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Contributions from Piaget and Vygotsky to ELT
Renata Maria Moschen Nascente

The aim of this article is to make English language teachers aware of aspects of theories from Vygotsky and Piaget, which may help them to improve their work. Therefore, let us begin with a short biography of both of them.
Jean Piaget was born in Switzerland in 1896, where he spent most of his life and produced his theories. He started his studies in biology, changing afterwards to psychology. Throughout fifty years Piaget produced well over two hundred works investigating the development from birth to late adolescence, drawing on knowledge to build his theoretical perspective from such diverse fields such as logic, mathematics, physics, biology and psychology.

Vygotsky was born in 1896 in Bielorussia. In 1917 he graduated in literature from Moscow University. His early studies in this field led to the publication of his first major volume, The Psychology of art (1925). In 1924 Vygotsky moved to Moscow and started his major empirical work on human development. He delivered many lectures and wrote numerous works in the next ten years. He died of tuberculosis in 1934. From 1932 on, Vygotsky started being severely criticised in Russia. His works were banned during Stalin’s government. Three decades later, in 1956, Thought and Language was published again in Russia. Only in 1962 was the same book released in America, introducing Vygotsky to the western world.

Key Ideas

How do children grow intellectually and learn?

1. Children and adults are different with regard to their mental structures. They explain things in distinctive ways.
2. The child’s mental development occurs through definite stages. The stages have an established sequence, which is the same for all children.
3. Despite the fact that the sequence of the stages is the same for everybody, different children pass from one stage to another in different ages. Besides, a child may be at one stage concerning some things and at another stage concerning others.
4. Mental development is influenced by four inter-related factors:

a. Maturation: physical and mental growth, mainly the maturing of the central nervous system.
b. Experience: manipulation, movement and thought concerning concrete objects and the thinking processes that are involved in it.
c. Social Interaction: any kind of interaction with other people, such as through play, speech or work.
d. Equilibration: the processes of putting together maturation, experience and socialisation to build and rebuild mental structures. Equilibration is achieved through assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the process by which incoming information is changed or modified in one’s mind so it can fit what one already knows. Accommodation, conversely, is the process by which one modifies what he already knows in order to fit new information. Working together, assimilation and accommodation lead to cognitive adaptation. According to Williams and Burden (1997), adaptation “is an essential aspect of learning, and one that is particularly relevant to the learning of the grammar of a new language.” (p. 22)

Stages of Development

Maybe the most remarkable feature of Piaget’s work for teachers is the stages of development. The recognition of the stages proposed by Piaget might make teachers change their course of action regarding both content and methodology. To Piaget, child development unfolds in stages, each new stage follows and depends upon the completion of earlier stages. The sequence of development is the same for everyone. Piaget describes a stage in terms of how a child’s thinking is organised. The thinking in early stages is less well organised than in later stages.

Intuitive Thought 4 - 7
Concrete Operational 7 - 11
Formal Operational 11 - 15

Intuitive Thought

Children think about and explain the world based mainly on intuition, rather than on logic. It is very hard for them to express the order of events; explain cause and effect relationships; understand precisely what people say; understand and recall rules.

Concrete Operational

Children develop number related concepts, relationships and processes. They start to think in a more elaborate way in order to sort tasks out. Their ideas are very much linked to concrete objects. They are not able to make abstractions yet. Their understanding of rules is improved.

Concrete Operational

Children develop number related concepts, relationships and processes. They start to think in a more elaborate way in order to sort tasks out. Their ideas are very much linked to concrete objects. They are not able to make abstractions yet. Their understanding of rules is improved.

Formal Operational

Students may think through abstractions. They are able to understand things beyond their immediate concrete reality. At this stage, children may think almost like adults.

For Williams and Burden (1997), Piaget’s stages have a message for language teachers, mainly if they teach young learners. It is very hard for someone below eleven or twelve years old to reason abstractly and sort out the rules of a language. It is more important to provide children at this stage with experiences in the target language which are related to aspects of the child’s own world.

On the other hand, Piaget admitted that variations could occur regarding the age in which each individual goes through the stages. More recent research has supported the concept that even some adults have difficulty in reasoning in abstract ways. Therefore, the more the teacher adapts the language to the students’ concrete reality, the better.

Main implications of Piaget’s aforementioned concepts to language teaching:

1. The learner must always be actively involved in the learning activities. Students should never be seen as passive receivers of the language.
2. The teacher should try to establish a ‘bridge’ between language activities and the stage of development of the students.
3. Teachers must be aware that when they give new input to students, for instance a new verb tense, there should be a lot of practice, so learners will be able to go through accommodation and assimilation processes in order to reach cognitive adaptation, in other words, really learn the new structure.
4. Regarding specifically young learners, teachers should try to know their students beyond appearances, so that their promptness in some activities does not make the teacher think they are beyond the stage they are really at. If the teacher is deceived by appearances, he may propose activities which are not achievable for some of them.
5. Some children, and even adults, may be at one stage for one kind of activity, for example, speaking, and at another stage for writing. If the teacher is able to identify these differences, he will be able to carry out activities that may help the students to fill this gap.
6. Children learn to work in an interactive way with the environment. Therefore, teachers should provide them with activities which will help them in this process. For instance, they may give tasks involving painting, colouring, manipulating real objects, writing and Total Physical Response. Work in pairs and groups should also be stimulated.
7. According to Piaget the classroom environment should be one of liberty and spontaneity. This should not be understood as a laissez-faire posture on the part of the teacher. On the contrary, the teacher should provide materials, suggest activities and work together with the students. Spontaneous talk and exchange of ideas should be stimulated. The teacher maximises productive activities and minimises chaos.

Finally, Williams and Burden (1997) warn teachers about two common interpretations of Piaget’s work which may be fairly misleading:

1. Some interpretations of Piaget’s views on maturation and personal experience hold that there is no place for direct instruction in teaching. Teachers should only be ‘facilitators’ of students’ development.
2. Piaget’s emphasis on individual development has led some practitioners to overlook the significance of the social environment for learning

A last weak point in Piaget’s work raised by the authors is the fact that Piaget underestimated the part played by language in the development of thought. For Piaget, language followed the general development of the child encapsulating thought.

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