), and based on this theory, teachers are trained to guide children from what they can do to the next step in their learning through careful scaffolding.

Collaborative work is also used in the classroom, mixing children of different levels of ability to make use of reciprocal / peer teaching.

Vygotsky vs. Piaget

Unlike Piaget’s notion that children’s cognitive development must necessarily precede their learning, Vygotsky argued, “learning is a necessary and universal aspect of the process of developing culturally organized, specifically human psychological function” (1978, p. 90).  In other words, social learning precedes (i.e., come before) development.

Differences betwee Vygotsky and Piaget In Psychology

Vygotsky’s theory differs from that of Piaget in several important ways:

Vygotsky places more emphasis on culture affecting cognitive development.

Unlike Piaget, who emphasized universal cognitive change (i.e., all children would go through the same sequence of cognitive development regardless of their cultural experiences), Vygotsky leads us to expect variable development depending on cultural diversity. 

This contradicts Piaget’s view of universal stages of development (Vygotsky does not refer to stages like Piaget does).

Hence, Vygotsky assumes cognitive development varies across cultures, whereas Piaget states cognitive development is mostly universal across cultures.

Vygotsky places considerably more emphasis on social factors contributing to cognitive development.

  • Vygotsky states the importance of cultural and social context for learning. Cognitive development stems from social interactions from guided learning within the zone of proximal development as children and their partners co-construct knowledge. In contrast, Piaget maintains that cognitive development stems largely from independent explorations in which children construct knowledge.
  • For Vygotsky, the environment in which children grow up will influence how they think and what they think about. The importance of scaffolding and language may differ for all cultures. Rogoff (1990) emphasizes the importance of observation and practice in pre-industrial societies (e.g., learning to use a canoe among Micronesian Islanders).

Vygotsky places more (and different) emphasis on the role of language in cognitive development.

According to Piaget , language depends on thought for its development (i.e., thought comes before language). For Vygotsky, thought and language are initially separate systems from the beginning of life, merging at around three years of age, producing verbal thought (inner speech).

In Piaget’s theory, egocentric (or private) speech gradually disappears as children develop truly social speech, in which they monitor and adapt what they say to others.

Vygotsky disagreed with this view, arguing that as language helps children to think about and control their behavior, it is an important foundation for complex cognitive skills.

As children age, this self-directed speech becomes silent (or private) speech, referring to the inner dialogues we have with ourselves as we plan and carry out activities.

For Vygotsky, cognitive development results from an internalization of language.

According to Vygotsky, adults are an important source of cognitive development.

Adults transmit their culture’s tools of intellectual adaptation that children internalize.

In contrast, Piaget emphasizes the importance of peers, as peer interaction promotes social perspective-taking.

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Further Reading

What is vygotsky’s theory.

Vygotsky believed that cognitive development was founded on social interaction. According to Vygotsky, much of what children acquire in their understanding of the world is the product of collaboration.

How is Vygotsky’s theory applied in teaching and learning?

Vygotsky’s theory has profound implications for classroom learning. Teachers guide, support, and encourage children, yet also help them to develop problem-solving strategies that can be generalized to other situations.

Children learn best not when they are isolated, but when they interact with others, particularly more knowledgeable others who can provide the guidance and encouragement to master new skills.

What was Vygotsky’s best know concept?

Lev Vygotsky was a seminal Russian psychologist best known for his sociocultural theory. He constructed the idea of a zone of proximal development ,  which are those tasks which are too difficult for a child to solve alone but s/he can accomplish with the help of adults or more skilled peers.

Vygotsky has developed a sociocultural approach to cognitive development. He developed his theories at around the same time as  Jean Piaget  was starting to develop his ideas (1920’s and 30″s), but he died at the age of 38, and so his theories are incomplete – although some of his writings are still being translated from Russian.

Like Piaget, Vygotsky could be described as a  constructivist , in that he was interested in knowledge acquisition as a cumulative event – with new experiences and understandings incorporated into existing cognitive frameworks.

However, while Piaget’s theory is structural (arguing that physiological stages govern development), Vygotsky denies the existence of any guiding framework independent of culture and context.

No single principle (such as Piaget’s equilibration) can account for development. Individual development cannot be understood without reference to the social and cultural context within which it is embedded. Higher mental processes in the individual have their origin in social processes.

What is Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory?

Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory is often referred to as the Sociocultural Theory.

Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory posits that social interaction is fundamental to cognitive development. Vygotsky emphasized the influence of cultural and social contexts on learning, claiming that knowledge is constructed through social collaboration.

His most known concept, the Zone of Proximal Development, refers to the difference between what a learner can do independently and what they can achieve with guidance.

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The Oxford Handbook of Applied Linguistics (2nd edn)

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The Oxford Handbook of Applied Linguistics (2nd edn)

15 Interactionist Perspectives on Second Language Acquisition

Susan Gass is University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Linguistics, Germanic, Slavic, Asian, and African Languages at Michigan State University. She is the director of the English Language Center, codirector of the Center for Language Education and Research, and director of the Second Language Studies PhD program. She has published widely in the field of SLA, focusing on a number of different areas, including language transfer, language universals, and input and interaction. She is the author of Input, Interaction, and the Second Language Learner, coauthor with Larry Selinker of Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course, and coauthor with Alison Mackey of Second Language Research: Methodology and Design and Data Elicitation for Second and Foreign Language Research. She can be reached at http://[email protected].

  • Published: 18 September 2012
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This article analyses the idea of second language acquisition form an interactionist perspective. The field of second language acquisition has been studied from many angles. This broad scope is due in part to the myriad disciplinary backgrounds of scholars in the field. This article deals with the interactionist perspective and, as such, is primarily concerned with the environment in which second language learning takes place. It is important to note from the outset that this perspective is by and large neutral as to the role of innateness. In other words, it is compatible with a view of second language acquisition that posits an innate learning mechanism; it is also compatible with a model of learning that posits no such mechanism. This article deals with interactionist approaches focusing on how learners use their linguistic environment to build their knowledge of the second language. To summarize, the interaction approach considers, production of language as constructs that are important for understanding second language learning.

I. Introduction

The field of second language acquisition (SLA) has been studied from many angles. This broad scope is due in part to the myriad disciplinary backgrounds of scholars in the field. This chapter deals with the interactionist perspective and, as such, is primarily concerned with the environment in which second language learning takes place. It is important to note from the outset that this perspective is by and large neutral as to the role of innateness. In other words, it is compatible with a view of SLA that posits an innate learning mechanism (e.g., universal grammar [UG]); it is also compatible with a model of learning that posits no such mechanism. A word of caution is in order, however, as the situation is far more complex than these few terse statements suggest. It is not the case that interaction does not relate to issues of UG. Rather, what is intended is that the relationship of interaction to acquisition per se does not depend on whether there is or is not an innate mechanism that guides the learning of a second language. To provide an example of what the relationship between interaction and a UG account of learning might be, one notes that there are two kinds of evidence that are available to learners: 1 positive evidence and negative evidence. Positive evidence refers to the language that a learner hears or reads and is clearly available through the linguistic environment; negative evidence is more complex. Negative evidence refers to information about what is incorrect in the language produced by a learner but not necessarily about what is needed to make an appropriate correction. Thus, overt correction is a form of negative evidence that not only indicates an error but also provides information about what is wrong. It may be that for complex syntax, negative evidence is necessary; it may also be that negative evidence is difficult to provide in other than an explicit (pedagogical) format. In other words, issues that form part of learnability theory (e.g., UG) may find answers in the conversational interactions in which learners engage in that these interactions provide the forum for both positive and negative evidence.

I have argued elsewhere (Gass, 1997 ) that the dichotomy between innatist and environmental approaches is ill-conceived in the sense that a presumed dichotomy leads only to a discussion of “which is correct” rather than of “how they complement one another.” But the goal of second language research must be the determination of how these approaches are intertwined, assuming that both are indeed relevant, even though they provide different sorts of explanations (see also Pinker, 1994 ). This chapter deals with interactionist approaches focusing on how learners use their linguistic environment (in particular, conversational interactions) to build their knowledge of the second language. To summarize briefly, the interaction approach considers exposure to language (input), production of language (output), and feedback on production (through interaction) as constructs that are important for understanding how second language learning takes place. Gass 2003 argues that interaction research “takes as its starting point the assumption that language learning is stimulated by communicative pressure and examines the relationship between communication and acquisition and the mechanisms (e.g., noticing, attention) that mediate between them” (p. 224). Long ( 1996 ) makes a similar claim, proposing that “environmental contributions to acquisition are mediated by selective attention and the learner's developing L2 processing capacity,” and that these resources “are brought together most usefully … during negotiation for meaning . Negative feedback obtained … may be facilitative of L2 development” (p. 414). A related construct, output was emphasized in Swain's ( 1993 ) research: “Learners need to be pushed to make use of their resources; they need to have their linguistic abilities stretched to their fullest; they need to reflect on their output and consider ways of modifying it to enhance comprehensibility, appropriateness, and accuracy” (pp. 160–161).

In what follows, I discuss the basic tenets of the interaction approach (see Gass and Mackey, 2007a ) and then discuss learner-internal variables that impact how learners do and do not utilize language information stemming from interaction.

Input has had an uneven history in the development of (second) language research. In behaviorist views of language learning, input was central to an understanding of how learners acquired a language, first or second. Imitation and habit formation were primary concepts in the acquisition process. If habits were formed through imitation, then it was necessary to examine the input to learners to determine what they were imitating. It was also necessary to examine the relationship between the input (what was to be imitated) and production (the product of imitation).

From the mid-1950s on, behaviorism was on the wane, and as a consequence so too was the importance ascribed to input. A new era of language research emerged, and acquisition research followed, deemphasizing the significance of input and focusing on the nature of the internal linguistic resources that a learner brings to the learning task.

By the early 1970s, scholars began to take a more balanced view of what was relevant and not relevant to the study of second language learning. With specific regard to input, Ferguson 1971 , 1975 ) began to investigate the nature of input to nonproficient speakers of a language. In particular, he considered special registers such as “baby talk” (i.e., language addressed to young children) and “foreigner talk” (i.e., language addressed to nonnative speakers of a language). His focus was on the similarities between these two language systems, and his ultimate goal was understanding the nature of human language. With regard to foreigner talk, the system of particular interest to researchers in second language acquisition, certain common features became apparent. Speech directed towards nonproficient nonnative speakers was found to include speech modification ranging from phonological to syntactic. For example, speech tends to be slower, more clearly enunciated, and even louder. In terms of the lexicon, vocabulary tends to have a preponderance of common words. Syntax is simple, often including two sentences when one might normally expect to find one complex sentence. These characteristics are commonly found in speech to learners, although clearly there is variation among individuals. 2

What function does modified speech serve? A lengthier discussion and exposé on this topic may be found in Gass 1997 . For present purposes, it is important to point out that there are two perspectives from which one can answer this question. First is the perspective of the fluent speaker of the target language. It is likely that the purpose is to aid comprehension. One does what one can to ensure that one's conversational partner is able minimally to understand the general meaning and to be in a position to respond appropriately. The example below shows how a native speaker (NS), upon realizing that an original question may have been too difficult for a learner (NNS), modifies her speech to give the learner a greater opportunity to comprehend.

NNS : How have increasing food costs changed your eating habits? ➔NS : Uh well that would I don't think they've changed 'em much right now, but the pressure's on. NNS : Pardon me? ➔NS : I don't think they've changed our eating habits much as of now…. (From Gass and Varonis, 1985 )

In this example the reduced pronoun ('em ➔ them) is modified to include full information (our eating habits).

A second way of considering the function of modified speech is to examine the question from the perspective of the learner. Modified speech contributes to the likelihood that the learner can understand and can therefore get through what is essentially a social interaction. In other words, modified speech helps the learner participate in a conversation as fully as possible. Assuming that a learner is able to participate in a conversation, she is assured of receiving a greater quantity of input, can produce output, and can receive much-needed feedback on his/her production.

III. Interaction

The interactionist hypothesis—which was given initial prominence by Wagner-Gough and Hatch 1975 and refined by Long ( 1980 , 1981 , 1983 ) and others (Gass and Varonis, 1985 , 1989 ; Mackey, 1999 ; Pica, 1987 , 1988 ; Pica and Doughty, 1985 ; Pica, Doughty, and Young, 1986 ; Pica, Young, and Doughty, 1987 ; Schmidt and Frota, 1986 ; Varonis and Gass, 1985a )—has as its main claim that one route to second language learning is through conversational interaction (Gass, 1997 ; Long, 1996 ; Pica, 1994 ).

In Wagner-Gough and Hatch's original work, the role of conversation was valued, not just as a means for providing opportunities to practice previously learned language, but also as a locus of learning itself. Long, in his early work, showed how conversations involving nonfluent nonnative speakers of a language were quantitatively different from conversations in which both parties (assuming dyadic conversation) were equal and fluent participants. Wagner-Gough and Hatch 1975 and Long ( 1980 , 1981 , 1983 ) went beyond modified speech (e.g., simpler syntactic structures, easier vocabulary) to consider the structure of conversation itself. Following are examples of typical patterns found in conversations involving nonfluent, nonnative speakers of a language. This is not to say that these patterns do not exist in conversations involving fluent speakers—only that they are more frequent in nonnative learner speech.

Confirmation Check

NNS : c ' è una verdi, uh … there is a green, uh. NS : una verdi? a green? (From Mackey, Gass, and McDonough, 2000 )

In this example from an English-speaking learner of Italian, the NS's questioning the word verdi , which in fact is inappropriate in Italian, resulted in a subsequent negotiation until the correct word pianta (plant) was recognized later in the exchange.

Examples 3–7 are crucial to an understanding of the interaction hypothesis and to an understanding of how modified interactions contribute to learning. In these examples, one can see various means of modifying a conversational structure, resulting in a greater likelihood of comprehension.

Comprehension Check

NNS1 : And your family have some ingress. NNS2 : yes ah, OK, OK? ➔ NNS1 : more or less OK? (From Varonis and Gass, 1985a )

Clarification request

NS : there's there's just a couple more things NNS : a sorry? Couple? NS : couple more things in the room only just a couple ➔ NNS : couple? What does it mean couple? (From Mackey and Philp, 1998 )
NS : Where did you go yesterday? NNS : What? ➔NS : Did you go to the zoo or to the garden? (Original data)


NS : Did your friend travel with you to Italy and Switzerland? NNS : What? ➔ NS : Your friend, did she travel with you? (Original data)


NNS : How have increasing food costs changed your eating habits? NS : Well, we don't eat as much beef as we used to. We eat more chicken and uh, pork, and uh, fish, things like that. NNS : Pardon me? ➔ NS : We don't eat as much beef as we used to. We eat more chicken and uh, uh pork and fish…. We don't eat beef very often. We don't have steak like we used to. (From Gass and Varonis, 1985 )

Long ( 1996 ) defined the interaction hypothesis as

negotiation for meaning , and especially negotiation work that triggers interactional adjustments by the NS or more competent interlocutor, facilitates acquisition because it connects input, internal learner capacities, particularly selective attention, and output in productive ways. (pp. 451–452)

In addition,

it is proposed that environmental contributions to acquisition are mediated by selective attention and the learner's developing L2 processing capacity, and that these resources are brought together most usefully, although not exclusively, during negotiation for meaning . Negative feedback obtained during negotiation work or elsewhere may be facilitative of L2 development, at least for vocabulary, morphology, and language-specific syntax, and essential for learning certain specifiable L1-L2 contrasts. (p. 414)

It is through negotiation that the learner may direct attention to an area of the target language (1) about which she may be entertaining an hypothesis (or about which she is trying to formulate a hypothesis) or (2) about which she has no information. This is not to say that learning necessarily takes place during a conversation; the interaction itself may only be the first step in recognizing that there is something to learn. Interaction may be a priming device representing the setting of the stage for learning. The following examples represent two ways in which conversation can lead to learning: (1) on the spot learning and (2) delayed learning.

Example 8 comes from a study that used stimulated recall (see Gass and Mackey, 2000 ) to determine what a learner was thinking during a prior interaction. The relevant part of the interaction is provided, followed immediately by the learner's comments on the interaction.

On the Spot Learning

NNS : so the people make a line in front of the place NS : they are standing in line? ➔ NNS : ahh, they are standing in line (Twelve turns later) ➔ NNS : Beside the people standing in line (From Mackey, Gass, and McDonough, 2000 )
Learner's retrospective comment: Make a line is the same meaning as stand in line, actually I thought of this situation as make a line but after she said standing in line, her expression is better than mine so I changed mine.

The learner in this instance used the conversation as a way of obtaining new linguistic information, as is evidenced by her retrospective comments. She then tried out her newly learned information later in the conversation.

But sometimes learning does not take place immediately; time to “digest” the new linguistic input is often needed. This is illustrated in 9, which took place over the time period of a class.

Delayed Learning

➔NNS1 : Kutsu o shiroi no kutsu o hamete imasu ka? Shoes ACC white (GEN [ sic ] shoes ACC wearing [ sic ] INT? Is the person wearing white shoes” ((wrong verb for “wear,” underlined)) NNS2 : Iie haite imasen . Ano::: No, he's not. Uh:: (correct verb for “wear,” underlined)) ➔NNS1 : Ano: ano: kuroi no kutsu o hai- hamete imasu ka? U:h u:h black (GEN [ sic ] shoes ACC wea-wearing [ sic ] INT? U'h u”h is the person wearing black shoes ((wrong word for “wear,” underlined)) NNS2 : Hai haite imasu Yes, he is ((correct verb for “wear,” underlined)) NNS1 : Anoo uh jiinzu o ::: jeans? Jinzu o ha uh :::: haite imasu ka? U:h uh: you're um jeans? Are you u :::h wearing Jeans? NNS1 : Sorekara shiroi no kutsu ga kutsu o how do you say it? Kutso o ::: And white shoes shoes how do you say it for shoes? NNS3 : haitemasu. haki-Wearing. Wear- ➔NNS1 : what? Haite imasu ka? What? Is it “haite imasu?” ➔NNS4 : Hanjiinzu o : : um oh what is it? Hare- haite imasu ka? Shorts (( sic )) ACC um oh what is it? Do you we-wear shorts? NNS4 : (inaudible) ➔NNS1 : Sorekara ::: kiroi to shiroi no kutsu g- o ::: yeah. Haite imasu ka? And ::: are you wearing yellow and white shoes? (From Ohta, 2001 )

In this example the learner initially uses the incorrect form for the verb wear, haimete , rather than the correct form, haite . She begins to receive input with the correct form and eventually asks about the correct form, but it isn't until quite a bit later in the class that she finally, presumably as a result of the interaction, begins to use the correct form.

Learners do not always use a conversation to obtain new information; there are times when she or he uses it to test certain hypotheses about the second language and to receive feedback on production. Example 10 below shows how a learner uses a conversation to test a hypothesis:

NNS : poi un bicchiere then a glass INT : un che, come a what, what? NNS : bicchiere Glass (From research reported on in Mackey, Gass, and McDonough, 2000 )
Learner's retrospective comment: I was drawing a blank. Then I thought of a vase but then I thought that since there was no flowers, maybe it was just a big glass. So, then I thought I'll say it and see. Then, when she said “ come ” [what] I knew that it was completely wrong.

In this instance, the learner is throwing out a word to see where it gets her.

3.1 Recasts

Feedback to learners can be explicit (e.g., an overt correction) or implicit, as often illustrated through negotiation work. Perhaps the most subtle type of feedback comes in the form of a recast, a reformulation of an incorrect utterance while maintaining the original meaning of the utterance. An example is given in 11 in which the native speaker recasts the nonnative speaker's incorrect question:

NNS : I think some this girl have birthday and and its big celebrate ➔NS : big celebration NNS : oh (From Mackey and Philip, 1998 )

A question arises as to the effectiveness of recasts. Are they noticed, and, if so, are they taken as a form of correction? Lyster and Ranta 1997 collected data from grades 4–6 children in French immersion programs. They were primarily concerned with the reaction by the student immediately following a recast inasmuch as this reveals what the student does with the feedback. Despite the preponderance of recasts in their database, recasts were not found to have an impact on subsequent production. Using the same database, Lyster 1998 found that there was some confusion between the corrective and approval functions of recasts, thereby questioning their usefulness in terms of corrective feedback.

Other studies, however, do show a positive effect for recasts (for reviews, see Long, 2007 , and Nicholas, Lightbown, and Spada, 2001 ). Mackey and Philp 1998 argue that using the production immediately following a recast may not be the most appropriate way to determine effectiveness. They make the point that if one is to consider effectiveness (i.e., development/acquisition), then one should more appropriately measure delayed effects (see, e.g., Gass, 1997 ; Gass and Varonis, 1994 ; Lightbown, 1998 ). The study on the acquisition of English questions (Mackey and Philp, 1998 ) showed that for more advanced learners, recasts plus negotiation were more beneficial than negotiation alone. This was the case even though there was not always evidence for a reaction by the learner in the subsequent turn (see Oliver, 1995 ). Thus, the effectiveness of recasts may be in part dependent on developmental stages (see, e.g., Iwashita, 2003 ; Philp, 2003 ). Further, as Egi ( 2007 ) has shown, the value of recasts may be dependent on their interpretation—in other words, are they thought to be a comment on content (a practice that is not effective), or are they taken to be a form of positive and/or negative evidence (in which case they appear to be of some benefit)?

Recent meta-analyses (Mackey and Goo, 2007 ; Russell and Spada, 2006 ) have addressed the effects of recasts. Both studies reported large effect sizes for implicit feedback (including recasts), but both also report that their data are based on very few studies given their inclusion criteria for their meta-analyses. Mackey and Goo also note that although there are strong effects on learning from recasts, there is little data on longer term effects.

3.2 Does Interaction Contribute to Learning?

In recent years, the question has moved from the arena of speculation to serious investigation of the effects of interaction. Three early studies led the way in this regard:

Loschky 1994 , in an investigation of English learners of Japanese, found that interaction had a positive effect on comprehension but did not find an effect on the acquisition of vocabulary or on the acquisition of morphosyntax (locative expressions; see also Ellis, Tanaka, and Yamazaki ( 1994 ).

Gass and Varonis 1994 did show that the effects of interaction went beyond a subsequent turn. As in previous studies, vocabulary did not appear to be affected, although general discourse organizational strategies were affected.

Mackey 1999 provides the most detailed support in favor of the effects of interaction. In her investigation of a single grammatical structure, question formation, she found a relationship between conversational interaction and development in that those who were involved in structure-focused interaction moved along a developmental continuum more rapidly than those who did not. Mackey's study supports the notion of interaction not necessarily (or not always) being the locus of immediate learning but often being the catalyst for later learning. She found that for the developmentally advanced structures, the effects of interaction were noted in delayed posttests rather than immediately.

In the past 30 years or so, numerous studies have been conducted on the relationship between interaction and learning, most showing a positive relationship (e.g., Adams, 2007 ; Trofimovich, Ammar and Gatbonton, 2007 ; Carpenter, Jeon, MacGregor, and Mackey, 2006 ; Ellis, 2007 ; Ellis, Loewen, and Erlam, 2006 ; Gass and Alvarez-Torres, 2005 ; Gass and Lewis, 2007 ; Jeon, 2007 ; Kim and Han, 2007 ; Loewen, 2005 ; Loewen and Nabei, 2007 ; Loewen and Philp, 2006 ; Lyster and Mori, 2006 ; Mackey, 2006 ; Mackey and Silver, 2005 ; McDonough, 2005 , 2006 , 2007 ; McDonough and Mackey, 2006 ; Pica, Kang, and Sauro, 2006 ; Sachs and Suh, 2007 ; Sagarra, 2007 ; Sato and Lyster, 2007 ; Sheen, 2007 ; Tarone and Bigelow, 2007 ; Tocalli-Beller and Swain, 2007 ). Only studies published since 2005 have been included due to limitations of space; for a more complete listing, see Mackey ( 2007 ).

In their meta-analysis, Mackey and Goo ( 2007 ) found that interaction is facilitative of the acquisition of both vocabulary and grammar. There is a stronger immediate effect for vocabulary, but a delayed and lasting effect on grammar. Both feedback and modified output were significant factors in promoting learning, but Mackey and Goo recommend a more nuanced investigation of these interactional components.

There is little doubt as to the facilitative effects of interaction on learning, but many questions remain unanswered. Some of the questions are descriptive, as was previously alluded to; that is, what types of feedback contribute to learning and under what circumstances? The second type of question is explanatory; that is, why does interaction contribute to learning? There are four areas that will be examined next:

Working memory (including inhibitory control)

IV. Attention

Central to the interaction hypothesis is the concept of attention or noticing. If interaction is to have an effect (either through negotiation or recasts), the learner must notice that his/her conversational partner is explicitly or implicitly making a correction. 3 If there is no attention to a particular part of language during an interaction, then it is difficult to attribute the source of change to the interaction itself. Example 12 illustrates how the direct questioning of an utterance makes the learner notice the discrepancy between her pronunciation of yellow and the native speaker interviewer's pronunciation:

NNS : The color is / wellow / NS : Is what? NNS : /wellow/ /wellow/ color NS : Yellow? NNS : Yellow. (From Mackey, Gass and McDonough, 2000 )
Learner's retrospective comment: My pronounce is different. I say /wellow/ but yellow is the exact pronounce. Yellow, yellow.

The question remains as to what learners do notice. J. Williams 1999 considered learner-generated attention to form. She points out that most of the focus on form research within a classroom context focuses on teacher-generated attention. (See also Sharwood Smith's [ 1991 , 1993 ] discussion of enhanced input and internally and externally induced salience). Williams found that learners are indeed capable of focusing attention to language form, but that there is variation according to proficiency level and even to activity types.

Mackey, Gass, and McDonough ( 2000 ) also investigated what learners notice in an interaction. Their investigation differed from that of Williams in that they were concerned with interactional feedback and how learners actually interpreted that feedback. Through a postinteraction stimulated recall of learners of English and learners of Italian, they found that learners do notice interactional feedback, but they do not do so in a uniform manner. Lexis and phonology are more likely to be noticed than aspects of morphosyntax. The results also suggest that the manner of feedback (e.g., recasts or negotiation) have different effects when occurring alone or in combination. A related study of heritage and nonheritage learners (Gass and Lewis, 2007 ) found that both nonheritage language learners and heritage language learners perceive phonological and lexical feedback much more accurately than morphosyntactic feedback, as had been observed in Mackey, Gass, and McDonough ( 2000 ). However, differences were noted in the area of semantic feedback, with nonheritage language learners generally not accurate in their perceptions about semantic feedback, whereas heritage language learners were. Neither of these studies investigated the next step; that is, the determination of what happens after learners notice a gap between their knowledge of the second language and the second language itself.

V. Working Memory

Within an interactive context, learners produce language, receive feedback, and, in an ideal situation, use the information contained in the feedback in a productive way. In so doing, a learner must notice the feedback given, determine what is relevant, and retain that information long enough to identify the precise part of language that is being corrected. The question remains as to why some individuals are more successful at this than others. One possible explanation relates to working memory capacity. Why some learners are able to focus attention on certain parts of an interaction better than others may be related to their ability to regulate their focus of attention, either through selectively attending to some part of language or by inhibiting others. Working memory is generally considered to incorporate both processing and storage functions of memory. Miyake and Shah 1999 define working memory as “those mechanisms or processes that are involved in the control, regulation, and active maintenance of task-relevant information in the service of complex cognition, including novel as well as familiar, skilled tasks” (p. 450). In other words, following work by Baddeley and Hitch ( 1974 ), working memory keeps representations in temporary storage, allowing operations on those representations to take place (Caplan, Waters, and Dede, 2007 ).

There have not been many studies that relate interactional success and working memory capacity. One of the early ones was by Philp 2003 , who studied noticing. She did not measure working memory capacity, but did point the way to research involving working memory when she suggested that attentional resources may be at the base of understanding when learners do notice differences between their own utterances and those of the target language. Two studies by Sagarra ( 2007 , 2008 ) indirectly looked at working memory capacity and interaction. In one—a computer-based study of feedback—Sagarra ( 2007 ) found that working memory capacity predicted learners' ability to benefit from recasts. In the second, Sagarra ( 2008 ) found that redundant grammatical information is not processed by low proficiency L2 learners (English as an L1; Spanish as an L2) with low working memory capacity.

In the most directly relevant study, Mackey, Philp, Egi, Fujii, and Tatsumi ( 2002 ) investigated the relationship among individual differences in verbal working memory, noticing of interactional feedback, and the L2 development of English question formation. Their study compared the interactional benefits of two groups of L2 learners (L1 Japanese; L2 English): those with low working memory capacity and those with high working memory capacity. The former group benefitted immediately from interaction, but the results did not persist on a delayed posttest (2 weeks after the treatment). Those with higher working memory capacity demonstrated more lasting benefits from communicative interaction as demonstrated in the delayed posttest. A possible explanation is that learners with higher working memory capacities engage in cognitive comparisons between target language forms and their own versions of the forms, impacting processing loads and immediate performance. Learners with lower working memory capacities, in contrast, may be better equipped to engage in immediate modifications to output, at a potential longer term cost to comparison, storage, and subsequent retrieval mechanisms. Thus, the emphasis for high-working memory capacity individuals may be on processing, whereas the emphasis for low-working memory capacity individuals may be on storage (for differing results, cf. Trofimovich, Ammar, and Gatbonton, 2007 ).

Initial analysis in a study of English-speaking learners of Italian (Gass, Behney, and Uzum, in preparation) suggests that more significant than working memory differences are differences in inhibitory control (a construct related to working memory)—that is, the ability to suppress information that is not relevant.

In sum, second language learners are exposed to more input than they can process; consequently, they must have a mechanism that enables them to sort through that input (see, e.g., Gass, 1997 ) to determine what is (momentarily) relevant and what is not. Working memory capacity may be one such mechanism and inhibitory control may be another.

In preceding sections, the nature of language that is directed toward learners and the function of modified language and/or modified conversational structure have been considered. However, in any discussion of the interaction hypothesis, there is a third prong to examine, and that is the role of output. In earlier conceptualizations of second language acquisition, output served little learning purpose, other than, perhaps, to reinforce previously learned linguistic knowledge. Swain's ( 1985 ) pioneering work (see also Swain, 1995 , 2005 ) in this area came from observations of immersion programs in Canada (see also Kowal and Swain, 1997 ; Swain and Lapkin, 1995 , 1998 ). She noted that children who had spent many years in immersion programs were still lagging in target-language-like abilities. In looking more carefully at the classroom context in which the target language was used and in which it was the prime source of information about the target language for these children, she noted that what was lacking was consistent and frequent use of the second language. She proposed that one needed more than input; learning a second language required a significant amount of output. Output, or language production, forces learners to focus on the syntax of an utterance and, consequently, on formulating hypotheses about how the target language works. This is different from receiving input because input involves primarily comprehension and comprehension often requires little syntactic organization. As a result, Swain introduced the notion of comprehensible output or “pushed” output.

Comprehensible output refers to the need for a learner to be “pushed toward the delivery of a message that is not only conveyed, but that is conveyed precisely, coherently, and appropriately” (Swain, 1985 : 249). In a more recent explication of the concept, Swain claimed output may stimulate learners to move from the semantic, open-ended, nondeterministic, strategic processing prevalent in comprehension to the complete grammatical processing needed for accurate production. Output, thus, would seem to have a potentially significant role in the development of syntax and morphology (1995: 128).

Mackey 2002 conducted a study in which learners reflected on a previous interaction through a stimulated recall procedure. Example 13 provides insight into what the learner was thinking as she was engaged in a conversation.

Example of Pushed Output

NNS: And in hand in hand [ sic ] have a bigger glass to see. NS: It's err. You mean, something in his hand? NNS: Like spectacle. For older person. NS: Mmmm, sorry I don't follow, it's what? NNS: In hand have he have has a glass for looking through for make the print bigger to see, to see the print, for magnify. NS: He has some glasses? NNS: Magnify glasses he has magnifying glass. NS: Oh aha I see a magnifying glass, right that's a good one, ok. (Mackey 2002 )
Retrospective comment: In this example I see I have to manage myerrerr [ sic ] expression because he does not understand me and I cannot think of exact word right then. I am thinking thinking [ sic ] it is nearly in my mind, thinking bigger and magnificate and eventually magnify. I know I see this word before but so I am sort of talking around around [ sic ] this word but he is forcing me to think harder, think harder for the correct word to give him so he can understand and so I was trying. I carry on talking until finally I get it, and when I say it, then he understand it, me [emphasis mine].

As can be seen, the learner was pushed (note the word forcing ) through the negotiation sequences to make her language clearer. 4

McDonough 2005 tested the output hypothesis directly in her study of Thai learners of English. In a study investigating the acquisition of English questions, four groups carried out communicative tasks. The groups focused on salience (enhancement) and opportunity to modify following feedback. She found that the best predictor of acquisition lies in the opportunity to modify one's speech. A later study (McDonough and Mackey, 2006 ), however, noted that mere repetition of an interlocutor's form (in their case, recasts) did not impact learning, whereas primed production (use of a form in the recast in later production) did.

Output, in sum, is important for a number of reasons, including forcing a learner to produce language about which feedback may often be given. However, precisely how it benefits learning is still open for investigation. Further, as noted by Sato and Lyster 2007 , the interlocutor partner (native speaker or another learner) may impact the amount of modified output; learners tend to produce more when interacting with other learners than with a native speaker (see also Varonis and Gass, 1985a ).

VII. Theory of Contrast

What sort of mechanism allows for learning to take place as a result of negative evidence derived from conversational interaction? One possibility to account for learning through conversation is the direct contrast hypothesis (Saxton, 1997 ), defined within the context of child language acquisition as follows:

When the child produces an utterance containing an erroneous form, which is responded to immediately with an utterance containing the correct adult alternative to the erroneous form (i.e., when negative evidence is supplied), the child may perceive the adult form as being in CONTRAST [emphasis in original] with the equivalent child form. Cognizance of a relevant contrast can then form the basis for perceiving the adult form as a correct alternative to the child form. (1997: 155)

Attention alone is not sufficient. A contrast must be attended to, or in SLA parlance, a gap must be noticed. And conversation provides a forum for the contrast to be detected, especially when the erroneous form and a correct one are in immediate juxtaposition.

VIII. Conclusion

It is likely that there are limitations to what can and cannot be learned through negative evidence provided through conversation. One possibility is that surface-level phenomena can be learned but abstractions cannot. This is consistent with Truscott's 1998 claim that competence is not affected by noticing. Negative evidence can probably not apply to long stretches of speech, given memory limitations (see Philp, 2003 ). But it may be effective with low-level phenomena such as pronunciation or the basic meanings of lexical items. In fact, these are precisely the areas that Mackey, Gass, and McDonough ( 2000 ) have isolated as those that are sensitive to feedback. Future research will need to determine the long-term effects of interaction on different parts of language (see also Gass, Svetics, and Lemelin, 2003 ; Trofimovic, Ammar, and Gatbonton, 2007 ).

Research on interaction began descriptively. In the past decade, as it became clear through empirical research that there was a positive relationship between interaction and learning, research moved toward an explanation of how this relationship works: What individual factors can help to explain differential benefits? In looking toward future research, individual cognitive differences will undoubtedly lead the way in attempting to answer this question, but other factors such as motivation, learning strategies, language aptitude, cognitive styles, learning context (e.g., second versus foreign language learning), language background (heritage versus nonheritage language learners), and social context will also likely have a role.

There is a third type of evidence, indirect negative evidence (see Plough, 1994 , 1995 ). To simplify matters, we do not deal with this complex type of evidence.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to comment on whether these systems are learned or not. It is important to note, however, that the extent to which an individual adopts foreigner talk characteristics in her speech may depend to an individual's experience with nonnative speakers. Varonis and Gass (1985b) describe an interaction in which a salesperson adopts very few foreigner talk features (she speaks rapidly, uses idioms, and uses anaphoric pronouns with no obvious referent). It was speculated that this is so precisely because of her lack of experience with noncomprehending individuals.

This is not to say that attention cannot come from a learner noticing a new form on her own (i.e., without an interlocutor's correction).

It is not clear from the description in the original article whether the learner had actually seen the phrase magnifying glass as part of the input (although she does say that she had seen the word [ sic ] before) and was trying to recall it or if she was generating it from what she had heard in the exchange. Regardless, it is through the interaction that this learner was able to come up with the correct word.

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What Is Sociocultural Theory?

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

interaction hypothesis and sociocultural theory

Amy Morin, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.

interaction hypothesis and sociocultural theory

  • Zone of Proximal Development
  • Vygotsky vs. Piaget
  • Applications

Frequently Asked Questions

Sociocultural theory is an emerging field of psychology that looks at the contributions of society to individual development. This theory has become increasingly prominent since the 1990s and can be applied in educational settings as well as in socialization and play.

Psychologist Lev Vygotsky believed that parents, caregivers, peers, and the culture at large are responsible for developing the brain's higher-order functions . According to Vygotsky, human development relies on social interaction and, therefore, can differ among cultures.

Sociocultural theory stresses the role that social interaction plays in psychological development . It suggests that human learning is largely a social process, and that our cognitive functions are formed based on our interactions with those around us who are "more skilled."

According to the sociocultural perspective, our psychological growth is guided, in part, by people in our lives who are in mentor-type roles, such as teachers and parents. Other times, we develop our values and beliefs through our interactions within social groups or by participating in cultural events.

Sociocultural theory focuses on how mentors and peers influence individual learning, but also on how cultural beliefs and attitudes affect how learning takes place.

History of Sociocultural Theory

Sociocultural theory grew from the work of psychologist Lev Vygotsky , who believed that parents, caregivers, peers, and the culture at large are responsible for developing higher-order functions. According to Vygotsky, learning has its basis in interacting with other people. Once this has occurred, the information is then integrated on the individual level.

Vygotsky contended that children are born with basic biological constraints on their minds. Each culture, however, provides "tools of intellectual adaptation." These tools allow children to use their abilities in a way that is adaptive to the culture in which they live.

For example, one culture might emphasize memory strategies such as note-taking. Another might use tools like reminders or rote memorization (a technique that uses repetition). These nuances influence how a child learns, providing the "tools" that are appropriate to their culture.

Vygotsky, born in 1896, was a contemporary of other great thinkers such as Freud , Skinner , and Piaget , but his early death at age 37 and the suppression of his work in Stalinist Russia initially left his theories less well-known. As his work has become more widely published, his ideas have grown increasingly influential in areas including child development, cognitive psychology , and education.

The Zone of Proximal Development

An important concept in sociocultural theory is known as the zone of proximal development. According to Vygotsky, this is "the distance between the actual development level (of the learner) as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers."

Essentially, it includes all of the knowledge and skills that a person cannot yet understand or perform on their own but is capable of learning with guidance. As children are allowed to stretch their skills and knowledge, often by observing someone who is slightly more advanced than they are, they are able to progressively extend this zone.

Some research has supported the validity of the zone of proximal development. For instance, one study reported that whether a student experiences test anxiety is influenced, in part, by whether they have someone available to provide assistance if needed. A 2013 case study connects this concept with how a student develops writing abilities.

Vygotsky vs. Piaget: Key Differences

Jean Piaget was a psychologist and genetic epistemologist known for his theory of cognitive development which outlines the four stages in which children learn. Since they are both theories of learning, Vygotsky's theory is often compared to Piaget's.

Social factors influence development

Development can differ between cultures

Childhood interactions and explorations influence development

Development is largely universal

How does Vygotsky's sociocultural theory differ from Piaget's theory of cognitive development ? First, while Piaget's theory stressed that a child's interactions and explorations impact development, Vygotsky asserted the essential role that social interactions play.

Another important difference between the two is that Piaget's theory suggests that development is largely universal and Vygotsky asserts that it can differ between cultures. The course of development in European culture, for example, might be different than in Asian culture.

Because cultures can vary so dramatically, Vygotsky's sociocultural theory suggests that both the course and content of intellectual development are not as universal as Piaget believed.

Some suggest that these two theories of human development differ greatly due to their founders' different upbringings and that Vygotsky had strong cultural ties while Piaget had a lonely childhood.

Applying Vygotsky's Theory

Sociocultural theory has gained popularity within certain settings. Here's how this theory can be put into practice in the real world.

In the Classroom

Understanding the zone of proximal development can be helpful for teachers. In classroom settings, teachers may first assess students to determine their current skill level. Educators can then offer instruction that stretches the limits of each child's capabilities.

At first, the student may need assistance from an adult or a more knowledgeable peer. Eventually, their zone of proximal development will expand. Teachers can help promote this expansion by:

  • Planning and organizing classroom instruction and lessons. For example, the teacher might organize the class into groups where less-skilled children are paired with students who have a higher skill level. 
  • Using hints, prompts, and direct instruction to help kids improve their ability levels.
  • Scaffolding , where the teacher provides specific prompts to move the child progressively forward toward a goal.

In Socialization and Play

Vygotsky's theory also stressed the importance of play in learning. Vygotsky believed that through playing and imagining, children are able to further stretch their conceptual abilities and knowledge of the world. 

Teachers and parents can use this concept by providing children with plenty of opportunities for play experiences . Types of play that can foster learning include imaginary play, role-playing, games, and reenactments of real events. Such activities help promote the growth of abstract thought.

A Word From Verywell

Although Vygotsky's sociocultural theory only gained credence after his death, research has helped validate the role that those around us play in shaping how we develop as individuals.

Even though not everyone agrees as to the specifics of this development, as outlined in Piaget vs. Vygotsky, the sociocultural perspective does contribute to this understanding. It has also influenced other modern theories of human development, such as those that relate to cognitive growth and education.

Creating a collaborative learning environment is one way to use sociocultural theory in the classroom. This might involve pairing students with others of higher skill levels, or it could be by learning as a group versus having students learn on their own.

Teachers can also take advantage of the zone of proximal development by providing guidance and support to help the students reach their learning goals—particularly in an online learning environment.

The sociocultural perspective reinforces the role that people in mentor-like positions play in shaping who we become. This includes not just parents and teachers but also community leaders and others we model ourselves after.

If you are in one of these positions, it's important to recognize that you are shaping the development of the children around you. Because sociocultural theory also stresses the importance that culture plays in the process, this can help us better understand how our traditions and customs can influence future generations.

Sociocultural theory explains learning as a social practice while cognitive theory considers learning on a more individual level. With cognitive theory, learning is dependent on a person's mental processes. Thus, it is more focused on how the human mind works versus the impact that society plays in development.

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¡¡¡¡ This paper explores the role of input and output in second language acquisition £¨SLA £© by e m ploying Lev S £® Vygotsky ¬ð s £¨1896 £-1934 £© socioculturaltheory £® Krashen ¬ð sinput hypothesis £¨1982 £¬ 1985 £© and Swain ¬ð s output hypothesis £¨1985 £¬ 1993 £© hold different and so mew hat contradictory view points on the roles of input and output in SLA £® The difference might be solved by applying Vygotsky ¬ð s sociocultural theory £¬ w hich claims hu man higher mental functioning is constructed in a social £¬ cultural £¬ historical £¬ and institutional context £® This context is a web w oven by social interactions £¬ a dialectic unity of input and output £® Therefore £¬ according to Vygotsky ¬ð s approach to the understanding of learning £¬ the interactions between input and output give rise to second language develop ment £® Key w ords sociocultural theory £» input £» output £» second language acquisition 1 £® Introduction Second language researchers have not reached an agree m ent about the roles of input and output in second language acquisition £¨SLA £© £¬ although both have been widely studied respectively and separately £¨Krashen 1989 £» Sole 1994 £» Constantino 1995 £» Krashen 1997 £» Swain £¦ Lapkin 1995 £» Izu mi et al £® 1999 £» Izu mi £¦ Bigelow 2000 £» Feng £¦ Huang 2004 £© £® Studies on the role of input m ainly used Krashen ¬ð s input hypothesis £¨1982 £¬ 1985 £© as their theoretical fra m ew orks £¬ w hereas studies on that of output typically based their research on Swain ¬ð s output hypothesis £¨1985 £¬ 1993 £© £® These tw o hypotheses £¬ however £¬ hold different view points about the roles of input and outputin SLA £® Krashen £¨1982 £¬ 1985 £© claim ed that only co m prehensible input causes language acquisition £¬ w hile Swain £¨1985 £¬ 1993 £© proposed that through output £¬ either speaking or writing £¬ language acquisition might occur too £® Their discrepant views aboutthe roles of input and output leave language teachers and learners in a dile m m a £® Should teachers m aximize co m prehensible input by providing students with lectures £¬ reading progra ms £¬ and listening opportunities £¬ as Krashen suggested £¬ or to arrange considerable speaking and writing opportunities for students to practice as Swain im plied £¿ The tim e in class or the tim e for learning a new language is limited £¬ and m ore tim e and effort on input m eans less tim e on output £® So m e researchers claim that both input and output are essentialin language learning £® However £¬ their claim cannot find support fro m relevant SLA theories £® If they cite Krashen ¬ð s £¨1982 £¬ 1985 £© point to support the m £¬ they cannot use Swain ¬ð s output hypothesis £¨1985 £¬ 1993 £© £¬ because £¬ logically £¬ one cannot believe that output does not cause acquisition and output leads to acquisition at the sa m e tim e £® This paper tentatively applies the sociocultural theory of Vygotsky £¨1896 £-1934 £© £¬ one of the m ost influential philosophers and psychologists in the 20th century and a representative of social constructivism £¬ to explore the roles of input and output in SLA £® As an inter £-discipline £¬ SLA has constantly been nourished by theories in the fields of philosophy £¬ psychology £¬ and sociology £¬ as well as linguistics £® 7 8

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The Interaction Hypothesis is a type of theory proposing that one of most effective methods of learning a new language is through personal and direct interaction. This theory is applied specifically to the acquisition of a foreign or a second language . It is usually attributed to Professor Michael Long, when he wrote a paper entitled “The Role of the Linguistic Environment in Second Language Acquisition ” in 1996.

Through the Interaction Hypothesis, Professor Long integrated and reconciled two hypotheses on second language acquisition (SLA): the input and the output hypotheses. The Input Hypothesis states that a language learner only needs to be supplied with “input” through the forms of reading, listening to conversations, and lessons on grammar and vocabulary. The Output Hypothesis, on the other hand, stresses the importance of practicing and speaking to retain and remember the language. The Interaction Hypothesis combines both the “input” and “output” by stating that interaction is not only a means for a learner to study the language, but also a way for the learner to practice what he has learned.

interaction hypothesis and sociocultural theory

Among the types of interactions, conversation is probably the most emphasized in the Interaction Hypothesis, an idea most probably derived from the “ discourse approach” by Professor Evelyn Hatch who, in 1978, wrote papers that stressed the importance of constant communication and interaction for SLA. The Interaction Hypothesis acknowledges that during conversations, there are certain situations wherein a participant does not understand what the other says, but it is in these situations where learning becomes more effective. The theory refers to this occurrence as “negotiation,” wherein the participants will attempt to understand and repair the miscommunication during the interaction.

The first step in the negotiation is the interaction itself, when both participants begin to engage in conversation. The second step, the “negative feedback,” occurs when a participant does not understand a certain word, sometimes seen in a nonverbal action such as in the furrowing of the brow. In some cases, the other participant may request clarification by saying, “Pardon?” or “Can you say that again?” The process wherein the misunderstood participant strives to make the other participant understand is called “modification output.” The participant may paraphrase or give examples to make the meaning of the word clearer, until the other participant responds in an affirmative way that he has understood.

Interaction Hypothesis suggests an interaction between a second-language learner and a native speaker, so the learner can study the language in its most authentic setting. In this way, the learner not only learns about the language, but also the nuances and other nonverbal cues the go along with the words. Many universities in English-speaking countries have English programs and classes focusing on personal interaction for many foreign students who go abroad just to learn how to speak English.

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Vocational College English Teaching Inspiration from Sociocultural Theory and Interaction Hypothesis

This article will present the situation of college English teaching in higher vocational colleges, and introduce two latest second language acquisition theories which are "social cultural theory" and "interaction hypothesis". The aim of this article is to explore the new modes of college English teaching in order to effectively improve the higher vocational students' ability of using language and intercultural communication ability.

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Sociocultural Theory

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interaction hypothesis and sociocultural theory

  • Liu Qinxue 2  

Sociocultural Theory, also known as cultural-historical psychology, studies human’s mental development from a sociocultural perspective. Between the mid-1920s and the early 1930s, influenced by the German thinker and philosopher Friedrich Engels’ thought about the role of labor in the process of human adapting to and transforming nature, the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky elaborated the basic principles and ways by which human mental functions develop, and proposed the sociocultural theory.

Vygotsky categorizes mental functions into lower and higher and posits that an individual’s mental development involves transitioning from lower to higher mental functions, influenced by their environment and education. Reasons underlying the transition are as follows: (1) Mental functions are shaped by the development of society, culture, and history and follow social laws. (2) Through communications with adults, children acquire languages and symbols, which are mediational tools for the...

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Shaffer DR, Kipp K (2020) Developmental psychology: childhood and adolescence, 9th edn. Cengage Learning, Boston

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    Long (1983) and Vygotsky (1987) have investigated the learning process of second language learners and argued that second language learning can happen through inclass interaction and oral communication. According to Long's (1983) Interaction Hypothesis theory, the interactional collaboration among peers can lead to second language learning. Even more, second language learners are more likely ...

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    Sociocultural Theory, Interaction Hypothesis, College English teaching Abstract. This article will present the situation of college English teaching in higher vocational colleges, and introduce two latest second language acquisition theories which are "social cultural theory" and "interaction hypothesis". The aim of this article is to explore ...

  23. Sociocultural Theory

    Sociocultural Theory, also known as cultural-historical psychology, studies human's mental development from a sociocultural perspective. Between the mid-1920s and the early 1930s, influenced by the German thinker and philosopher Friedrich Engels' thought about the role of labor in the process of human adapting to and transforming nature, the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky elaborated the ...

  24. [PDF] An Introduction to Behaviourism, Innatism and Interactionism

    There are many theories that have influence on the field of second language acquisition, and all of the theories have different principles and ideas. The knowledge about theories, methods, approaches, strategies and techniques is essential in order to have effective language classes. However, many of the instructors and teachers have lack of information about the language theories based on a ...