Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

ESL Theory-Practice Dynamics: The Difficulty of Integrating Sociocultural Perspectives into Pedagogical Practices

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

ESL Theory-Practice Dynamics: The Difficulty of Integrating Sociocultural Perspectives into Pedagogical Practices

Article excerpt


The purpose of this study is to examine English as a second language (ESL) teachers' sensitivity to their students' social-cultural backgrounds and the kind of constraints they face as they translate sociocultural perspectives into practice. Through both quantitative (questionnaire surveys) and qualitative (interviews) analysis, the study reports how 73 middle and high school teachers in Los Angeles related their own pedagogical practices to the social-cultural experiences of their students. This researcher analyzed the quantitative data using descriptive statistics while qualitative data analysis was carried out using the framework of critical reflexivity. Results showed that the teachers in the study were aware of and sensitive to the crucial role of their students' background experiences. However, the teachers pointed to institutional barriers and other constraints that have practical impacts on their sociocultural practices and outcomes.

Key words: context in language learning second language learning, sociocultural theory, technoculture

Language: English as a second language


Recent studies from sociocultural perspectives (Lantolf, 2001; Lantolf & Thorne, 2006; Thorne, 2001, 2004, 2005) have stressed the need for English as a second language (ESL) teachers to recognize the knowledge, skills, cultural heritage, and preconceptions that their students bring to the classroom. Earlier studies (Engestrom, 1986; Gumperz, 1982; Labov, 1982) suggested the need for teachers to develop pedagogical practices that explore the relationship between their students' cognitive development and the social, cultural, and historical contexts in which they learn. Arguing that language learning is mediated by students' social-cultural practices, Lantolf and Thorne (2006) put the issue succinctly when they contend that learning takes place within "the social and cultural contexts of human activity" (p. 2).

A sociocultural approach to language learning thus suggests a new direction for teaching ESL. In particular, it suggests a need for studies that shed light on dynamics of language teaching/learning situations, the possibilities afforded by social and institutional structures, and an understanding of how teachers relate their pedagogical practices to the sociocultural background experiences of their students. Sociocultural theorists premise their arguments on two fundamental assumptions about second language learners. First, second language learners are complex social beings whose language learning is orchestrated through culturally and socially constructed artifacts (Lantolf, 2001). The theorists argue that language is always used in relationship to the contexts and construal of contexts that are social and cultural. Thorne (2001) aptly sums it up: language is "socially constructed . . . referential and constructive of social reality" (p. 225). In other words, communication is mediated through language users' social and cultural identities. This is why Hymes (1980) suggests that second language learning should be viewed in "relation to the social history and social structure" (p. 148) that constitutes the contexts of learning.

Second, English as a second language entails social practices, the dialogical interconnection between the individual, the society, and the contexts of learning must be highlighted in the classroom (Thorne, 2004, 2005; Hymes, 1980). Emphasizing the indispensability of the macro sociocultural context of learning, Gee (2003, 2007) argues that language as well as literacy learning is ingrained in social practices: ". . . knowing about a social practice always involves recognizing various distinctive ways of acting, interacting, valuing, feeling, knowing, and using various objects and technologies that constitute the social practice" (Gee, 2003, p. 15). Thus, Gee rejects the behaviorist and cognitivist theories of second language learning research and theory which have long focused on second language learning as a mental process which conceptualizes learners as decontextualized and autonomous (Atkinson, 2002; Donato & McCormick, 1994). …

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