What does sociocultural theory offer to EFL teacher education? Part 2

My last posts have been related to sociocultural theory and this one is not the exception. My research journey continues and my reading pile gets higher and higher.

After reading Johnson’s  book, I  converted. Therefore, I got into sociocultural theory and delved into the literature about it. I started with Vygotsky’s Mind in society. I continued with  Leontev’s and kept on my readings with several papers and other books which have interpreted Vygotsky’s work. One prominent follower has been Engestrom whose work on Activity theory has made a break through in the field proposing a second generation activity theory.

In the field of second language, James Lantolf and Steven Thorne have researched about second language development, second language teaching with a sociocultural perspective.  In the field of teacher education, Viv Ellis, Ann Edwards and H. Daniels’ work appear to be the research leaders.

It seems that it is very easy to get lost in the literature and get stuck. Therefore, I have designed a plan of reading focusing on questions to answer. Last week I have focused my readings and thoughts on this question: What does sociocultural theory offer L2 teacher education?

Of course, the answer is complex and more questions have arisen. First I see that the question includes two major topics: first   sociocultural theory and second, L2 teacher education.   Here I am trying to organize my thoughts with more questions: How do you analyse learning with a sociocultural perspective? What’s the difference of emphasis between sociocultural theory and activity theory? Does sociocultural theory give an account for the cognitive and social dimensions of learning? What is language? What is teaching? What is teacher learning? What is the link between teacher learning and student learning?

First, reviewing the literature related to sociocultural theory we can see different perspectives or emphasis within this field. Sociocultural theory broadly speaking refers to the work by Vygotsky (1978) whose focus is on learning as a mediated activity by physical or psychological tools situated in a specific social practice. As Lave(1988) states it: “people learn by engaging in social practices which are stretched over specific settings for practice, settings that are in a dialectical relationship with the cultural arena within which certain forms of identity are motivating.

Vygotsky’s concept of mediation is key to understand sociocultural theory. Vygotsky proposed that human mind is mediated by the use of psychological or physical tools. These artefacts would allow us to understand the world and would also allow changing it.

From Vygotsky’s proposal, sociocultural theory has been interpreted and has been developed further. Edwards and Daniels (2004) have coined the term Cultural History theory to place a slightly different emphasis on mediation from Vygostky’s ideas. Cultural historical theory has a special interest on physical and psychological tools used to build cultures. The focus here is on “both cultures and the settings that they provide  for human action and individuals as they appropriate  cultural tools through which to navigate their environments.”

Another emphasis is the one given by Activity theory. This theory was developed by one of Vygostky’s student, A. Leontev. Leontev focused on the human activity distinguishing between the individual’s subject’s operation, the individual or group’s goal oriented actions and the level of collective activity given meaning by a shared object motive. Ellis et al (2010) make a distinction between Activity theory and Cultural historical line, stating that AT has a marked emphasis on action and intervention. A major contribution to Activity theory in the last years has been made  by Engestrom  who has proposed a triangular representation of the activity system. This proposal has emphasised the internal contradictions within the activity.

Sociocultural theory, Cultural historical line, Activity theory? Now, it seems that my problem gets bigger, it is not only one theory, but three. So which one should I take for my own research? Which epistemological underpinnings are relevant to study EFL teacher education?

  • Let’s start answering one question at a time. What is learning? Learning is “a dynamic social activity that is situated in physical and social contexts, and is distributed across persons, tools, and activities” (Johnson, 2009, p. 9). This view implies that learning is not static, that is not located in somebody’s mind, and that is mediated by tools. It also implies that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the learning process. Sociocultural theory, cultural historical line and Activity theory share this view of learning.
  • How do we analyse the learning process from a Vygotskyan perspective?

We could analyse the learning process examining the tools used, classroom interactions, narratives, discourse, outcomes, etc. But we can also examine the activity of learning, as a goal oriented activity shared by a group of individuals. In this respect, Activity theory offers a useful analytical framework to explore the activity and illuminate the relations and contradictions of its components.

To be continued….


About Malba Barahona

Educational researcher, language educator. PhD from Australian National University. Passionate bushwalker and mountain lover. I procrastinate reading fiction, hiking, doing yoga, riding, having a beer and more recently decolonizing my existence. I write in English and Spanish in different blogs especially with the purpose of encouraging my students to write.


  1. evelyn

    I can’t continue reading :C

  2. I think this is one of the most vital info for me.

    And i am glad reading your article. But should remark on few general things, The website style is perfect, the articles is
    really excellent : D. Good job, cheers

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