Implementing Vygotsky’s socio-cultural approach in the foreign language classroom

With his work on the role of social constructivism to learning, Vygotsky (1934) and his ‘socio-cultural’ theory have become the foundation of much research not only in the field of cognitive development but also in that of language learning. A brief study of key notions that underlie his major theories, such as the Zone of Proximal Development, the role of social interaction and private speech to learning and the benefits of scaffolding and collaborative dialogues in language acquisition, can help us gain a better understanding of the aspects we should be focusing on to promote foreign language learning. This blog post will be focusing on the fundamental notions that underlie Vygotsky’s approaches to language learning and cognitive development and the ways by which we can apply these to promote learning in the EFL classroom.

The role of ‘social interaction’ and ‘collaborative dialogues’ in language learning

    Vygotsky’s Cognitive Development Theory focuses on the importance of social interaction to cognitive development. Vygotsky argues that cognitive abilities are socially guided and constructed and highlights the effect that cultural and social context can have in learning. His social constructivism theory focuses on the interdependence of language and thought and the role of collaborative dialogues in promoting learning. Children (and language learners) are able to promote their interlanguage development through the constructive negotiation of meaning while communicating with others. Having this approach in mind, we can therefore encourage our EFL learners’ language acquisition by promoting student interaction through the use of creative, communicative tasks.

Consciousness-raising tasks and learner interaction

    In many cases our EFL learners have limited exposure to the TL outside the classroom and therefore they do not have many opportunities to practise the language. In order to foster their language development we must create the appropriate environment to help them do this during the lesson. We must help them develop communicative skills that will eventually promote language acquisition. By encouraging interaction among the students through collaborative writing or speaking tasks, STT (student talking time) is increased and our learners gradually begin to develop language fluency and learn from one another.

    We must give them the freedom to interact in the TL, to try to communicate successfully and appropriately (not necessarily accurately), to get their message across without the fear of errors. Our learners’ interlanguage will constantly evolve through creative mistakes. It’s not just the drilling and the exercises that will boost their linguistic development but the interaction, the constant effort to turn their passive vocabulary into active.

    Real-life simulations, games and quizzes will not only increase student talking time (STT), but will also enhance our learners’ communication skills. By working in pairs or groups in order to write a role play or a story for example, our students will combine their imagination and their knowledge of L2 lexis and grammar and will learn from one another. It is important to focus on this positive aspect of student collaboration and to clarify that competitiveness is not the goal of these interactive tasks but creative and constructive learning.

The role of scaffolding in language learning

Vygotsky’s socio cultural approaches to learning emphasize to a great extent the role of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and its relation to scaffolding. Vygotsky refers to the ZPD as the space between what children/learners can do on their own and what they can ‘pick up’ through interaction and collaboration with others. The notion of scaffolding plays a key role to this. Aljaafreh and Lantolf (1994:469) refer to the notion of scaffolding as “the idea of offering just enough assistance to encourage and guide the learner to participate in the activities” and to “ assume increased responsibility for arriving at the appropriate performance”. As long as it is done by keeping in mind our lessons’ primary aims and does not contradict with our classroom’s communicative goals, commenting on our learners’ written or oral production can prove to be very beneficial for their interlanguage development. The teacher’s comments and scaffolding, i.e. the extra help given to the students to direct their attention towards specific language structures and patterns in the TL, can be either explicit or implicit depending on what the teacher wants to achieve and on the learners’ level and linguistic development.

  • The role of peer scaffolding

    Encouraging peer to peer feedback can prove to be very beneficial for our EFL learners. It is an extremely useful consciousness raising task that will boost active involvement and help them learn from each other.

‘Noticing’ new language patterns

    Noticing for Vygotsky is an internal process that leads to learning. The importance of noticing in successful language learning has been highlighted by many linguists and SLA researchers (Skehan, Long, Harmer, Thornbury). There seems to be a general consensus among them that some form of attention to input is necessary for effective learning to take place. Noticing is considered to be successful when it leads to language acquisition, when our learners’ attention is shifted towards a TL structure, which is then acquired, internalized and eventually becomes part of their TL output.

    Noticing mainly has to do with our learners being able to understand and grasp the meaning from the input they receive in terms of a newly introduced structure or grammar point. Successful learning will take place when they notice this ‘gap’ between the target language and their interlanguage and will actively try to incorporate the new structures in their TL output.

    The key is not just to make our students notice linguistic patterns in the TL. Something that has ‘grasped’ our attention could easily be forgotten after a while. Our goal as teachers is to create the appropriate circumstances in order to raise our learners’ consciousness, to help them successfully acquire this new knowledge and to begin to actively use it by turning input into intake and then into successful TL output. This blog post’s main purpose will be to draw our attention as teachers to the importance of this concept in foreign language learning and in particular to grammar teaching.

   The role of age in ‘noticing’ and interlanguage development

    Age plays a very significant role when it comes to negotiation of meaning, noticing and language learning. Younger learners have a limited attention span and will focus mainly on the communication of meaning and less on form/grammar. Adult learners on the other hand are more reflective and are thinking more analytically about their own learning. Their metacognitive awareness and their previous knowledge of learning languages play a very significant role in triggering this noticing that will eventually transform their interlanguage and will foster language learning.

Input enrichment and task authenticity

        In order to effectively ‘put into practice’ all these key notions that underlie Vygotsky’s socio cultural theories, it is important to always provide our students with authentic tasks that will boost their motivation and their willingness to participate in the lesson. Our main aim is not for our students to merely notice a TL structure. The key is to turn this noticing into active knowledge. To foster this language awareness, we need to expose them to linguistic input but to also provide them with authentic tasks and opportunities to use and produce the TL patterns both in writing and in speaking.

    By loading the input we give to our learners with the target forms we want them to notice, we facilitate the learning process and give them the necessary clues they need in order to process and eventually absorb the new knowledge. Variety and authenticity in tasks is also important here as learners have the opportunity to reproduce the grammatical patterns in many different scenarios and for different communicative purposes.

    For Harmer, ‘successful language teaching’ should be judged according to the ‘balance of the activities our students are involved in’. Since in most EFL classrooms learners have limited opportunities to practice the language outside the classroom, Harmer considers ‘genuine communicative tasks’ as an important part of the lesson. We therefore need to come up with activities that will increase student talking time (STT) and will give our learners the opportunity to utilize their knowledge and find ways to interact, express themselves in a creative way and get their message across in the target language.


Aljaafreh, A., & Lantolf, J. P. (1994). Negative feedback as regulation and second language learning in the zone of proximal development. Modern Language Journal, 78(4), 465–483.

Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Longman.

Hedge, T. (2000). Teaching and learning in the language classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rutherford, William and Michael Sharwood Smith (eds.) Grammar and Second Language Teaching: A Book of Readings. New York: Newbury House

Scrivener, J. (1994). Learning Teaching. Oxford: Heinemann

Ur, P. (2012). A course in English language teaching. Cambridge University Press

Watkins, P. (2014). Learning to teach English. (2nd ed.) Delta Publishing.

Published by Joanna Nifli

ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

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