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The effects of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory on second

language acquisition and language Input

Efectos de la teoría sociocultural de Vygotsky en el aprendizaje

de una segunda lengua y aporte lingüístico
Leidy Johanna Villamizar Castrillón
Master in Education from University of Alabama, USA.
Currently teaching English and member of the Foreign
Language Proficiency Team & Internationalization
Department at Universidad Santo Tomas de Aquino,
Floridablanca, Colombia
Correo electrónico:

Recibido 20 de octubre de 2016; aceptado 17 de noviembre de 2016

Cómo citar este artículo:

Villamizar, L.J. (2017). Efectos de la teoría sociocultural de Vygotsky en el aprendizaje de una segunda lengua y aporte
lingüístico. Espiral, Revista de Docencia e Investigación, 7(1), 91 - 102.

Abstract input that is highly beyond students’ level of competence

Objective.  The present reflection article derives and multiple interactions at all levels throughout the lesson
from a Diploma Course on Updating Teaching English from the preparation and delivery to the assessment stage.
Practices with Emphasis on Designing Learning Experien-
ces, which took place at Universidad Industrial de San- Keywords: Higher order thinking skills, Input,
tander, Colombia. It is aimed at reflecting upon the key Scaffolding, second language acquisition, interaction,
role of comprehensible input and social interactions SIOP.
between second language learners, teachers, peers and
a meaningful learning environment. In addition, a revo- Resumen
lutionary teaching model called SIOP for English learners Objetivo.  El presente artículo de reflexión se deriva
will be described in terms of definition, justification and del Diplomado en Actualización de Prácticas de Ense-
application to the classroom. ñanza del Inglés con énfasis en el Diseño de Experien-
Methodology.  This paper is framed within a docu- cias de Aprendizaje, el cual tuvo lugar en la Universidad
mentary research that, from a hermeneutic perspective, Industrial de Santander, Colombia. Tiene como objeti-
makes reference not only to the methodology, assign- vo suscitar una reflexión acerca del papel fundamental
ments and resources used for second language acquisi- del input comprensible y las interacciones sociales en-
tion in a formal academic setting, but also to the suitable tre los estudiantes de una segunda lengua, docentes y
language input students should be encountered with to compañeros en un espacio de aprendizaje significativo.
reach higher order thinking processes and develop outs- Adicionalmente, un modelo de enseñanza revoluciona-
tanding communicative skills. The results of this concep- rio llamado SIOP para estudiantes de inglés será descrito
tual analysis, focused on the Sociocultural Theory elabo- en términos de su definición, justificación y aplicación al
rated by the psychologist Lev Vygotsky, have allowed us aula de clase.
to examine how a second language is learned successfu- Metodología.  El enfoque está enmarcado en la in-
lly if teachers are able to manipulate input through effec- vestigación documental que desde una visión herme-
tive scaffolding techniques which are thought to offer néutica hace referencia no solo a la metodología, tareas
support to each student throughout the learning pro- y recursos utilizados para la adquisición de una segunda
cess until they can progressively get rid of it. lengua en un escenario académico formal, sino también
Results.  The impact of the Socio-cultural Theory by al aporte lingüístico apropiado con el cual los aprendi-
Vygotsky on second language acquisition leads us to ces deben interactuar con el fin de alcanzar procesos de
suggest the SIOP as a new approach towards English pensamiento complejos y desarrollar habilidades comu-
teaching. This emphasizes the use of comprehensible nicativas sobresalientes. Los resultados de esta profun-

ESPIRAL, Revista de Docencia e Investigación Vol. 7 Número 1 • pp. 91 - 102 • enero - junio 2017 • ISSN 2256-151X • ISSN Digital 2389-9719 •
92 The effects of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory on second language acquisition and language Input

dización conceptual, enfocada en la teoría sociocultural states the ZPD contains two basic components:
elaborada por el sicólogo Lev Vygotsky, han permitido first, there is always a task or a problem that
examinar cómo se aprende una segunda lengua exi-
tosamente, si los docentes intentan manipular el input
needs to be solved with the help of someone
adecuadamente por medio de estrategias de soporte o else who is considered the expert on the mat-
andamiaje, las cuales están diseñadas para ofrecer apoyo ter; and second, there is also a person, often ca-
a los estudiantes a lo largo de su proceso de aprendizaje lled novice, who can do better if well-assisted.
hasta que puedan progresivamente deshacerse de ellas. Although there have been a number of contro-
Resultados.  Los aportes de la Teoría Sociocultural versies about what type of participant can be
de Vygotsky en el aprendizaje de una segunda lengua
llevan a sugerir el SIOP como un nuevo enfoque hacia la named as the “expert”, more and more resear-
enseñanza del inglés. Esta estrategia se enfoca en el uso chers believe that experts can be not only tea-
del input comprensible que está significativamente por chers or high achiever students, but also other
encima del nivel de competencia de los estudiantes, así peers, parents or administrators.
como en las múltiples interacciones a diferente nivel a
lo largo de la clase, desde la preparación y la instrucción
hasta la etapa de evaluación.
The Role of Input in SLA
Vygotsky assures that for learning to hap-
Palabras clave: Adquisición de una segunda len-
pen, both suitable input and output should be
gua, estrategias de soporte, input, procesos de pensa-
miento, interacción, SIOP. facilitated in explicit instruction. At this point,
several discrepancies have arisen. Benati (2016)
calls for a reflection upon the role of instruction
Introduction in SLA and wonders if explicit teaching does re-
ally make a difference. He lists educators such
Humans are essentially social beings. Since as Krashen, author of the Natural Approach
the time we are born, a variety of social inte- (1985) and the Input Hypothesis, who states that
ractions start to take place within our families, humans, whether they are embedded in a for-
schools, communities and definitely, our own mal or non-formal educational setting, acquire
learning situations. As a natural process, lear- a language by understanding messages that
ning is a complex and dynamic experience in contain structures slightly beyond their level of
which learners, teachers, peers and a specific competence. In other words, the more compre-
environment interact between each other in hensible input through listening and reading
order to gain higher mental functioning. opportunities students face, the closer they are
to SLA. Similarly, White insists on the irrelevan-
Multiple researchers on language learning
ce of direct language instruction, due to the
have attempted to study how those social
fact that some language aspects are universal
interactions can actually lead to successful
so there is no need for teacher directed lessons
Second Language Acquisition (hereinafter
for SLA to happen. Pienemann & Lenzing go
referred  to  as SLA). According to Vygotsky’s
beyond the idea of explicit instruction and as-
Sociocultural Theory (1978) learning should
sure that if used, it needs to consider the level
always be closely related to what students al-
of readiness students’ show.
ready know (prior knowledge) and from there;
teachers should start elaborating suitable ex- On the other hand, there have been other
periences to achieve higher mental processes authors such as Van Patten who certainly have
(Turuk, 2008). This is known as the Zone of Pro- faith in direct instruction because they have
ximal Development (hereinafter referred  to  as examined the way second language learners
ZPD) in which memorizing, thinking, paying process information and found out that they
attention, problem-solving and concept forma- first focus on meaning (words) and later on
tion skills should be fostered. As Nguyen (2013) forms (grammar). What this means is that tea-

chers need to attempt to provide more explicit As mentioned above by Vygotsky (1978),
exposure to grammar aspects systematically, input and output are mutually dependant. Tea-
since these are not really acquired by solely con- chers cannot provide appropriate input if they
tact with comprehensible input. Consequently, have not analyzed their students’ output first;
instruction is seen as an effective facilitator and likewise, students cannot generate effecti-
to reach native-like linguistic competence by ve output if they have not received meaningful
trying to match the explicit knowledge sugges- input. As a result, both are equally important in
ted and the implicit mental representations order to reach students’ ZPD successfully. As a
shaped in students’ minds. Among the techni- matter of fact, Navracsics (2014) declares that
ques to manipulate a second language in order both the quality and quantity of comprehensi-
to make it more accessible to new learners, the ble input configures students’ second langua-
input flood and the textual enhancement are ge proficiency levels and promotes the develo-
highlighted as the most popular resources to pment of metacognitive skills since the target
modify a text with a specific item many times language is seen as a whole linguistic system.
and provide typographical cues respectively In order to acquire the language effectively, the
(Benati, 2016). author also advocates three different types of
motivation: a) GLE – General Language Effort; b)
In regard to comprehensible output, Swain LAE – Language Acquisition Effort; and c) LME
(1995) claimed that output was actually more – Language Maintenance Effort. All these three
important than input in SLA, because it deve- kinds appear to be vital not only in SLA but also
lops fluency, raises language awareness and in multilingual developmental settings, such
generates immediate, constant feedback. as families raising multilingual children in an
Agreeing with Nowbakht (2015), second lan- English speaking country. This is the case of a
guage learners need to move from semantic pair of Canadian siblings, whose mother spoke
processing carried out when receptive skills are mainly Persian while her husband was not at
set into action, to syntactic processing in which home; although English was mostly spoken out
the development of productive skills in SLA re- of their house and in family interactions, this
sults paramount. In the light of the above pre- mom accidentally taught her kids certain ex-
mise, there are three major output functions pressions and forms in Persian, that ended up
in SLA: a) noticing the gap that describes the being crucial input when they moved to Hun-
moment in which a student fails to produce gary and had to communicate. What this im-
a word or expression within a sentence in the plies is that what we learn implicitly is closely
target language; b) testing hypothesis that ap- directed to our emotions and this is what ulti-
pears when the student tries to generalize rules mately becomes essential in life-long learning.
because he is not sure whether his utterance
is right or wrong so he decides to give it a try; Interaction as a cornerstone factor
and c) metalinguistic functions, which come up in SLA
when the student reflects upon his own lear-
ning process, identifies strengths and weak- In addition to the importance of input ex-
nesses, and makes plans for language impro- periences, what teachers should really bear in
vement. At this point, a new paradox appears: mind is how to make that input not too challen-
How can teachers know what the best input is? ging, not too meaningless. Wood et al” (1976)
What kind of output should be expected from stated that one way to adapt knowledge and
learners? Can they expose their students to in- learning environment for students’ mental
put that is highly beyond their level of compe- functioning is by using Scaffolding. This strate-
tence and still reach SLA? gy refers to the adaptations and modifications
94 The effects of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory on second language acquisition and language Input

input should undergo to be effectively unders- ners might claim to feel sometimes lost or un-
tood, processed and acquired, helping learners certain about language usage, teachers should
temporarily become “self-interpreting cultural be positive and keep searching for input that
agents.” As a result, if scaffolded input is provi- is highly beyond their level of competence. As
ded as well as suitable guidance towards stu- the so-called proverb “Practice makes perfect”
dents’ ZPD, SLA may still be reached, no mat- assures, the more you demand the better re-
ter how tough the input is. The truth is that for sults you will gain.
scaffolding to take place, a negotiation of mea-
ning by two interlocutors at least needs to oc- Secondly, teachers should be careful and
cur. Yi & Sun (2013) describe this process as an creative to get the best benefits of the pre-
interactional work to achieve mutual unders- viously chosen input to be used in class. High
tanding when a problem appears, which seems quality materials can be totally meaningless if
to be a comprehensive definition for language they are not manipulated accordingly to reach
communication. As suggested by Ellis (2005) students’ ZPD and encourage social interaction.
and Long (1985), these clarification requests That’s why, the kind of tasks and activities re-
such as repetition, gestures, simpler language quested to students become the trigger factor
and slow talk, involve more interactions in SLA to fuel higher mental processes. When scaffol-
so the more negotiation second language lear- ded instructions are provided during the first
ners have, the more chances they get to recei- lessons, learning is more likely to occur not only
ve comprehensible input. This was evident in because students feel affectively supported,
a research study conducted with 182 Chinese but also because each scaffold guides the bra-
high school and college students, who parti- in towards a comprehensive understanding of
cipated by joining either a control group or an the input in use. In addition, teachers can also
experimental group for an English as a second motivate peer-work in order to create the chan-
language intervention program. Yi & Sun (2013) ces for them to exchange personal insights or
confirmed their assumption on negotiation of strategies they employ to better reach the class
meaning, since the students who got more in- goals and hopefully, sort out problems coope-
teractions improved second language vocabu- ratively. According to Nguyen (2013), pair work
lary significantly. and group work have proven to support the
foundations of the Socio-cultural Theory, sin-
Taking into consideration Vygotsky’s Socio- ce it has been demonstrated that collaborative
Cultural Theory effects on SLA and the impor- learning is mainly constructed through interac-
tance of interactions, several steps should be tions.
taken towards the implementation of a new
possible teaching design. To start with, tea- In accordance with Vygotsky’s Socio-cultural
chers should remarkably be familiar with stu- Theory findings, teachers should be constantly
dents’ past experiences; not only related to interacting with their learners at different le-
their academic background and performance, vels. One way to do so is to assign homework
but also to their personal life events. To do so, a with challenging input tasks to be carried out
diagnosis test may be applied so teachers can individually in order to find out what students’
create a clearer picture of what their students’ progress is and keep high performance expec-
ZPD is. After using this individual tool in order tations for the course. Teachers’ main aim is to
to identify strengths and weaknesses on stu- both provide students with a bunch of oppor-
dents’ higher mental functioning, teachers can tunities to practice and indeed, generate appro-
move ahead to look for appealing materials priate feedback that leads to excellent learning
that will best fulfill their needs. Although lear- outcomes. In regard to these challenging tasks,
Albaiz (2016) suggests the use of e-portfolios,
96 The effects of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory on second language acquisition and language Input

which promote a constant online reflection dren, whose numbers started to grow since the
around the most effective processes towards mid-1990’s into learning content through a lan-
SLA where second language learners can sha- guage they were not even ready to speak. Due
re data with others and use scaffolding techni- to this cultural and linguistic need, both authors
ques to improve skills helping each other. began the process of analyzing how the Shelte-
red Instruction and the Content based Instruc-
As a matter of fact, it has also been demons- tion, commonly known as CBI, could be mer-
trated the positive effects of challenging input ged into a new teaching perspective that took
on students who show high cognitive functio- into consideration having English Learners
ning as well as an effective use of scaffolding achieve both content and language goals. Af-
techniques. When analyzing higher order men- ter conducting a comprehensive research and
tal processes such as defining, describing, com- field testing all the strategies within a great va-
paring, classifying, sequencing, linking causes riety of classrooms pre-K-12 from 1995 to 2000,
and effects, establishing analogies and identi- Echeverria & Vogt (1996) ended up with thirty
fying whole to part relationships, there exists features to describe in detail what a meaningful
a new revolutionary learning tool called Thin- lesson should look like and they put them to-
king Maps teachers may implement. This model gether to build what is known nowadays as the
consists of visual patterns aimed at matching a SIOP Model. They truly believed in that English
variety of cognitive skills and enhancing a long learners need to be provided with the neces-
term learning experience. sary support to learn any content area through
English systematically, without waiting first to
SIOP - A New Approach in SLA develop high language proficiency levels.
At this point, it is evident that what teachers
This empirically validated model of instruc-
should always have in mind is the value of
tion is actually back up by Spezzini who went
scaffolding to power and guarantee students’
beyond the interpretation of the protocol to
ZPD. In fact, there is a new teaching method
categorize the three most important moments
called Sheltered Instruction Observation Proto-
within the SIOP: Spezzini (2013) assures that a
col – SIOP, which is aimed at foreigners whose
lesson is divided into the preparation stage, the
mother tongue is not English and who want to
instruction stage, and the review stage. Further-
join an English-speaking school with other na-
more, within the instruction moment, English
tive students. This innovative teaching model
teachers are invited to put into practice six di-
was introduced by Jana Echeverria, Mary Ellen
fferent features such as Building Background,
Vogt & Deborah Short, who worked collabora-
Comprehensible Input, Strategies, Interaction,
tively on both the US west and east coast, in
Application and Lesson Delivery. According to
order to come up with an observation proto-
the Institute of Educational Sciences (2013),
col based on what they had seen in classrooms
this innovative framework for planning, delive-
all around the country. Both Echeverria & Vogt
ring and assessing instruction in content areas
(1996) started analyzing the effectiveness of
for second language learners does allow tea-
the strategies used by teachers responsible of
chers to modify their language progressively
general instruction, who progressively were fa-
in order to make it more comprehensible. What
ced with the challenge of teaching immigrant
this means is that when teachers are likely to
students whose English language proficiency
put themselves in their students’ shoes and em-
was at an emergency stage. They noticed how
pathetically adjust to their level of competence,
poorly prepared they were to assist those chil-
they are able to negotiate meaning, gain their

trust and eventually, lead them to rewarding ideas as possible on slips of paper and then,
learning experiences. classify them into categories grouping those
with clear similarities; this exercise helps their
Application brain retain the information in a more accura-
In order to begin with the implementation te way so they can start the instruction stage
of the SIOP, which has proven successful within smoothly.
US territories and several other countries where Third, after teachers have developed their
English is not the main language of instruction, lessons based on their students’ common un-
it is absolutely necessary to identify clear con- derlying proficiency, they are invited to teach
tent objectives as well as language objectives and give clear directions for academic tasks by
(Powers, 2006). First, teachers are entitled to means of appropriate speech, body language,
recognize the most relevant concepts to teach visuals, hands-on activities and demonstra-
and select the most effective materials, adapta- tions. According to Jim Cummins (1979), there
tions and activities to carry out throughout the is a great difference between working on Ba-
lesson. sic Interpersonal Communication Skills –BICS,
Second, teachers are expected to make con- which are used for everyday life interactions
nections to students’ prior knowledge and past and acquired during the first two years of se-
experiences so that they can incorporate the cond language learning; and reaching Cogni-
new vocabulary into their existing thoughts. tive Academic Language Proficiency –CALP,
One of the strategies called “List-group-label” which appears mainly in formal academic set-
suggests that students can brainstorm as many tings after five years of real exposure to the lan-
guage in school, college or professional work.
98 The effects of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory on second language acquisition and language Input

Fourth, teachers need to critically think learning. Additionally, they explain that when
about how to raise students’ thinking levels and a second language is learned mechanically
the best way to target that goal is by means of by teaching only a set of rules and exceptions
higher-order questioning. It has been shown for rote memorization, students are limited to
that when students are led through different constantly monitor what they say and write,
strategies to foster not only knowledge, com- without letting themselves some freedom to
prehension and application skills, but also develop abilities naturally and spontaneously.
analysis, synthesis and evaluation, they gain Smartphones have become a great non-peda-
more confidence to compare and contrast, gogical resource for second language input,
attain problem solving, and perform self/peer interactions and information as it was demons-
assessment (Bloom, 1956). trated in a study carried out with 120 Thai stu-
dents learning English in their home country.
Among the SIOP strategies, there are three The vast majority of the participants claimed
which would be imperative to include in cu- to use their mobile phones at a higher frequen-
rrent teaching practices: a). Success through cy than ever before due to the fluent amounts
Scaffolding, in which language teachers must of data that can be easily accessed at any time
be aware of the importance of leading stu- and any place as well as the endless opportuni-
dents towards independence, where little by ties for implicit input through social networks.
little they can start developing language skills Likewise in another research study, the authors
without the constant intervention of the tea- found that second language learners are using
cher. However, this will not happen overnight. English more often for personal and academic
Teachers should have in mind that foreign lan- purposes than their mother tongue: 86% of the
guage learning takes time and that certain stra- second language learners interviewed assured
tegies such as teaching concepts from general they were using English (the target language)
to specific (explicit instruction), letting stu- even before moving to the UK to officially start
dents work in groups (cooperative approach) their studies (Jarvis & Krashen, 2014). c). Plan-
and allowing them to think about their own ning through Flow Charts, which help teachers
learning process (metacognition) will defini- keep a close control of what, how and when to
tely help students achieve independence, un- teach and assess students (scope and sequen-
derstand what better works for them and make ce) by organizing content and language objec-
their learning more effective. b). Alternate Ma- tives for about two weeks. Therefore, if foreign
terials, which teachers can incorporate in the language teachers start programming carefully
shape of any kind of visual resources, audio and their time and class objectives, language lear-
video aids, literature, realia, field trips and even ning will be more efficient.
online resources to their classes. For instance,
instead of bringing pictures of food and drinks Fifth, for a successful SIOP lesson, teachers
to teach vocabulary, students may be encoura- need to make sure to create a non-threatening
ged to make a real sandwich and use quantifiers environment for interactions and discussion
and imperative forms while describing how to to take place. When students are encouraged
make it. Jarvis & Krashen (2014) accordingly be- to work cooperatively, they can easily make a
lieve in the power of technology in SLA; both bridge between the oral and written language
authors assure that devices such as laptops, and use all the opportunities given to adjust
tablets and smartphones are certainly chan- it just beyond their individual level of produc-
ging the way we interact among each other tion. In addition, frequent interactions in our
since the subconscious processes we establish classrooms in the shape of whole class, small
end up being more prevailing than conscious group or pair work can promote the develop-
100 The effects of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory on second language acquisition and language Input

ment of social skills that indeed, are reinforced different from each other and that language
throughout Vygotsky’s Socio-cultural Theory. learning depends primarily on their own moti-
vation and personal learning interests. At that
Sixth, teachers need to provide students point, teacher intervention and well-planned
with the most suitable practice and applica- lessons are essential and so the SIOP certainly
tion opportunities which normally follow the provides great ideas to lead students to suc-
model-create-share pattern. Moreover, whi- cessful language learning. This innovative mo-
le performing listening, reading, writing and del of instruction has been lately highlighted
speaking tasks, students are implicitly deve- as one of the most comprehensive and highly
loping language skills and mastering content effective approaches, which allows teachers to
and vocabulary. According to Beers (2009), the incorporate content by means of a second lan-
use of graphic organizers can result on higher guage that is systematically and consistently
retention and better information processing reinforced throughout each stage of the lesson,
in students’ brains. Similarly, Beverly & Michele from the preparation and instruction to the re-
(2015) support the idea of Dale’s Cone of Ex- view and assessment. In the light of this premi-
perience, in which learning by doing produces se, SIOP is ultimately a great model to gradually
the highest powers of recall since students can implement at all levels and at all subjects that
actually remember up to 90% of what they do, merges comprehensible input and interaction
compared to 10% of retention when they just as cornerstone features within the SLA theore-
read. tical and practical framework.
Seventh, when teachers finally deliver their
lesson, it is certainly necessary to link directly
both content and language objectives; when Albaiz, T. (2016). The Pearl Side of Online Portfolios: A Des-
criptive Study on the Rich Experience of Using Pearl
what is done in class makes sense to students, trees by Master Students of Teaching English as a Fo-
it is possible to attain up to 90% of student en- reign Language. TOJET: The Turkish Online Journal of
Educational Technology, 15(1), 136-140. Retrieved from
gagement by using appropriate pacing as well.
Finally, the last stage in the SIOP model is focu- Bear, D.R., Helman, L., Templeton, S., Invernizzi, M. & Johns-
sed on reviewing vocabulary and concepts and ton, F. (2007). Words their way with English learners: Word
study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction.
providing well-rounded feedback before actua- Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
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and teacher assessment have shown great be-
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