Learning Theories
Skinner to Vygotsky
Behaviorism (Skinner, Thorndike)
Based on the concept that all learning can
be studied through observed behaviors.
Stimulus-Response is key to learning.
– Stimulus: Events encountered in learning.
– Response: What happens in reaction to
– Reinforcement: Appropriate S-R interaction is
rewarded, inappropriate S-R interaction is
Behaviorism (Skinner, Thorndike)
Readiness: A series of S-R can be
connected if geared towards a larger goal.
Practice: S-R events should take small,
repeated steps to allow for reinforcement.
Gestalt Theory (Wertheimer)
The “Ah-ha” theory. Higher order thinking
– “Groupings” based on characteristics are key.
– Learning takes place through the discovery of
the relationship between elements.
– Gaps in groupings leads to exploring
Progressivism (Dewey)
Education is a lifetime event. It should not
be viewed as a preparation for life.
– Schooling should be related to the life of the
– Students should explore problem resolution
situations (projects). Subject matter should be
presented to help resolve problem.
– The relationships in the classroom should be
of working together to complete projects.
Genetic Epistemology (Piaget)
Cognitive structure (mind and intelligence)
pass through biological developmental
– Sensorimotor (0-2 years): Motor actions
– Preoperation (3-7): Intuitive, reactional
– Concrete operational (8-11): logical with
concrete referents.
– Formal operations (12-15): Movement to
Genetic Epistemology (Piaget)
Cognitive structures change through
– Assimilation: interpretations of events through
present cognitive structures
– Accommodation: change to cognitive structure
to explain environment.
Constructivism (Bruner)
Learning is an active process through
which the learner connects new
information to previously learned
– Discovery based
– Connect to students’ interests
– Spiral based structure to teaching (provides
students the opportunity to add to schema)
Social Development (Vygotsky)
 Learning take place through social interaction.
 Learning progresses through stages that expose
students to knowledge just beyond present state.
– Requires assistance from someone more advanced in
this area.
 Students use socially constructed tools (language,
gestures, etc.) to negotiate meaning.
LANGUAGE www.ucalgary.ca/~mueller/P365/language.ppt
 Language is fundamental to thinking and
cognition, even isomorphic with cognitive
processes in North American psychology
Explanations of language learning
 Psycho-linguists, e.g., Chomsky
– “Language Acquisition Device” innate
– “preparedness”?
 Psychologists, e.g., Skinner
– Reinforcement
• Sudden? Full strength? Creative?
– Pavlov’s “second signal system”
 Cognitive science
Linguistic relativism?
 Sapir - Whorf hypothesis:
Language habits predispose
“cold” means differently in Calgary compared to
 Post-modernism …. Can anyone
understand anyone else?
Linguistic universality?
 For example, color words actually do not
proliferate without number, just about a
dozen common ones across cultures
“Eskimos” do not have hundreds of words
for “snow”
Gender differences?
Men: language is for
– Negotiation
– Preserving independence
– Avoiding failure
Women: language is for
– Establishing connections
– Establishing support & confirmation
– reaching consensus
Linguistic “Determinism” -- not
Linguistic “relativism” does not imply
“determinism” -- can differences in
thinking overcome any absent words
(thoughts and language not one and same)
 Even relativism overstated, e.g., note the
“cooperative principle” (Grice) -presumed to be seeking mutual
understanding (but also Verbal Self Defense!
How is language acquired?
 Innate processes?
 Experience, learning?
 Something else?
 Several things?
Theories of Second Language
Acquisition (SLA)
Adapted from Ellis, R. (1986) “Understanding
Second Language Acquisition
Acculturation Model (J. Schumann)
SLA is one aspect of acculturation
The degree of acculturation will control the
degree of SLA
– Social distance
• Factors which interact between the native and
target groups.
– Psychological distance
• Affective factors which impact on the individual
Social Distance
Good Learning
 L1 & L2 groups are of equal
 Both groups hope for learner to
assimilate in target group
 Both groups believe that L2
group shares social sphere
 Small, non-cohesive L2 group
 L2’s culture is compatible with
target group
 Both groups have positive
attitudes for other group
 L2 group will be in target
language for extended time
Bad Learning
 One group has higher status
than other
 Target group attempt to
limit assimilation
 L2 group maintains own
social sphere
 Larger, cohesive L2 group
 Cultures come into conflict
 One or both groups have
negative feelings for other
 L2 use of target language is
Psychological Distance
Language shock
– fear, doubt, and confusion when using target
Culture shock
– fear, stress, disorientation due to negotiating new
Ego boundaries
– How much risk they are willing to take
 Pidginization Hypothesis
– Interlanguage development (the individual languages
developed by those in the early stages of SLA)
becomes fossilized when social & psychological
distances are great.
 These distances limit input
 The use of language remains at the
communicative stage
– Communicative function: transmission of referential
(basic) information
– Integrative function: language that marks a person as
member of group
– Expressive function: language that displays “linguistic
Accommodation Theory (H. Giles)
Similar to Acculturation Theory in that
both attempt to explain how group
relations impact SLA
– Acculturation: Actual distance between groups
– Accommodation: Perceived distance between
Social distances are in constant negotiation
 Motivation is primary factor in SLA
– It is a reflex of how learners define themselves in
ethnic terms
 Factors that impact identity
– Identification with specific “ingroup” (native)
– Inter-ethnic comparisons: One group is better than
– Perception of ethno-linguistic vitality
– Perception of ingroup boundaries: hard boundaries
(separation from other group), soft boundaries
(blending of language and culture)
– Identification and status with ingroup social
categories: occupation, religion, etc.
Ethnic speech markers are used to show
relationships in particular settings
– Upward Convergence: User is positively
motivated towards outgroup. Attempts to limit
speech markers
– Downward divergence: User is negatively
motivated towards outgroup, accentuates speech
Variable Competence Model (R.
The way a language is learned is a
reflection of how it is used.
– Product: continuum of discourse types ranging
from entirely planned to entirely unplanned
– Process: Distinction between linguistic
knowledge (rules) and the ability to use this
knowledge (appropriate use of language as
well as correct use)
Language develops as user applies the
knowledge of language to contextual
– Variable competence: user possesses a
heterogeneous rule system
– Variable application of procedures: user applies a
variety or procedures to confirm language
Language acquisition is the result of making
sense of language events
– There is a single knowledge store containing the
variable rules for language use (automatic &
– The learner has a capacity for language use with
both primary (unplanned & unanalyzed) and
secondary (planned & analyzed) discourse
– L2 performance is variable based on use of the
processes mentioned above
– Language development occurs:
• acquisition of new L2 rules through participation
discourse events
• activation of L2 rules so they become part of
unplanned discourse
Variable Competence
Model of SLA (R. Ellis)
L2 Knowledge
Motivation affects level of language
– Integrative Motivation: occurs when person
learning a second language does so in order to
be identified with or become part of target
– Instrumental Motivation: occurs when person
learning second language see it as a tool for
personal or professional progress.
Those with Integrative Motivation tend to
acquire second language better.
Theories of Steve Krashen
Learning vs. Acquisition
 Second language is
developed through
formal study of
 Language learned
through formal
 Language learning
occurs at conscious
 Second language
follows a pattern similar
to first language
 Language is naturally
 Language acquisition
occurs at subconscious
Learning vs. Acquisition
 Language learning
develops explicit
knowledge of language
 Formal instruction of
language structure
needed to provide key
 Language acquisition
develops implicit
understanding of
language structure
 Formal teaching of
language structure does
not improve acquisition
Second language develops in a
natural order
Efforts to teach forms and structures for
which students are not ready will not
improve acquisition
– Grammar-based approaches do not work
– Allow time to development to take place
Input Hypothesis
 Language acquisition
occurs through
interaction just beyond
present ability
 Comprehensible input
(I+1) occurs when
contextual clues provide
for language clues
Affective Filter
 Input is effected by a
variety of affective
 Lowering stress
increase probability of
Monitor Hypothesis
 Grammar learning will
appear through the use
of a monitor
 Monitor examines
 It takes time to develop
Language provides information.
 Common Underlying
Proficiency (CUP)
– Contrary to popular
belief, information
learned in one
language is available in
the second.
What this means:
Information provided in one language
becomes available in the other, once
second language development reaches that
Different types of language.
 Basic Interpersonal
Communication Skills
– Common, everyday
language needed to
function socially.
 Cognitive Academic
Language Proficiency
– Language needed in
academic environment.
Different types of language.
Problems arise when BICS is considered
academically proficient.
– Students are moved out of programs without
needed support.
– Students are judged as being intellectually
inferior, which can be internalized by the
Threshold Hypothesis
There is a dynamic relationship between
languages and cognitive development in
bilingual students.
– The better developed both languages are the
better the probability of positive cognitive
– Students with limited native language
development are more likely to suffer negative
cognitive development
Threshold Hypothesis
Top Floor: Balanced Bilinguals
Children have age-appropriate ability in both languages
and positive cognitive advantage.
Second Threshold
Middle Floor: Less Balanced Bilinguals
Children have age-appropriate ability in one language,
not both. No cognitive advantage or disadvantage.
First Threshold
Lower Floor: Limited Bilinguals
Children have low levels of ability in both languages
and probable cognitive disadvantage.
Provide Instruction in a
Demanding, yet Contextualized

Learning Theories - Central Washington University