Beyond the Zone of Proximal Development: A Review of “Sociocultural Theory in Second Language Education: An Introduction through Narratives”

By Lucie Moussu, University of Alberta,  moussu@ualberta.ca

Merrill Swain, Penny Kinnear, and Linda Steinman. Sociocultural Theory in Second Language Education: An Introduction through Narratives. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 2011. Also available  from Google Books as a free e-book.

Most educators (especially those working with second language speakers and writers) have heard about Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” (ZPD). However, few of us have really taken the time to investigate the scope and complexities of this theory and how it fits within Vygotsky’s theory of education or the sociocultural theory (SCT) that has grown out of it. The textbook “Sociocultural Theory in Second Language Education” looks at second language education concepts that are familiar to language educators (assessment and feedback, for instance) through the lens of SCT. By presenting and analyzing familiar teaching and learning situations, the authors are able to make some complex SCT principles accessible to readers who might not be familiar with language education theories.

This book is for language educators, scholars in writing studies, education, applied linguistics, sociology, and psychology, writing centre directors and tutors, as well as teacher educators and student teachers (in any field). Vygotsky’s SCT applies to all teaching and learning situations and will, in truth, benefit everyone dedicated to the education of the mind.

Vygotsky always emphasized the importance of the connection between the individual and the social and cultural contexts that produce learning. The chapters in this book introduce and discuss some of the major building blocks of this philosophy. Very quickly the reader realizes that these building blocks do not exist in isolation but support and complement one another to create a compelling and solid pedagogical foundation.

Chapters 1 through 7 follow the same structure: a front page with key terms and principles; an introduction to new concepts and to the narrative used in the chapter; the narrative itself; a discussion of the key tenets through the authors’ interpretation of the narrative; presentation of controversial issues as well as strengths and weaknesses of the concepts and theories; a short description of key studies related to the issues discussed in the chapter; and finally some discussion questions on the implications for learning, teaching, and research.  After a concluding chapter, a detailed glossary section (with some references) provides a helpful reminder of all the concepts and theories presented earlier in the book. The book ends with a bibliography and index.

After an introduction to SCT, the reasons for using narratives, and the structure of the book, Chapter 1 explains how all mental activities are mediated by material and symbolic artifacts (e.g. books, beliefs, etc.).  The narrative presents Mona, an English teacher in China, then a Masters student in the US, and now a Ph.D. student in Canada, who has created reciprocal relationships with the sometimes scanty resources available to her (family, friends, educational and political contexts, work opportunities, the English and Chinese languages, books, etc.) to co-construct a successful life history and representation of herself as a student, teacher, and speaker of English. The discussion emphasizes the importance of learning about our students’ and educators’ life histories (their ontogenesis) to understand better the influences of personal and sociocultural constraints, goals, identities, and beliefs that shape individual teaching and learning trajectories.

Chapter 2 discusses the well-known zone of proximal development, the ways it can be created for learners, and its transformative effects, as well as the relationship between cognition and emotion. Notions of scaffolding and community of practice are also clearly illustrated through the story of a fourth-grader in a French immersion class. This chapter might be of particular interest to writing studies scholars and writing centre directors; in fact, the section discussing the potential growth that happens when positive emotional interactions take place in educational settings makes a compelling argument for writing centre tutoring.

Chapter 3 explains the concept of “languaging” (“the process of making meaning and shaping knowledge and experience through language” (151) and the important theoretical connections between private speech (intrapersonal communication) and collaborative dialogue (interpersonal communication). The first narrative presents a young native speaker of Cantonese and English who uses self-directed speech to focus, think logically, remember a childhood song, and eventually solve a translation predicament; the second narrative shows how two learners of French negotiate meaning by talking to each other and to themselves in order to achieve second language learning. The sections on pedagogical implications and current controversies discuss the fascinating idea of letting students “play” with both their first and new languages in the classroom, allowing them to engage in complex cognitive processes in order to mediate understanding of new concepts and connect all their mental skills in the learning process.

Chapter 4 may be the most accessible and useful chapter for writing studies scholars and writing centre directors, as it discusses issues related to second language writing, such as the difference between oral and written speech, imitation, transfer, translation, audience, meta-awareness, and the process of developing a conceptual understanding of linguistic and emotional equivalencies in different languages. Many novice second language writers think in their first language and then translate their ideas into English. As the authors say, students often think of translation “as merely putting on another ‘ready-made garment,’ not creating a new reality and form” (63).  This chapter’s narrative also illustrates, through the translation attempts of a Tamil university student, the extent to which language students’ levels of literacy in their first and subsequent languages can be uneven.

Chapter 5 is about the interrelatedness of emotion and cognition in language learning, and the concept of “regulation,” that is, the mediation of behavior “by objects, people and the self” (152). The narrative introduces the reader to a TESL student teacher and bilingual speaker of Greek and English who has struggled to find her own identity as it shifted through the years, influenced by different life situations and people in different contexts. I relate to this student teacher particularly deeply because of my own constant hyper-awareness of my place within my social environment as a non-native speaker of English. The positive or negative emotions I feel as a result influence the “affective filter” that I raise or lower in different contexts. And after a compelling discussion about the need for teachers to attend to both the minds and emotions of their students, I found this statement remarkably gripping: “Caring for the affective state of students is more likely to be achieved by teachers whose affective states are cared for by their professions” (83). The chapter ends with a note on the importance of teaching and assessing pragmatic awareness in addition to teaching and assessing the more usual discrete elements of language.

Chapter 6 was for me the most complex chapter of this book. It discusses “activity theory,” that is, the “generative, mediated interaction of individuals and their multiple goal-oriented contexts” (149). Through the interactions between a student teacher and her English in the Workplace student, the authors show the tensions that can arise, and the ways individual and social contexts influence thoughts and actions as well as teaching and learning experiences. The discussion of these connections and interactions involve looking at the notions of rules of discourse, levels of language, division of labour, activity system network, signs and symbols, and multidirectional relationships. In a modern society that tries to standardize education and assessment, this chapter is particularly thought-provoking and inspiring.

Chapter 7 discusses a concept that is very familiar to all educators: assessment. However, SCT lets us look at assessment from an unusual perspective: co-construction of knowledge, that is, the recognition that language learning and performance do not happen in isolation and at one time only. Language assessment must therefore be dynamic and not only test the individual’s accumulated knowledge of and skills in the language (the product) but also look at the individual’s learning process, at how his/her performance is socially constructed, and at the potential future language development of the individual in an ideal zone of proximal development. Important to remember, too, is that our assumptions about assessment are historically and culturally constructed. Today, assessment is based on the psychometric framework, which focuses on individual performances, standardization, and the neutralization of individual variables. However, dynamic assessment does not disconnect instruction from assessment; it assists the learner in finding the correct response. In fact, “the goal of dynamic assessment is to mediate [language] development; the assumption is that change will occur during the process. That is, development should occur during the process designed to assess it” (129, italics in original). Issues of test reliability, validity, scoring, and fairness are also discussed at the end of the chapter.

Chapter 8 differs in structure from the previous chapters. Instead of teaching about a specific concept, the authors give us the floor and ask us to read two narratives and to discuss and analyze them using the theories presented in previous chapters. The Discussion section then looks at the authors’ experiences in writing this book and teaching about SCT through the lens of the principles explained in this book—a kind of mise en abyme introspection of their own processes, successes, and challenges.

What I found most useful in this book is the wide scope of the theoretical explanations, as well as the reviews of literature and key research articles in every chapter. These reviews are brief but in-depth and are an excellent introduction for people who are completely new to SCT and also a great preamble to further reading. I also found interesting the discussions of other scholars’ interpretations (and sometimes misunderstandings) of Vygotsky’s principles. Finally, the narratives used in this book are from many different perspectives: language students, of course, but also student teachers and teacher educators. This will allow educators and scholars in many different educational contexts to relate to the examples, and to find elements of SCT that they can apply immediately to their teaching and learning environment.

However, this is not a “how-to”book.  Some chapters discuss specific skill areas (such as speaking, in Chapter 5), and the narratives provide a personal and accessible overture to complex theoretical concepts. The book discusses ideas and describe and analyzes pedagogical situations, but gives very little concrete advice. While some chapters focus on specific skills such as speaking, it is difficult to imagine how some of the ideas could be applied to other skills. For example, while Chapter 8 discusses spoken language testing at length and quickly mentions written portfolios, I have a difficult time imagining ways to apply dynamic assessment principles in the composition classroom or other classes. I must also note that people in writing studies and writing centre pedagogy/administration who are not familiar with second language education may find certain sections in this book a little challenging. Nevertheless, anyone with an interest in second language education and/or a background in TESOL/TESL and applied linguistics will enjoy looking at well-known theories in the field through the fascinating lens of SCT.

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