Tenets of Sociocultural Theory
in Writing Instruction Research
Carol Sue Englert, Troy V. Mariage, and Kailonnie Dunsmore
Sociocultural theory seeks to understand how culturally and historically situated meanings are constructed, reconstructed, and transformed through social mediation (Moll & Greenberg, 1990; Vygotsky, 1978; Wertsch, 1985, 1998). (See Prior, Chapter 4, this volume, for extended discussion of sociocultural theory.) Social mediation in activity settings through semiotic tools (e.g., speech, written language, diagrams, mnemonics, and drawings) forms the basic unit of analysis for understanding the genesis of psychological development. Rather than viewing knowledge as existing inside the heads of individual participants or in the external world, sociocultural theory views meaning as being negotiated at the intersection of individuals, culture, and activity. Higher psychological processes, such as writing and reading, have their origins in social processes that occur on an interpsychological plane, and that are mediated through language signs, symbols, actions, and objects (Vygotsky, 1978). Over time, these external semiotic mediators observed in their contextualized uses in activity settings become internalized and transformed to influence action (Bahktin, 1986). In this sense, while individuals are accorded agency for their actions, there remains a social quality to all higher psychological processes. processes. Through this mediated action, language begins to take on a unique role in psychological development as a mediator of cultural understanding and cognitive tools that can come under conscious realization to guide behavior (Bahktin, 1986; Gee, 1996).
This chapter does not present an exhaustive review of the many literatures that might contribute to a sociocultural approach to writing instruction; rather, it highlights specific studies that illustrate and anchor our discussions of particular themes relevant to the sociocultural perspective. In actuality, only a few writing instruction research programs have adhered to the rich traditions of a sociocultural approach, although many basic studies buttress the tenets of sociocultural theory through elucidation of central principles; that is, while many scholars have used sociocultural theory as a way to understand meaning construction in communities of practice and as an interpretive lens to analyze and discuss data, there has been less systematic effort to use it to inform the creation of learning environments and activity settings. Thus, this chapter draws from studies that use sociocultural theory as an interpretive lens and that offer evidence-based writinginstruction findings that support some of the basic tenets of sociocultural theory.