Language and education

Author: Rosamond Mitchell


This paper outlines an approach towards teaching and learning about language and education which is underpinned by sociocultural theory. It argues for an exploration of the connections between language and learning through analysis of educational discourses, including classroom talk, academic writing, and academic computer mediated communication.

Table of contents


The academic field of Language and Education (LAE) can best be viewed as a sub-field within Educational Linguistics (see Brumfit 2002, this site). Scholarship in LAE is most typically concerned with the study of educational discourses, of language use across the curriculum, and of the relationship between language, thought, and cognitive development. The development of literacy, and its relationship with cognitive, academic and social development, is a key sub-field, while the study of electronic communication and its role in educational development is a new but fast-developing area.

Courses in LAE are most likely to be relevant to professional or pre-professional audiences: undergraduate students with an interest in education, trainee teachers, or teachers on postgraduate professional development programmes (e.g. specialist MA programmes in applied linguistics).

Constructivist and sociocultural theories of learning, which view language as a tool for thought (Vygotsky 1978), provide a coherent and educationally relevant perspective on the relationship between language and learning at all levels of education. For example, they provide a theoretical underpinning for familiar pedagogic practices such as collaborative projects and group work. One effective approach to the study of this relationship is first of all to introduce Vygotskian concepts such as 'scaffolding', 'appropriation' and the 'Zone of Proximal Development', to show how these are central to the analysis of both teacher-student and student-student talk, from a learning perspective, and provide students with opportunities to apply them to authentic examples of educational discourse, relevant to their interests. The work of Mercer and his associates provides effective empirical illustrations with reference to talk in primary and secondary classrooms (Mercer 1995, 2000). There is also a growing literature which brings this theoretical perspective to bear on talk in higher education (e.g. Basturkmen 2002). Programmes for language teachers may refer to empirical research which applies sociocultural theory to aspects of language acquisition itself, especially the development of metalinguistic awareness (Swain 2000).

While LAE courses have typically focussed centrally on the place of talk in learning, the writing/ composing process also merits substantial attention. Educational writing processes can be analysed from varied perspectives, including that of genre theory, which views learning to write as a socialisation into the writing practices of different discourse communities (those of science, history etc etc). However, the composition process can be investigated from a more cognitive perspective, e.g. using the frameworks of Bereiter and Scardamalia (1987) who contrast 'knowledge-telling' strategies with higher level 'knowledge-transforming' models of writing. Sociocultural learning theory also sheds useful light on the writing process, with e.g. Wells (1999) arguing that the power of written language to create new meaning is more fully exploited in writing rather than in reading : "it is in writing that new ideas are brought into the ongoing dialogue, and it is the resulting written texts that preserve those ideas and make them available for critique and further development" (op cit p 287). Such ideas also offer rich pointers for student activities, projects and data analysis. (For a short overview of further issues in the study of writing from an educational perspective see Pogner 2000.)

Finally, the contribution of computer mediated communication (CMC) to different types of learning is an actively developing topic which merits attention in contemporary LAE programmes. Ongoing research with children (e.g.Wegerif 1996), with adult/ HE students (e.g. Warschauer and Lepeintre 1997) and with language learners (Warschauer 1997) has identified the potential of CMC to extend the range of interaction types available to teachers and learners. On-line navigation and research, interpretation and authoring of hypermedia, and synchronous and asynchronous on-line communication are future additions to available tools for learning and thinking - though how to use them appropriately and successfully for these ends remains a central issue on the language and education agenda. Students with appropriate levels of experience could be encouraged to debate and research such questions very fruitfully.

LAE programmes of the kind sketched above will require some systematic study of relevant learning theories and empirical research literature. However they lend themselves extremely well to a strongly data-centred approach, where students learn to collect and analyse different types of educational discourse using a range of analytic methods. A useful guide to working with such data is Edwards and Westgate (1994).


Bereiter, C. and Scardamalia, M. (1987). The Psychology of Written Composition. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Basturkmen, H. (2002). Negotiating meaning in seminar-type discussion and EAP. English for Specific Purposes 21:233-242.

Edwards, A.D. and Westgate, D.P.G. (1994). Investigating Classroom Talk (2nd Edition). Lewes: Falmer Press.

Mercer, N. (1995). The Guided Construction of Knowledge: Talk among Teachers and Learners. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Mercer, N. (2000). Words and Minds: How We Use Language to Think Together. London: Routledge.

Pogner, K.-H. (2000). Writing. In Byram, M. ed. Routledge Encyclopedia of Language Teaching and Learning. London: Routledge, 675-677.

Swain, M. (2000). The output hypothesis and beyond: mediating acquisition through collaborative dialogue. In Lantolf, J. ed. Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 97-114.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Warschauer, M. (1997) Computer-mediated collaborative learning: theory and practice. Modern Language Journal 81,4: 470-81.

Warschauer, M. and Lepeintre, S. (1997). Freire's dream or Foucault's nightmare? Teacher-student relations on an international computer network. Applied Linguistics Association of Australia Occasional Papers 16, 67-89.

Wegerif, R. (1996). Collaborative learning and directive software. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 12, 1: 22-32.

Wells, G. (1999). Making meaning with text: A genetic approach to the mediating role of writing. Chapter 8 in Dialogic Inquiry: Toward a Sociocultural Practice and Theory of Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 267-92.

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