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2005 10

28 5

CELEA JournalBim onthly

28 No


Zheng Xiangui
Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine

This article critically examines three m ost influential learning theories that underlie the instruction and
learning environ ments in second language learningSLL
Evaluation follo ws the description of each theory
The point isto understand the im pacts of differenttheories on second language learningThe paper arguesthat
an integrated approach w hich co m bines the three theories
is needed
Key w ords
second language learningSLLbehaviourism cognitive learning theory
sociocultural theory

Theories of second language learningSLL have draw n great attention as researchers in the field of
applied linguistics have atte m pted to substantiate the validity of different theoretical perspectivesIn this
three learning theories will be exa mined in the context of SLL
Obviously no universal agree m ent exists on how learning occursHow psychologists have viewed the
principles of learning has changed significantly throughout the 20th century
In the middle of the 20th century
learning theory was do minated by the principles of behavioural
psychology exe m plified by the w ork of B F Skinner 1938 1957 1974 w hich m aintains that
learning should be described as changes in the observable behaviour of a learner m ade as a function of
events in the environ m ent
In the 1970s
the behavioural paradig m began to be expanded by the ideas of cognitive psychology
w hich m aintains that a co m plete explanation of hu m an learning also requires recourse to non
such as m e m ory and m otivation
Over the last 20 decades sociocultural theory has challenged the cognitive approach w hich holds
that hu m an develop m ent cannot be viewed separately fro m social contextDevelop m ent occurs as a result
of m eaning verbalinteractions between novices and experts in the environ m ent
No universal agree m ent exists in the field of SLL eitherAm ong the various learning theories
three theories m entioned above have greatest influence on SLL Behaviourism focuses on the form ation
of second languageL2habits cognitive focuses on a single hypothetical learner s internal inform ation
processing and transmission of L2 input and output
sociocultural theory atte m pts to capture the context
action and m otives of second language events between individuals w ho are sim ultaneously social and
I will in the following sections overview the basic ideas of the three theories and evaluate their
application in SLL

CELEA Journal 63

2Learning theories and their im pact on SLL

1 Behaviourism and SLL
1 Behaviourism
Behaviourism focuses only on objectively observable behaviours and discounts m ental activities
Behaviourism holds that alllearning w hether verbal or non
takes place through the establish m ent
of habitsKra msch Thorne 2002
It e m phasizes the role of environ m ent in learning and develop m ent
In behaviourism
the learner is viewed as passively adapting to their environ m entThe instruction focuses
on conditioning the learner s behaviour
B FSkinner
in his book Verbal Behaviour in 1957 associates behaviourism in general psychology
with language learningSkinner together with m any of his conte m poraries interpret all learning is
considered to be the result of habit form ation through imitation positive reinforce m ent and practice
Language learning
first or second
is considered to be habit form ation
The behaviouristic SLLapproach holds that speech habits are m ost efficiently established through the
production of correct responsesThus in practice only linguistically correct student responses could be
rewarded and hence reinforcedAs a consequence a teacher should try to ask only questions that she
was sure the students could handle correctlyBehaviourism stresses repetition of the ite m under study
and relies on the conditioning processIt assu m es thatanalogy provides a better foundation for foreign
language learning than analysis
Mueller 1971

Behaviourism is usually connected to Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis C A H

According to
in contrast to a first language learner the second language learner already has a set of
habitsThe L1 habits are na m ely assu m ed to be so well established and so appealing to use that they
constantly get in the way of the L2 habit form ation processLado1957assu m es that the transferred L1
habits either facilitate or inhibit the process of L2 habit form ation Where there are similarities between
the first and the second language the student will acquire easily but w here there are differences it w ould
be difficultAs a consequence a detailed co m parison contrastive analysisof the native and the target
language w ould suffice to reveal areas of differences and similaritiesThese in turn w ould allow predicting
w here errors w ould and w here they w ould not occurThus transfer was a key concept of CAH Sayehli

Behaviouristic leaning theory leads to the im ple m entation of audio

visual techniques and the practice
of oral skills in a controlled environ m entThis instructional approach e m phasizes the form ation of habits
through the practice m e m orization and repetition of gra m m atical structures in isolation Mechanic
pattern drills are the result of this influence

2 Evaluation of behaviourism in SLL
Though so m e features of language such as pronunciation and collocations m ay successfully be
acquired through repetition and m e m orization
the audio
lingual m ethod has co m e under severe criticism
as being overly m echanical and theoretically unjustified
Although CAH was very influential and inspired m any productive investigations it soon beca m e
apparent that the CAH was not co m patible with the e m pirical and theoretical findings that e m erged
Em pirical proble ms with CAH
A Underpredicted not all similarities guarantee a sim ple and error free acquisition Larsen
Free m an Long 1991
A review by Ellis1985 quoted in Mitchell Myles 1998of studies
scrutinizing the proportion of errors ascribed to L1 reports that only about 30 of errors
have been attributed to L1
B Overpredicted not all contrasts between L1 and L2 lead to learning difficulties
Theoretical proble ms with CAH
Cho msky1959argues that a speaker of a language can produce and understand an infinite
nu m ber of well
form ed utterances and thus language co m petence could not possibly be explained
by a m odel based on imitation and habit form ationAccording to Cho msky The develop m ent of

Learning Theories and Second Language Learning Zheng Xiangui

an individual s gra m m aticalsyste m was guided by innate cognitive structuresinstead of behavioural

reinforce m ent
In addition CAH could not explain another type of errors develop m ental errorsDifferent fro m
transfer errors develop m ental errors are learner internal and rule
basedAn exa m ple is an utterance like
he goedby an English L2 learner Mitchell Myles 1998It can be analyzed as being the result of an
internalized rule add
edto the verb to express past
Though CAH is questioned and criticized by m any researchers it still has influence on SLL since
anyone w ho has tried to learn a second language will appreciate how the language w hich is already know n
influences the second languageTherefore
it should not be readily dismissed

2 Cognitive learning theory and SLL
1 Cognitive learning theory
The do minance of behaviourism began to wane in the 1970s and cognitive psychology began to
overtake it as the do minant paradig m of leaning psychology Cognitive psychology places e m phasis on
unobservable constructs such as the mind m e m ory attitudes m otivation thinking reflection and
other presu m ed internal processesIn cognitive theories changes in behaviour are observed but only as
an indicator to w hatis going on in the learner s headThe learner is viewed as an active participantin the
knowledge acquisition process
Cognitivists do not believe thatlanguage is separate fro m other aspects of cognitionThey argue that
the hu m an mind is geared to the processing of all kinds of inform ation and linguistic inform ation is just
one type although highly co m plex On the basis of these principles greater im portance is attached to
acquiring conscious control of the language patterns through study and analysis than through analogy
Greater im portance is given to understanding the language structure than to facility in using it Mueller
According to this view the best way to understand both L1 and L2 learning is through
understanding the processes used by the learner to learn new inform ation and skills Mitchell Myles

Cognitivists are prim arily interested in the learner as an individual as opposed to the Socio
culturalistsand on the processes involved in learning a second languageCognitive learning theory views
SLL as the acquisition of a co m plex cognitive skill So m e of the sub
skills involved in the language
learning process are applying gra m m atical rules choosing the appropriate vocabulary following the
prag m atic conventions governing the use of a specific language McLaughlin 1987

2 Evaluation of cognitive learning theory in SLL
Cognitive approach regard language learning as the gradual auto mitization of skills through stages of
restructuring and linking new inform ation to old knowledge The differences between the various
cognitive m odels m ake it im possible to construct a co m prehensive cognitive theory of SLL Tw o
pro minent m odels of cognitivist theory in SLL are exa mined here one is inform ation processing m odel
and the other is connectionism
McLaughlin s inform ation processing m odel McLaughlin 1990of SLLis as follows
Me m ory is a netw ork of nodesNew L2inform ation te m porarily activates nodes in short
m e m oryThis is controlled process
When nodes are repeatedly activated they beco m e less a product of controlled processing and
m ore auto m atic When they are fully auto m atized
they are then stored in the long
term m e m ory
term m e m ory to tackle new m ore co m plex learning Once
LTM w hich frees the short
acquired auto m atized processes are difficult to change or deleteIn this way
students can study
m ore of the language and achieves increasing degrees of m astery in the second language
McLaughlin 1987 1990
In this view SLL is a continual process fro m controlled to auto m atic processes by repeated
activation of controlled processesAccording to this m odel
fossilization is then the auto mization
of a controlled process before that process is native
like Mitchell Myles 1998


CELEA Journal 63

Another m odelis connectionist m odelAccording to Mitchell and Myles1998

connectionism sees
learning as establishing the strengths between the vast nu m ber of connectionsin the mindand the mind
is seen like a co m puter
w hich w ould consist of neural netw orks Mitchell Myles 1998 78

The m odel holds that m ental connectionsin the linguistic syste m beco m e stronger each tim e the
learner is exposed to linguistic inputEventually the presence of one linguistic ele m ent will activate its
m atch
the m ore often tw o ele m ents are heard together
the m ore likely a learner will re m e m ber the m
Consequently repeated activation strengthenslinks or connections and studentslearn the second language
For exa m ple
thinking or hearinghow are youone m ay recallfine
thank you

So m e critics of connectionism e
gFodor Pylyshyn 1988 Pinker Prince 1988contend thatitis
no m ore than a revival of behaviorism dressed up to look like neuroscienceThey also argue thatitis m ore
likely that inform ation is recalled because repetition m ade it beco m e auto m atic and go into long
m e m ory than just because of strong connections It is true that connectionist m odels share with
behaviorism a focus on the learning of stim ulus
associationsThe differences
lie in the concern of connectionists with the internal representations that are constructed between the
inputs fro m and the outputs to the environ m ent and with the specific m ental processes that are involved in
the construction of these representationsRu m elhart McClelland 1986

Apart fro m the tw o m odels the influence of cognitive approaches is seen quite strongly in the
teaching of reading and writing L2 Following develop m ents in first
language reading and writing
research second
language educators ca m e to see literacy as an individual psycholinguistic process
language writing instruction shifted its e m phasis fro m the mimicking of correct structure to the
develop m ent of a cognitive proble m
solving approach focused on heuristic exercises and collaborative
tasks organized in staged processes such as idea generation drafting and revising Kern Warschauer

Limits of cognitive learning theory are as follows

Felix 1981 argues that the general cognitive skills are useless for language develop m ent The
only area that cognitive develop m ent is related to language develop m ent is vocabulary and
m eaning
since lexicalite ms and m eaning relations are m ost readily related to a conceptual base
The cognitive approach has undervalued the powerful principles of reinforce m ent
Although cognitivists speak of collaboration co m m unication and transfer long before
sociocultural theorists
they do not do a very good job of translating such principles into practice
in the learning environ m ents they created

3 Sociocultural theorySCT and SLL
1 Sociocultural theory
At about the sa m e tim e that cognitively
oriented perspectives on language acquisition were gaining
popularity another psycho
educational perspective of individual develop m ent within social and cultural
contexts was applied to L2 research sociocultural theory SCT based on the w ork of Lev Vygotsky
1978 1986 Internalization inner speech active theory and the zone of proxim al develop m ent
ZPD constitute the core concepts of SCT and in particular m ediation plays a central roleLantolf
2000 1
Vogotsky m aintained that higher psychological functions originate in interaction between
individualsinterpsychologicallevelbefore they are transferred within the individualintrapsychological
And it is through the internalization of this m ediation that individuals experience cognitive
growth and higher
order intellectual abilities
SCT holds that language is not just a private
in the headaffair but rather a socially constructed
pheno m enonLanguage learning is not only a cognitive task but m ore of a social activity w here the
process is participating in a knowledge
building co m m unity a co m m unity of practice or a co m m unity of
second language learnersKern Warschauer 2000

To fully understand how SCTrelates to L2 we willlook at so m e funda m ental concepts of Vygotsky s

The central concept for SCTis the m ediation of hu m an behaviour with tools and sign syste msAtool

Learning Theories and Second Language Learning Zheng Xiangui

could be as sim ple as a textbook or visual m aterialsDonato McCormick 1994

or w hat Kozulin1990
calls the m ost im portant of tools sy m bolic language
Such tools allow us to regulate our environ m ent
Lantolf 1994 418Externalsocialspeech wasinternalized through m ediationVygotsky 1978In this
way SCTlink society to mind through m ediationLanguage as a tool of the mind bridges the individual
understanding of our selves and particular contexts and situations within the w orldDriscoll2000also
statessocial processes and m ental processes can be understood only if we understand the tools and signs
that m ediate the m 2000 241
Aljaafreh and Lantolf 1994 claim that m ediation needs to be
contingentThis m eans teachers need to balance the giving and withholding of guidance and assistance in
accordance with students progression through a task
scaffolding and the Zone of Proxim al Develop m ent are the three general principles of
there are tw o kinds of regulation self
regulation and other
regulationThe first indicates
the capacity for independent proble m solvingThe second indicates a person w ho needs help in solving
proble msThe second is m ediated through language
The concept of scaffolding originates with the w ork of Wood et al1976 and it serves as a
m etaphor for the novicem aster interaction in a proble m
solving task According to Wood et al
scaffolding involves the expert taking control of those portions of a task that are beyond the learner s
current level of co m petence
thus allowing the leaner to focus on the ele m ents within his or her range of
Wood et al1976 90
The Zone of Proxim al Develop ment ZPD
The site w here the language is shared and internalized through m ediation is thezone of proxim al
develop m entdefined by Vygotsky as follows
It is the distance between the actual develop m entallevel as determined by independent proble m
solving and the level of potential develop m ent as determined through proble m solving under
adult guidance or in collaboration with m ore capable peersVygotsky 1978

Once the learner has appropriated the knowledge of how to solve a particular proble m the
develop m ental level of the child grows to enco m pass that knowledge and the level of potential
develop m ent m oves ahead and the ZPD shiftsThis m ay sound a bit behaviouristic but it really doesn t
involve habit form ation as m uch as learning through socially interactive proble m solvingIn w orking
within the ZPD it is not the successful co m pletion of the task that is of im portance but the higher
cognitive process that e m erges as a result of the interaction
Lantolf Appel 1994 10
Private speech
Private speech is w hen you talk to yourself You use it in the ZPD as a kind of m ediator When
control of a task m oves to the stage of self
regulation rather than other regulationwe no longer talk
out loud to ourselves
In sociocultural approach the individual learner is no longer viewed as a receptacle for
knowledge nor as an individual acquirer w ho seeks and seizes new knowledge through individual
the learner is an active participant in teaching and learning
the learner and teacher are
participants in sociocultural activity
Socioculturallinguists see language acquisition in social termsFor the m L2 learning is a m atter of
proble m solving in a m aster
apprentice relationship Language learning m eans joining a second culture
and is seen as a process of group socialization w here language is a tool for teaching group traits
and beliefs Fro m this perspective language instruction was viewed not just in terms of providing
co m prehensible input but rather as helping students enter into the kinds of authentic social discourse

CELEA Journal 63

situations and discourse co m m unities that they w ould later encounter outside the classroo m Kern
Warschauer 2000

As Anton1999noted
a growing nu m ber of studies have applied the socioculturalfra m ew ork to the
investigation of L2 learningLantolf 1994 Lantolf Appel 1994 Schinke
Llano 1993
Of particular
interest to the present study are those that have concern the mselves with the analysis of classroo m
discourseStudies of learner
learner collaborative dialogue in the production of oralBrooks Donato
1994 Donato 1994 Ohta 1995 Platt Brooks 1994 or written tasks Anton DiGa milla 1998
DiGa milla Anton 1997 Kowal Swain 1994 have focused on uncovering how learners use speaking
activity as cognitive tool for linguistic develop m entAljaafreh and lantolf1994showed the negotiation
of corrective feedback in the ZPD during tutorial sessions pro m otes leaning Donato and Adair
learner interaction during the presentation
1992and AdairHauck and Donato 1994 studied teacher
of gra m m atical concepts showing how form al explanations can be constructed by teacher and learners
through a negotiation processquoted fro m Anton 1999

2 Evaluation of SCTin SLL
Sociocultural researchers point out that language use is closely tied to personaerfere with SLL
show SCT s great im pact on SLL
According to socioculturaltheory
language learning resides notin sim ply getting the co m prehensible
input and the chance for output during interaction but in w orking collaboratively with the interlocutor
and appropriating and constructing knowledge through their collaborative activities Vygotsky 1986

Through social interaction L2 constructs such as vocabulary and gra m m ar appears first on the
interpsychological planesocialand then on the Interpsychological planepersonal
Vygotsky 1981
In the SLL classroo m using SCT and its tenets as a fra m ew ork we could see a highly interactive
classroo m Teachers w ould e m ploy strategies of m ediation to ensure that students achieve self
in co m m unicating in another languageThe m ore the classroo m reflects the actual culture of the second
the m ore students w ould increase not only their co m m unication skills but also their ability to
transcend culture by internalizing the tools and sy m bols that define the cultureAlegre 2001
Murphey and Muraka mi1998 suggest that interaction with m odestly advanced students can be a
m otivating experience for students at lesser stages of develop m entThat is to say for relatively novice
language learners
feedback fro m students only a year or tw o in advance of their present writing ability or
oral ability m ay provide a proxim al proficiency goal that interaction with native or near native
instructors m ay not
Learning about the culture is prerequisite for SLL Gardiner s socio
educational m odel of SLL
1985is an atte m pt to show how social and cultural factors determine the m otivational attitudes w hich
learners have towards the target languageKra msch arguesIf we view language in allits forms as social
thenculture beco m es the very core of language teaching
Kra msch 1993 8Pavlenko and
Lantolf2000found a rich source of evidence for the ways in w hich language learners both lose and
reconstruct their identity in the second language
For exa m ple w hile in china
sentenceslike Where are you going
orHave you eaten your m eal

are used for greeting by ChineseThey don t expect any answers by saying that
in UK
people sayHow
are you
or talk about the weather w hen they m eet each otherIf L2 Chinese greet British like Have
you eaten your m eal
British people m ust feel puzzled or misunderstood itThis exa m ple shows the
significance of sociocultural factors in co m m unicationThe traditional m odels of SLL don t account for
culturallearning but account for the way we acquire lexical phonological and gra m m atical units of
knowledgeItis the SCT m odelthat accounts for learning as participationIn this m odel
the learner can
understand language use in context The SCT m odel is appropriate for understanding language as
socialisation as an ongoing process of engage m entPavlenko Lantolf 2000


Learning Theories and Second Language Learning Zheng Xiangui

As Furnha m 1986 re m arked if the language learner can beco m e sensitive to the opaque yet
ubiquitousinfluences of culture and context then it see ms probable that his stay abroad will be m ore
enjoyable and less stressful
Besides Schu m ann s1978
theory of acculturation is typical atte m pt to explain the connection
between social factors and SLL
Research in L2 scaffolding has show n that learners w orking together and providing assistance to one
another reach a higher level of perform anceAccording to Aljaafre and Lantolf1994and Lantolf and
the role of the m ediator in teaching an L2 is placed on an L2 teacher w hose task is to
direct students in the right direction and help the m reach the second stage in the ZPD
Take L2 gra m m ar teaching for exa m ple students look to and ask the teacher for clarification and
confirm ation at the beginningSo m etim es the teacher does not give direct approval but rather catches
the correct idea fro m a student extends it and keeps the discussion goingIn so m e cases so m e students
break the established rule by answering their peer s questions without waiting for the teacherthe teacher
supported such break
ups since it involved several students in the discussion thus giving equal
opportunities for interactionSysoyev 1999

For an account of how private speech w orks as a m ediator to a task there is a good case fro m
Frawley and Lantolf1985w hich is about students practising their oral English by describing pictures
Fro m w hat have been discussed above suffice it to say that these approaches are a natural fit for
assisting the process of SLL But so m e challenges and limits in sociocultural instruction still need to be
The first limit is the slipperiness of so m e of the concepts set forth by SCT There is no easy
agree m ent on w hat is m eant by socialidentity
the self or even cultureVollm er 2003

Second with sociocultural co m petence we are prim arily encouraging skills and sensitivity to
that are not open to a co m parative type of assessm ent Whereas with vocabulary or
prescriptive gra m m ar we can easily check w hether the input has been effectiveHudson 2001

Third L2 teachers m ay suffer fro m the dile m m a of deciding w hose sociocultural norms should be
taught and how to analyse the m syste m atically in the first place Wolfson 1989

Fourthly w hile certain features of language m ay successfully be acquired through repetition and
m e m orisation for exa m ple pronunciation and perhaps collocations this approach does not suit
other for exa m ple sociocultural aspects of languageHinkel 2001

Fro m w hat have been discussed above we could find that behaviourist learning theory and cognitive
learning theory have been overshadowed by sociocultural co m petence in second language learningBut we
also find that all the three learning principles have strength and limits They all have their unique
contributions to SLL Therefore to m ake SLL m ore effective the three theories should co m ple m ent
each other and provide an integrated approach

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