A Vygotskian Developmental Approach to Second Language Education

Matthew E. Poehner, Rémi A. van Compernolle, Olga Esteve, James P. Lantolf

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This article considers the pedagogical research informed by the writings of L. S. Vygotsky concerned with the teaching and learning of languages beyond the first (L2). Following a brief overview of developments in the application of Vygotskian theory to explicating processes of L2 development in instructional settings, we consider more recent scholarship that has employed the theory as a principled basis for reconceptualizing L2 education. Three lines of research are brought into focus: Concept-Based Instruction (CBI), Dynamic Assessment (DA), and a Vygotskian approach to the preparation of L2 teachers. This work follows the distinctions that have been proposed between, on the one hand, cognitive and meta-cognitive mediation (Karpov & Haywood, 1998), and on the other hand symbolic and human mediation (Kozulin, 2003), and brings these together in a coherent manner to support learner L2 development. Specifically, cognitive mediation through symbolic means centers on the importance of high-quality conceptual knowledge relating to the object of educative activity (e.g., vocabulary, grammar, reading, and writing), while meta-cognitive mediation through human interaction stresses the quality of cooperative engagement among teachers and students. Cognitive mediation is brought to the fore in L2 CBI work, which has been strongly influenced by the teaching–learning experiments conceived by Piotr Gal'perin (1967) in his efforts to uncover processes involved in internalization (see Talyzina, 1981). Beginning with Negueruela's (2003) longitudinal L2 CBI project, this framework has attracted considerable attention among L2 researchers and has led to numerous projects involving a range of different languages. We give particular attention to uses of CBI concerned with pragmatics of language use (e.g., van Compernolle, 2014)as this work involves the integration of features of language during communicative activity. The meta-cognitive component of language instruction is emphasized in DA as a tester/teacher (or mediator) engages cooperatively with learners when they encounter tasks beyond their independent ability. DA draws specifically on the Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978), according to which the quality of support learners require to identify and overcome problems indicates the extent of their emerging capabilities. Thus, DA offers a diagnosis of the full range of development, including abilities that have fully formed and those that are just “ripening” (Vygotsky, 1986). Early research on L2 DA examined dialogic mediation during dyadic interaction (Poehner, 2007, 2008). Subsequent work has extended L2 DA to group and whole-class formats (Poehner, 2009; van Compernolle & Williams, 2012) as well as computerized testing (Leontjev, 2016). Finally, we turn to the preparation of L2 teachers, where significant advances are being made that build upon both cognitive and meta-cognitive mediation to reorient (student) teachers to teaching–learning activity by beginning with their existing knowledge and experiences and moving beyond them through the introduction of theoretical concepts and principles of developmental education (Esteve, 2018; Johnson & Golombek, 2016).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)238-259
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Cognitive Education and Psychology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Oct 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Education
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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