The Socio-cultural Approach to
Language Development and Learning:
Language Acquisition, Discourses and
Classroom Applications.
By Liz Reynolds
 The socio-cultural view of language development and
learning has gained substantial support over the past decade
(Barratt Plough &Rohl 2000; Campbell & Green 2000).
 The view maintains that language development is socially and
culturally defined (Halliday 1990; Vygotsky 1962). Language is
a social practice, which is learned as part of the wider sociocultural activities in which we are engaged, as we become
members of family and community groups (Breen et al. 1994).
In this essay I will:
 Identify and explore theoretical underpinnings of the sociocultural approach to language development and learning.
 Discuss the notion of discourse communities, focusing upon
language acquisition and how we become members of particular
discourse groups.
 Examine issues relating to cultural diversity and the impact of
family or community literacy practices upon performance at
 Apply socio-cultural theory to language development and
learning within the primary classroom.
Theoretical Underpinnings
The socio-cultural approach to language development
And learning is based upon the theories of Vygotsky (1962) and
Halliday (1990). It maintains that:
 Learning and cognitive development are socially and culturally
based (Halliday 1990; Vygotsky 1962).
 Language develops over time, as we interact within particular
social and cultural settings (Halliday 1990; Vygotsky 1962).
 Language experiences of children will vary in accordance with
values, beliefs and behaviours of the cultural group into which
they are being socialised (Vygotsky 1962).
Discourse Communities
 Meanings within language are determined by social and
cultural context (Gee 1991; Halliday 1990).
 Semiotics (signs and symbols of language) and semiotic
systems are based on shared language conventions, which are
often specific to a particular socio-cultural group or discourse
community (Love et al. 2002).
 Love et al. (2002) describe a discourse community as a group
of people who share common knowledge and understanding of
language concepts, content, symbols, vocabulary and subject
 In learning to make meaning through language, we move
from being outsiders to insiders within a particular discourse
community (Gee 1991; Love et al. 2002).
Primary Discourse Communities
Early language development is shaped by the social and
cultural mechanisms of the discourse community into which we
are born – the primary discourse community (Gee 1991).
 From the moment of birth, children are actively involved in
communicating signals to and from parents, siblings and other
members of their primary network (Halliday 1990).
 Through face-to-face interaction with intimates, children
become familiar with a range of literacy practices, which are
valued within their family and community groups (Brice-Heath
1986; Gee 1991; Halliday 1990; Vygotsky 1962).
Language experiences of groups of learners will vary according
to types of literacy experiences, valued within the primary
network (Brice-Heath 1986; Gee 1991; Love et al. 2002;
Vygotsky 1962).
 Brice-Heath (1986)- Mainstream middle-class children are
often introduced to school-style literacy practices, through
reading and reading related activities, such as the bed-time
 Eades (1993) – Disparities between literacy practices within
the Aboriginal community and mainstream institutions.
Secondary Discourse Communities
The school is a Secondary Discourse community – an
institution beyond the family in which individuals are required to
communicate with non-intimates, including teachers and peers
(Gee 1991).
 Schools are institutions, which uphold particular social
practices. Literacy practices of dominant social and cultural
groups are often highly valued and reinforced within the school,
while those of minority groups are commonly undervalued or
unrecognised (Barratt-Plough & Rohl 2000; Eades 1993; Gee
 Students from minority groups often struggle to come to terms
with unfamiliar classroom discourses. These students are not
illiterate. They simply use literacy in different ways than those
valued by the school (Eades 1993).
Implications of the Socio-cultural view within
the classroom.
The socio-cultural view of language development and
learning has major implications within the primary
 Teachers need to understand and acknowledge the variety of
backgrounds from which students come and help all students to
become insiders within the discourse community of the
classroom(Gee 1991; Love et al. 2002).
 Traditional languages are important and valuable, however
students must also develop an understanding of dominant
literacy styles, in order to participate within the classroom and
wider society (Cusworth 1994; Eades 1993; Moll et al.1992).
Students need to develop an understanding of language
structures and functions. Language choices vary according to
the context of use (Cusworth 1994; Love et al. 2002). Teachers
 Encourage students to experiment with text production (Droga
& Humphrey 2003),
 Introduce students to a broad range of literacy practices, based
upon familiar experiences (Cusworth 1994),
 Draw upon “funds of knowledge” within the local community.
Invite parents and community members into the classroom to
share their skills (Moll et al. 1992, pp.132-141),
 Reinforce the notion that non-mainstream literacies are
important and valid within particular social contexts (Eades 1993;
Moll et al.1992).
Guided learning strategies such as scaffolding and
apprenticeship training, have been developed in response to
the notion that students learn best in interaction with others
(Hammond & Gibbons 2001).
Teachers who adopt the socio-cultural model will:
 Encourage interaction within the classroom (Cusworth
1994; Hammond & Gibbons 2001),
 Model the structure and purpose of a variety of text-types,
both written and spoken,
 Provide meaningful and appropriately challenging learning
tasks (Cusworth 1994).
Research presented supports the notion that language is a
social practice (Brice-Heath 1986; Cusworth 1994; Halliday
1990; Love et al. 2002; Vygotsky 1962).
 Values, behaviours and attitudes of significant others within
the primary discourse community, shape a child’s literacy
experiences and impact upon his or her ability to access
learning within secondary institutions such as the classroom
(Gee 1991; Halliday 1990).
Some children find disparities between family and community
literacy practices, and those valued by the school (Eades 1993;
Knobel 1999).
 It is our role as teachers to provide all students with the
opportunity to acquire and develop a broad range of literacy
skills, so as to facilitate participation within classroom activities,
the family, community and wider society.
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