Historical Activity Theory
Issues in Applied Linguistics
Sociocultural theory/ Cultural
historical activity theory
“offers a framework through which cognition can be
systematically investigated without isolating it from the
social context” (Lantolf & Thorne, 2006, p.1)
Vygotsky (1896 – 1934):
An extension of a Marxist project to explore the social basis for
human consciousness by focusing analysis on practical activity
An emphasis on human tool-use and mediation (tools and signs)
Tools are mediational means and considers how these tools
fundamentally change the way humans think.
Emphasis on social learning. Focus on developmental potential
evidenced in the interactions with other speakers that occur within
the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky ,1978).
2. Vygotsky (1896 - 1934) and tool
Zone of proximal development
Rejects Piaget’s (1979) claim that learning depends on
the maturity of the individual.
Vygotsky’s (1978) posits that learning and maturity
interact within the ZPD, whereby a learner’s performance
with other participants exceeds his or her performance
A focus on learners’ potential. The realisation of this
potential is achieved through assistance from a more
capable speaker, a process called scaffolding.
Sociocultural theory and L2
L2 acquisition is not represented by the attainment of
structures and the processing of input, but rather is
characterised by the co-construction and internalisation
of knowledge made in a social activity.
Leont’ev (1903 - 1979) and the object of
He developed the concept of mediation distinguishing
between collective activity and individual action (Leont'ev,
1978). Leont’ev expanded Vygotsky’s work and developed the
foundations for analysing the structure and function of activity.
‘The main thing which distinguishes one activity from another,
however, is the difference of their objects. It is exactly the
object of an activity that gives it a determined direction. . . .
the object of an activity is its true motive.’ (Leont’ev 1978)
Object as the potentially shared aspect of the social world
on which we work together.
It should lead to “transforming practice in ways that
might potentially ameliorate the everyday conditions
and outcomes of teaching and learning” (Lantolf and
Thorne, 2006, p.260)
Hierarchical structure of the activity
An activity is a collective goal oriented pursuit.
Actions are stepping stones to accomplish the activity
Operations are the conditions for accomplishing actions
(affordances and constraints) in a specific context.
Tools: …with what (physical and conceptual
resources) – and how (mediation)
problem is being
worked on – and
who does the
what supports or
to what end?
who else is involved?
An activity system adapted from “Learning by expanding: An activity-theoretical
approach to developmental research” (p.78), by Y. Engeström, 1987, Helsinki: Orienta-
DoL: how is the work
shared, who does
what and why, how
has this evolved?
Activity vs. task
An activity is a collective object-oriented pursuit. Why
are we doing this?
An activity is everything that occurs in a class (context,
participants & actions)
Tasks are opportunities for meaning-focused language
Hierarchical structure: students should be able to clearly identify a
hierarchical structure of actions to accomplish a goal.
Object-oriented: Tasks should be goal-oriented and learners must
be able to complete the task and show thy have finished the
product (not a worksheet).
Internalisation/externalisation: Tasks should produce the need for
shared attention among participants and generate opportunities
for learners to focus on form.
Development: formative assessment/ feedback
Mediation: tools mediate students’ learning. What tools are part of
Sociocultural theory & language
Language is a tool that develops from the activity
required to accomplish a task or goal and not merely as
a system to be implemented after acquisition. Language
is a dynamic system that is constantly changing as it is
Sociocultural theory regards learning as socialisation and
acculturation into a specific group through shared ,
In groups think of a successful language class. Why was
this particularly beneficial? Were any tasks used? If so,
Explain why that specific task satisfy or does not satisfy
the five characteristics mentioned before.
In your blog write your reflection on why sociocultural
theory can potentially be a useful framework for
understanding L2 teaching and the role of technology
from this approach.
Dubravac, Stayc (2013). Technology in the L2 curriculum. Pearson, Boston.
Engeström, Y. (1987). Learning by expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to developmental research. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit.
Lantolf, James P & Thorne, S. L (2006). Sociocultural theory and the genesis of second language development. Oxford University Press, Oxford ; New
Leont'ev, A. N. (1978). Activity, consciousness, and personality (M. J. Hall, Trans.). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.
Thorne, S. L., & Tasker, T. (2011). Sociocultural and Cultural-Historical Theories of Language Development. In J. Simpson (ed.), Routledge Handbook of
Applied Linguistics (pp. 487-500). New York: Routledge.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, V. Scribner & S. E. Souberman
Eds.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.