Sociocultural Theory

Applying Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory to Literacy Teaching

Who is Lev Vygotsky?

Sociocultural theory was developed by Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky who was a soviet psychologist born on November 5, 1896, and died on June 11, 1934. He is best known for his work on psychological development in children. He contributed to the field of education in child development focusing on how children develop in cultural contexts. His theory is very popular in schools today.  

Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory

The sociocultural theory originates in the works of Vygotsky and his allies in the 1920s and 1950s. Sociocultural theory highlights the importance of cultural practices in the home and in social groupings. Because of this view, it is understood that children go to school with literacy experiences and attitudes which are closely related to school-based literacy. These experiences are acquired in the home or community through socialisation. 

Sociocultural theory is based on several assumptions and concepts. The major assumption of the theory is that, ‘human activities happen in cultural contexts, are mediated by language and other semiotic systems, and can be best understood when investigated in historical development’ (John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996, p. 191). This assumption explains the active role children play in their own mental growth as inquisitive thinkers and the role of the environment in shaping this development. Vygotsky emphasised the role of interaction in a sociocultural context.

Child (2007, p. 1040) states that Vygotsky postulated that, ‘human mental activity was the result of cultural learning using social signs.’ Vygotsky emphasized activity (a way of practice or participation) 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 the child was born was the source of concepts which the child internalized. He considered tools such as language, numbers, and art as a means through which culture would conceptualize, organize, and transmit thinking.

Vygotsky developed Sociocultural theory, examining a range of subjects including psychology of art, language and thought, learning development as well as focus on children with special needs. His work was suppressed for more than twenty years and only appeared in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Since its dissemination, Vygotsky’s theory has given birth to myriads of diverse aspects all anchored on related principles (Rogoff, Baker-Sennett, Lacasa, & Goldsmith, 1995). For instance, situated learning and communities of practice by Jean Lave, and guided participation popularized by Rogoff are all based on Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory.

Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

Sociocultural Theory Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

Vygotsky (1978:86) developed the concept of the Zone of proximal development in Sociocultural theory which he defined 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 under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers’.

Turuk (2008) explains ZPD that helps to understand and determine the actual level of development for a leaner. Based on what the teacher observes in a child, he or she can predict a child’s future growth in terms of literacy acquisition determined by what the leaners currently displays and what the learner is capable of acquiring with the help of the teacher or more capable peers.

Literacy growth lies within this zone (in the image below, ZPD is shown in what the child is capable of learning with assistance from others) as the child moves from inter-psychological plane to the intra-psychological plane where a child becomes an independent achiever. Good interaction or instruction between the child and the teacher or parent must be set ahead of what the child can do without help. 

Dimensions of Development in Sociocultural Theory

One of the major factors of Sociocultural theory is that it has tried to explain what John-Steiner and Mahn (1996) call the dynamic interdependence of social and individual processes in the construction of knowledge. The two authors explain this interdependence as existing in three dimensions. The first one is individual development including higher mental functioning. This has its origin in social sources. This means that development in individuals and the function of mental faculties do not grow in a vacuum but tap from social interactions.

The second one is that human action, on both the individual and social planes, is meditated by language and other tools.

The last dimension is that the first two themes are examined through genetic or developmental analysis. This concept is pertinent in understanding how parents, preschool teachers and other knowledgeable others perceive and shape early literacies and in turn, how their literacy perceptions shape their activities and practices. 

Application of Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory

The concept of situatedness of literacy emphasizes the situation and context in which literacy acquisition occurs. In the preschool classroom or home environment, to situate learning means to create the conditions in which children will experience the complexity and ambiguity of learning in the real world.

Children will create their own knowledge out of the raw materials of experience, that is, the relationships with other participants, the activities, the environmental cues, and the social organisation that the community develops and maintains.  The underlying assumption here is that literacy acquisition can only occur if it occurs within authentic contexts and in specific environment supporting learning. This environment could be a home, community, or school environment. 

Similarly, parents and older siblings model their literacy behaviors for the younger child pushing them to imitate those behaviors and learn new skills above their current developmental level. In a literacy-rich home environment, many levels of books are available for the child to explore.

Shared reading with a parent gives the child an opportunity to interact with books that are above his/her reading level, therefore allowing the child to learn new literacy skills. The home environment provides more aspects that important to the emergence of literacy in children hence the need to investigate parents’ perceptions and practices on emergent literacy as these are important in understanding the value parents attach to literacy development.

Vygotsky’s ZPD concept is the idea behind conducting Guided Reading groups at the students’ instructional level, which is one level higher than what they can read independently. This theory also relates to parent teaching of literacy skills because parents guide their children towards new learning during shared reading and other early literacy activities and practices which may be intentional or unintentional.

 Learning to read is a process that parents can facilitate by moving through the ZPD with their children, always pushing them to go a little further than their independent level of reading.  The other implication of the concept of ZPD is that social learning precedes development. He states that, ‘human learning presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them’ (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 88).

To encourage new learning, children must be pushed in the direction of development that has not occurred yet. If children are taught at their present developmental level, they are only maintaining the development that has already occurred and not gaining any new knowledge or skills.

When viewed from the perspective of literacy instruction, the aspect of guided participation helps us to understand that for literacy acquisition to occur, there must be two components which must be present. It also helps us to understand that there is need to connect old knowledge to the new knowledge.

The two components include the child who cooperate with the competent parent or teacher who might function as a roles model. Another relevance of this aspect is that the competent teacher or parent supports that by selecting the routine tasks, engages the learner I passive or active participation in a communicative process and activities.

In a school environment, Vygotsky’s learning theory suggests that if children are to develop print literacy skills, they must first be exposed to print in their social worlds. However, mere exposure to print-enriched phenomena is not sufficient to guarantee learning because children need to engage with social interactions around print for them to develop skills intrapersonally.

For example, preschool early child education (ECE) should maximize opportunities for children to interact in literacy-rich environment and provide adequate scaffolding Using sophisticated language during children’s learning time at school has been said to improve children’s later language and literacy skills.

In using sophisticated language during class sessions, ECEs can enrich one aspect of the literacy environment. There are many other ways of optimizing children’s literacy in meaningful and purposeful ways in the context within which they occur.

Preschools are institutions that both reflect and help to perpetuate the cultures and societies of which they are a part (Tobin et al., 2009). Preschools have diverse values and expectations based on the cultural values of the communities where they are based. Culture can act as a source of continuity and as a brake on the impacts of globalization.

Early childhood literacy is a global phenomenon with cultural implications for curriculum, teaching, and children’s learning and development (Rogoff, 2003). In the context of this study the cultural context of the teachers is crucial in shaping the possibilities, support, and affordances of emergent literacy as viewed by the teachers’ perceptions and practices and young children’s learning.

As teachers design their learning environment, it is essential that they consider the diverse needs and skills of the students they teach. As they integrate the skills and backgrounds of their diverse students, teachers should ensure that each student is represented in their classroom design and instruction. They can individualize the environment to meet the needs of students with disabilities and ensure that appropriate opportunities to participate in literacy activities are consistently available.

Children with diverse literacy experiences have difficulty making connections between old and new information. Structuring the classroom in a planned manner that immerses students with disabilities in accessible literacy activities provides them with opportunities to create connections between oral and written language, thereby gaining access to the general education curriculum.

Another important sociocultural construct is the zone of proximal development (ZPD). The classroom creates a zone of proximal development’ where children reach beyond their real selves as they take on the challenges presented by the teacher and act appropriate to the behavioral rules that govern those challenges in the classroom environment. The professional literature emergent literacy places importance on the principle of scaffolding carried out by a more ‘capable peer’ in the social milieu.

The cultural context of the teachers is crucial in shaping the possibilities, support, and affordances of emergent literacy as viewed by the teachers’ perceptions and practices and young children’s learning. Additionally, understanding parents’ perceptions and practices will help bridge the gap between the home and the school environments.

Special links

To read about ECE provision in Zambia, click here.

To read about Ichibwela Mushi, click here.

To read about ECE in Southern Africa, click here.


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

John-Steiner, V., & Mahn, H. (1996). Sociocultural approaches to learning and development: A Vygotskian framwork. Educational Psychologist, 31(3/4), 191-206.

Rogoff, B., Baker-Sennett, J., Lacasa, P., & Goldsmith, D. (1995 ). Development through participation in sociocultural activity  In J. Goodnow, P. Miller, & F. Kessel (Eds.), Cultural practices as contexts for development (pp. 45-65  ). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Turuk, M. C. (2008). The relevance and implications of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory in the second language classroom (Vol. 5).

Vygotsky L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of psychological processes.

Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press; 

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