Social Constructivism

The Role of Social Constructivism in Early Literacy Development

Social Constructivism is developmental theory which posits that children construct new knowledge by applying their current knowledge structures to new experiences and modifying them accordingly within social contexts.

Social Constructivism as a theory is a variant of cognitive constructivism and was developed by Vygotsky who emphasised the role of interaction and collaborative learning in sociocultural contexts.  Further, Vygotsky recognised the active role children play in their own mental growth as inquisitive thinkers and the role of the environment in shaping this development.

According to Vygotsky, ‘human mental activity was the result of cultural learning using social signs’ (Child 2007, p. 1040). Vygotsky emphasized activity as the basis for learning and development of thinking. Activity entailed a far greater emphasis on communication, social interaction, and instruction in determining the path of development.

Vygotsky argued that child development was guided by culture and interpersonal communication and that the culture from which a child was born was the source of concepts which he or she internalized. He considered tools such as language, numbers, and art as the means through which culture would conceptualize, organise, and transmit thinking and so believed that our thinking was as a result of the culture from which we were born.

Slavin (2009) writes that the transmission of culture in the context of Social Constructivism was through the construction of cultural tools which he thought as a means of achieving things in the world. These tools could be physical, for example, a hammer, or mental, for example, language, social, for example, storytelling sessions.

Main ideas in Social Sonstructivism

Vygotsky’s work on Social Constructivism is based on two key main ideas. Firstly, he proposed that intellectual development can only be understood in terms of historical and cultural contexts children experience.

Secondly, he believed that development depends on the sign system that individuals grow up with; the symbols such as a culture’s language, writing system or counting system that cultures create to help people think, communicate, and solve problems (Slavin 2009).

Central to his theory was the belief that culture is transmitted through the interiorisation of social signs, the major one being language, and that human cognitive development takes place through mediation by psychological and other tools (Wertsch, 1991).

Early Literacy Development

Early literacy development is described as how young children interact with literacy materials in social and cultural context when ‘reading and writing’, even though they cannot not read or write in a conventional sense. Early literacy development involves the acquisition of skills and concepts (knowledge) about literacy and demonstrated or exhibited behaviours which point or relate to language (written and spoken) use in varying contexts among children in the preschool years before they begin to read in a conventional way.

Early literacy denotes the idea that the acquisition of literacy is best conceptualized as a developmental continuum, with its origins early in the life of a child, rather than an all-or-none phenomenon that begins when children start school.

This conceptualization departs from other perspectives on literacy acquisition in suggesting that there is no clear demarcation between reading and pre-reading. A basic definition of literacy can be found here. I ahave also written an artcile on the foundations of early literacy in another article which can be found here.

While most scholars from the West suggest that ealry literacy starts at birth, African Indigneous knowledge offers a different perspective on the origin of early literacy. It suggests that ealry literacy starts at conception because an unborn birth has the ability to respond to the outside environment.

Social Constructivism and Early Literacy Development

Social Constructivism highlights how children incorporate culture into their reasoning, social interaction, and self-understanding. As such, Social Constructivism can also explain how children acquire early literacy skills in social contexts as they collaborate on activities with more knowledgeable peers and adults.

Further, Social Constructivism can help us understand why children growing up in different societies or families are likely to have significantly different literacy skills. In families where they value literacy, children are more likely to acquire more skills than in families where the use of language is limited to the oral or spoken use.

From this theory emanates the idea that even children’s emergent literacy begins long before conventional schooling and is nourished by social interactions with caring adults and exposure to literacy-rich environments, culture and literacy practices both at home and in the community.

In this way, literacy skills which children will possess will be different, and this difference will be because of the difference in the environments in which children will be nurtured.

Therefore, it is believed that children do not go to school as empty slates; they have some knowledge and skills about literacy which they pick up from their interaction in their homes and environments.

Hall (1987) argues that the children we know are learners who actively try to understand the world around them, to answer the questions the world poses. It is absurd to imagine that four- or five-year-old children growing up in an environment that displays print everywhere do not develop any ideas about this cultural object until they find themselves sitting in front of a teacher.


Language learning is a part of literacy acquisition as it is the use of language by the novice that enables him or her to fully participate and function in the community. Howver, language can only be nourished by rich interactions in the community. If you are a parent with a child learning early literacy, ensure to collaborate with him or her on different activities at home.


Child, D. (2007). Psychology and the teacher (8th Ed.). Trowbridge: the Cromwell press.

Hall, N., (1987). The emergence of literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 

Slavin, R.E. (2009). Learning theories: an educational perspective (5th Ed.). New Jersey: Pearson education, Inc.

Wertsch, J. V. (1991). Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard    

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  1. Good morning.
    Thanks Mr. Kaunda for this rich, beautiful and powerful article.
    It really serves as a reminder to Early Literacy learning.
    Good day and my regards.