Monday, April 09, 2012

Acquiring Second-Languages through Constructivist and Communicative Approaches in Literacy Collaborative Schools

Acquiring Second-Languages through Constructivist and Communicative Approaches in Literacy Collaborative Schools

By: Shelly Schaub, K-2 Literacy Collaborative Trainer

English Language Learner (ELL) populations are growing at fast rate in most school districts across the United States. Projections suggest that “language minority students (those who speak a language other than English at home and who have varying levels of proficiency in English) will comprise over 40 percent of elementary and secondary students by 2030 (Thomas & Collier, 2001). Many questions are being asked about how to meet the needs of ELL students in classroom literacy blocks. The purpose of this article is to link the constructivist approach of the Literacy Collaborative framework for literacy instruction to the communicative/constructivist approaches to second-language acquisition.

Literacy Collaborative is a school-reform literacy project that supports teachers in raising their expertise through on-going professional development. The theory base upon which this professional development is built is largely grounded in the constructivist view of Vygotsky (1978). The constructivist paradigm is a view of instruction which focuses on using what the learner already knows and adding new understandings to construct meaning. The learner’s strength and needs are the center of instruction. According to Crawford (2003), “Communicative approaches to second-language acquisition are based on concepts, theories, and hypothesis that converge around the constructivist paradigm.”

Vygotsky’s theory of constructivism involves three important elements: Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978), Scaffolding (Bruner, 1978), and Approximation (Holdaway, 1979).

Element 1: Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development , ZPD, is defined as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem-solving under adult guidance in collaboration with more capable peers” (pp. 86-87). Teachers find a child’s ZPD through various methods of systematic observations. The analysis of drawings, writing, reading, speaking and spelling provides evidence of a child’s understandings and help teachers decide a next step for instruction. Vygotsky’s hypothesis leans heavily on the social construction of knowledge which grows from the support of more capable others (e.g. parents, teachers, older siblings, etc.).

Element 2: Scaffolding involves a teacher finding a child’s ZPD and engaging with a child or group of children in a learning task while providing temporary supports that are removed as students show evidence of independence. As student show progress in language development, scaffolds are gradually removed to release responsibility to the child. Teachers engage in scaffolding student learning by designing lessons and using intentional language the move from teaching to prompting to reinforcing particular concepts.

Element 3: Approximation is a process in which English language learners imitate the language behaviors of their models. As they test hypothesis about their new language acquisition, they grow more proficient. Approximation is dependent on oral and written opportunities within the context of authentic wholes. In other words, English language learners address listening, speaking, reading, and writing as a totality or whole, not a separate entities. Skillful teachers engage students in integrated language and literacy tasks in which they listen, talk, read, and write in a safe community of problem-solvers.

Connecting Theory to Practice:

Through the study of these theoretical understandings, teaching practices can be enhanced to meet the needs of second-language learners as they acquire language and literacy. Early literacy experiences in the Literacy Collaborative classroom provide numerous opportunities for children to move towards proficiency. The Literacy Collaborative framework is a workshop-based approach to instruction. The framework is divided into reading, writing, and language/word study workshops. For details about the Literacy Collaborative framework, visit The Literacy Collaborative classroom is a print-rich, organized environment that provides opportunities for exploration, scaffolding, and socialization. The Literacy Collaborative classroom is intentionally arranged to facilitate whole and small group instruction.

Whole Group Meeting Space:

This first grade classroom is arranged to facilitate whole group teaching elements which include reading to children, reading poems and big books with children, writing with children on the large easel, and studying letters, words and how they work through resources such as the word wall and linking charts. These language, literacy and vocabulary experiences are rich when they are surrounded by a sea of talk through authentic conversations, modeling, and scaffolding from the teacher and peers.

Small Group Work Spaces:

This kindergarten classroom is arranged to facilitate small groups of children working together. Through exploration in heterogeneous, learning groups, children are given the opportunities to socially construct knowledge (Vygotsky, 1978) while engaging in learning opportunities that are designed with success in mind. 

The guided reading table is another small group meeting space where children read leveled books that are in their ZPD with the support of their classroom teacher. These homogeneous groups engage in conversations before, during and after the reading of high quality stories. English language learners participate in conversations about texts with the modeling, prompting, and reinforcing of the teacher.


English language learners need a constructivist/communicative approach to learning English as a second language because the opportunities for learning are authentic and are focused on meaning-making and problem-solving. Teachers need the support of colleagues and highly trained coaches to explore the theories related to best practices for instructing English language learners and implement these theories through practice into their classrooms. High-quality teaching is student- centered and requires decision-making and flexibility based on the understandings of student needs. A constructivist classroom is a student-centered classroom. A Literacy Collaborative classroom is a constructive, student-centered classroom built on Vygotsky’s theory that “What a child can do in cooperation today, he can do alone tomorrow.”


Bruner, J.S. (1978). The role of dialogue in language acquisition. In A. Sinclair, R.J. Jarvella, & W.M. Levelt (Eds.), The child’s conception of language (pp. 241-256). New York: Springer-Verlag.

Holdaway, D. (1979). The foundation of literacy. Sydney: Ashton Scholastic.

Crawford, A.N. (2003). Communicative approaches to second-language acquisition: A bridge to reading comprehension. In G.G. Garcia (Ed.), English Learners: Reaching the Highest Level of English Literacy (pp. 152-178). Newark, DE: International Reading Association, Inc.

Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (2005). English Language Learners: A Growing Population. Retrieved April1, 2012 from

Thomas, W.P., & Collier, V. (1997). School effectiveness for language minority students. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Bilingual Education.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman. Eds. And Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (Original work published 1934)


  1. These way of helping your child on its early development is really important and effective. Anyway, have your child join the Montessori Activities

  2. I agree with the tip of not trying too hard to imitate the way of speaking. Aside from it's annoying, I think it will just blow their chances. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. The tips that you give are all good. It can help a certain student to improve their writing skills in English. Also, in that way, it may lead them in to a good writer who can write well in English language.

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  4. English is spoken throughout the world because it is soooo easy to learn! How many verb tenses are there?

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  5. Use the following tips to help you in your Language Learning process for your job.