3.3 Sociocultural Theories

Illustration of a bird's nest

Sociocultural theories bridge the gap between constructivist approaches and ecological approaches by emphasizing cooperation. These theories emphasize the immediate environment and include educators’ analysis of children’s observable skills and behaviors to present children with the next valuable learning moment. Children develop language skills individually, but they do so within a cooperative learning context as peers, family members, teachers, and others engage, support, and teach them. Vygotsky’s sociocultural learning theory is notable for focusing on what the child can do, while also suggesting that a child’s learning is supported when the right amount of instruction is provided at the right time. Marie Clay’s theories and definitions of emergent reading provide us with a framework for understanding individual children’s prior knowledge and readiness for different literacy experiences. These theories focus on the interactive nature of the child’s capabilities, experiences, and interactions with others.

3.3a Sociocultural Learning Theory

Vygotsky’s sociocultural learning theory emphasizes the social aspect of children constructing their learning (1986). Vygotsky believed that cognitive growth was a result of interactions between people, after which a child internalizes learning. According to this theory, children learn most effectively by engaging meaningfully with someone who is more experienced. Vygotsky developed the concept of the zone of proximal development. He defines it as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving” (Vygotsky, 1978, p86).


A graphic that says What the student can do on their own in the first column, ZPD in the middle column, and What the student can't do on their own in the third column.
Figure 3.3 Zone of Proximal Development

Vygotsky recognized a more knowledgeable other could be another child, a family member, a teacher, or anyone who can provide some support for a task. The support itself is called scaffolding. Construction workers, painters, and others use physical scaffolds when they work to reach areas beyond their abilities if merely standing on the ground. In this same way, the support of a more experienced peer giving guidance or direction creates a support for the child to be able to construct their own learning. As a child masters a task, they need less scaffolding and eventually the scaffold disappears (Vygotsky, 1978). For example, many young children have help in learning to wash their hands. An adult may show the child how to acquire the soap, rub their hands vigorously, and rinse. Over time, children need less help with the task, and the scaffold is removed as children are able to wash their hands independently. Children are in progressive zones of proximal development when they are still needing some guidance to wash their hands. Vygotsky placed great importance on the social experience, which provides the scaffold. This theory allows for the notion that children construct their learning, but it also emphasizes that construction requires some help from others.


Two children play on the floor with block helicopters.

Pause and Reflect: Is Speech the Chicken or the Egg?

Read the following passage examining the differences between Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s conceptualizations of children’s oral language. This creates an interesting chicken-and-egg dilemma with regard to language development. As you read, think about how each theoretical stance resonates with you.

With regard to language, the differences between the approaches of Piaget and Vygotsky can be understood by looking at one aspect of oral language. Children can often be observed engaging in a running stream of commentary as they play and solve tasks. Piaget referred to this action as egocentric speech while Vygotsky termed the practice private speech. The difference in naming reveals what each theorist believed about language and cognitive development. Piaget indicated that egocentric speech was an additional marker of egocentrism, a hallmark of the preoperational period (Piaget, 1962). Egocentrism means that children’s capacity for perspective-taking or understanding another person’s point of view is not yet developed. Piaget argued that egocentric speech reflects the developmental stage the child is in. He reasoned children speak aloud to themselves in this stage because they are unable to understand or perceive that another person is hearing them. Vygotsky indicated it is not merely a lack of perspective-taking that causes children to talk to themselves, but that children do this because they are trying to solve tasks (Vygotsky, 1978). For example, children frequently talk to themselves when they are learning to tie their shoes. Vygotsky indicated that private speech never truly disappears, but instead goes underground as children grow older. It is true that while most adults will not talk to themselves in public, many people will refer to speaking out loud when working through a hard task, such as being lost in traffic or trying to create something complex. Both theorists agree that perspective-taking is limited in this stage, but where Piaget says that egocentric speech is merely a reflection of the child’s development, Vygotsky says that private speech is being actively used as a tool.

Is our language resultant from our cognitive development, or does language lead our cognitive development? Is it possible that both of these approaches are true?

3.3b Marie Clay’s Emergent Literacy Theory

Marie Clay’s emergent literacy theory recognizes a close relationship between the instructional scaffolds used by educators to promote young children’s emerging reading, writing, and oral language skills (Clay, 1991). Drawing on the work of Vygotsky, Clay argues, “The essence of successful teaching is to know where the frontier of learning is for any one pupil on a particular task”  (Clay, 1991, p. 65). In this way, Clay extends the value of understanding where an individual child’s zone of proximal development is so that educators take advantage of learning spaces to enhance a child’s literacy learning (p. 65). Clay’s emergent literacy instructional practices underscore the interactions between educators and children and focus on the social supports and contexts children and educators co-create.

Clay recognizes children construct their learning within the context of their own developmental histories, prior knowledge, and previous experiences with complex tasks (Clay, 1998). The focus of emergent literacy then is on the ways that children process information and the subsequent strategies that children learn to use to solve a problem. Moreover, as a member of the early learning community, educators encourage children to share the learning insights they achieve so they, in turn, become valuable literacy resources for their peers (Clay, 1991). Clay embraces teacher scaffolding as a valuable support for children’s literacy learning and views teaching as an interaction between the child and the educator (or other expert). Thus, it is important to have clear instructional approaches that support the child’s ability to discover and use strategies to support their learning with regard to the knowledge that literacy development is unique for each child (Clay, 1998). Understanding emergent literacy approaches means that teachers consider the opportunities that children have had to complete the tasks set before them including their access to previous experiences and prior knowledge. In other words, whether children will choose to replicate creating an apple pie by using beige pom poms, a circle felt crust piece, and a pie tin may depend upon whether they have ever seen anyone create an apple pie from scratch.

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The Early Literacy Journey: Supporting and Celebrating Young Learners Copyright © 2024 by Sandra Carrie Garvey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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