Andrea Crichlow, Alex Fichera, Tarah Harrison, Tessa Lee, Asia Lukaszuk, Jill McMillan

Chapter 5: Sociocultural-Historical Theory


Defining Sociocultural-Historical Theory

Sociocultural-Historical Theory is an emerging theory that defines the learner as “an active member of a constantly changing community of learners in which knowledge constructs and is constructed by larger cultural systems” (Larson & Marsh, 2010, 100). This can be understood as a dual process of shaping and being shaped, whereby learners are formed by the very culture they create.

blog.jpgAn example of this interaction is blogging: it begins with a few individuals creating blogs which are then read by other people. These readers may then be inspired to create their own blogs. The activity of blogging becomes a cultural force, creating new vocabulary (blog as both noun and verb) and cultural references (LOL Cats, for instance), that the wider community becomes aware, whether or not they actively blog themselves.

The interdependent relationship between learner and culture as conceptualized by Sociocultural-Historical Theory emphasizes the construction of culture through use of cultural “tools” or artefacts (including written language, number systems, symbols, and material tools) that children are “apprenticed” to use through purposeful activity with
zpd_(1).gifskilled mentors (Rogoff, 2003). The level to which learners are able to advance with assistance from said mentors is referred to as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), a concept attributed to the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky.As learners gain mastery over cultural tools, these can be adapted for novel purposes, which in turn encourage the evolution and growth of the collective culture.

In some ways this theory can be viewed as a response to the formal, compulsory schooling that emerged in the late 19th century in North America. The emphasis that Barbara Rogoff, one of the leading Sociocultural-Historical theorists, places on apprenticeship recalls traditional ways of learning whereby children were expected to find a place for themselves within their family’s ongoing activities, ranging from farming to healing to discussing moral principles. This learning environment echoes Native systems of meaning and understanding, as for many Native cultures knowledge is not gained through instruction, but through personal experience and perception (Goulet, 1998). In traditional systems of learning, children exist in the same sphere as their elders, who sometimes facilitate the learning process, and children recognize the importance of learning skills needed for both survival and respect. Children’s learning was built on collaboration and the purpose of daily activities was obvious: learning was not simply in preparation for productive activities, it happened during their productive contributions (Rogoff, Goodman Turkanis & Bartlett, 2001).

Consequently, Sociocultural-Historical Theory challenges traditional definitions of learning, which emphasizes the simple transmission of knowledge (i.e. from teacher to student), and instead conceptualizes learning as changing participation in culturally valued activity with expert mentors. Simply, as a learner’s expertise and ability increases over time so too does their participation change; the more knowledge and experience they gain, the more they are able to master a task and complete it independently or to a higher degree of sophistication.

As it applies to literacy, Sociocultural-Historical Theory has linkages to the transactional perspective, which is “based on the belief that meaning is constructed in the transaction between a particular reader and a particular text” (Serafini, 2003). Just as humans actively construct culture (including texts), so too do readers actively construct meaning from texts (and wider culture). In this scenario, the reader draws upon prior knowledge and experience to “fill in” gaps while reading but also relies on the text to expand their understanding of the world.

Additional Features
  1. Learners are active agents who take responsibility for their learning and construct goals and purposes for their learning;
  2. Teachers facilitate learners’ changing participation in goal-oriented activity;
  3. Teachers design activities but share construction of purposes with learners;
  4. Teachers are considered learners;
  5. Texts are tools used to mediate learning for a variety of purposes;
  6. Literacy events are activities in which text as a tool plays a key role in mediating learning;
  7. Literacy practices may be understood as broader sociocultural repertories of practices used to mediate learning in goal-oriented activity (Larson & Marsh, 2010, 132)

Curriculum Connections:

Of the knowledge, skills, and understandings emphasized by this theory, perhaps the most notable is that of the “Big Idea,” identified by Rogoff, Goodman Turkanis & Bartlett (2001), which is reminiscent of essential question within backward design. The “Big Idea” concept communicates a purpose to the learner; for instance, when learning to write, the “Big Idea” that might be shared is that writing is communication and that people write differently for different kinds of audiences or purposes. Guidance about technical aspects of writing (including spelling and punctuation) then makes sense as they fit with central concepts (i.e. since writing is communication one must follow certain standards so that your audience will understand what you are trying to say).

The encompassing nature of Sociocultural-Historical Theory means that it complements much of what is dictated in the existing Ontario curriculum documents. Indeed, the theory’s recognition of the leaner’s active construction of knowledge and culture speaks to the expectation that students will be able to interpret a range of texts or create their own. Moreover, according to this framework, learners are inherently social beings who should be motivated to communicate their ideas both orally and through a variety of texts.

The following are examples of complementary outcomes identified for students in Grades 11 and 12 (ENG 3U):

Overall Expectations
Oral Communication
Listening to Understand: listen in order to understand and respond appropriately in a variety of situations for a variety of purposes;
Speaking to Communicate: use speaking skills and strategies appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes
Reading and Literature Studies
Reading for Meaning: read and demonstrate an understanding of a variety of literary, informational, and graphic texts, using a range of strategies to construct meaning;
Understanding Form and Style: recognize a variety of text forms, text features, and stylistic elements and demonstrate understanding of how they help communicate meaning
Developing and Organizing Content: generate, gather, and organize ideas and information to write for an intended purpose and audience;
Using Knowledge of Form and Style: draft and revise their writing, using a variety of literary, informational, and graphic forms and stylistic elements appropriate for the purpose and the audience;
Media Studies
Creating Media Texts: create a variety of media texts for different purposes and audiences, using appropriate forms, conventions, and techniques;

Classroom implications:

Current research studying the adoption of Sociocultural-Historical Theory in the classroom has largely focused on primary and elementary grades, as this is the stage in which students are learning the basics of literacy. Still, there is some suggestion that such an approach at the secondary and post-secondary levels provides students with more effective learning opportunities which improve their independent and reflective thinking skills (Wang, 2007). Li Wang, a Services Manager at the University of Auckland Library, has suggested that using a sociocultural approach when instructing new university students on how to seek out and utilize all the information services offered in a university library would be more effective than the current practice, and would allow the students to perform at a higher, more independent level while providing consistent feedback to teachers as to their progress. Wang notes that such theories “provide us with excellent models for developing collaborative learning activities that enable students to actively engage in the learning process” (2007, 155).

Though Wang focuses solely on information literacy (the ability to use and analyse library resources), the approaches suggested are appropriate for the secondary grades, as students will need to learn how to assess and utilize library resources at a higher level than was required for previous grades. Wang suggests using jigsaws to evaluate resources for validity, bias, audience and suitability, using small peer groups to brainstorm search terms, and using small peer groups and problem- or project-based learning. These activities require that the students actively engage the language, processes and culture of an academic library and its services rather than passively listening and taking notes, resulting in individuals that are more confident and knowledgeable in searching for and evaluating information (Wang, 2007).

In addition to such research, we might look to the broader themes of this theoretical framework to determine how it can be adopted for the secondary classroom. First, learning activities should have meaning for learners, an understanding that references the apprenticeship model whereby learners saw the purpose in the task they were involved in. In a formal educational setting, this emphasis links to wider concerns of student engagement as if the work is constructed and presented as meaningful then students will be more likely to see its value and wish to engage with the activity. Indeed, through the Sociocultural-Historical Theory viewpoint, learning cannot be coerced, rather it occurs through “interested participation” (Rogoff, Goodman Turkanis & Bartlett, 2001, 13). Part of achieving this state, then, is to make the work relevant to the learner. This might involve communicating the “Big Idea” of the skill or knowledge being taught or connecting the lesson to the student’s lived experience. Building on the recognition of learners as co-constructors of their learning experience is the acknowledgement that learning occurs within formal and informal settings; essentially, learning occurs through participation in social, cultural and historical contexts (Larson & Marsh, 2010). Consequently children learn language best through exposure to literacy in culturally relevant situations, suggesting that students need opportunities to learn language by reading extensively and to learn through language by using text to learn about the world and their own lives (Serafini, 2003).

If Sociocultural-Historical Theory is to be successfully incorporated into the classroom setting, teachers must build and maintain a meaningful learning community. In some ways this is the teacher’s biggest challenge and requires getting to know the cultural contexts from which students emerge. Some strategies might involve having flexible groupings in the classroom; emphasizing collaborative work in the classroom, including small discussion groups; informally surveying students to determine what the next lesson will focus on in order to give students a voice in the classroom; grouping students with the ZPD in mind, so that advanced students can assist emerging learners; and teacher circulation, which allows for mentorship and relationship building. During these activities, the teacher can support ongoing dialogue (be it at a whole class, small group, or one-on-one level) to help students reach more complex understandings about texts being studied and the wider world, a form of guided participation. Moreover, through such interactions, students will become about their own community membership; they will recognize the benefits of a group, in that it can support each person with the community, but also the responsibilities of the individual to the group, such as respectful behaviours (Rogoff, Goodman Turkanis & Bartlett, 2001, 34).

The holistic nature of this theory means that teachers have to really get to know their students in order to incorporate their voice in the classroom environment. This might involve asking the following questions or using the following activities:

  1. How is literacy meaningful to you?
  2. How do you interpret texts in your day-to-day life?
  3. What texts do you create in your day-to-day life?
  4. Self-reflection exercise determining the various forms of text that students interact with on a daily basis using a multimodal framework
  5. Journaling as form of communicating with teacher who will respond and write questions to prompt additional entries
  6. Project-based learning that has purpose and meaning for students

Classroom applications:

Representative Activities

Found Poetry

Description: Students compose “found poems” using descriptive literary passages they have read. Students select a passage and then pick out descriptive words, phrases and lines. They then arrange and format the excerpts to compose their own poems.

Rationale: This process of recasting the text helps students become more insightful readers and develop creativity in thinking and writing. It also makes explicit the interaction between reader and text.

Class Newspaper

Description: Students will be transformed into “reporters” and “editors” and will create authentic newspaper stories. After reading different newspapers, both print and online, students will choose what stories or features they want to contribute to the class newspaper. Through this process, students will become effective users of technology in order to publish their newspaper while the activity itself will cover such aspects as writing an article and layout and design techniques with the purpose of effectively communicating ideas.

Rationale: By encouraging learners to read and write in purposeful ways that allow them to make sense of real language in real contexts will help develop into fluent readers and writers. The creation of a class newspaper provides an authentic experience and its design speaks to a tangible goal that learners can relate to and understand. Students will learn by creating and their formal writing skills will be developed and enhanced through the phases of writing that editors and reporters experience: prewriting/brain storming, drafting, revision and editing, and publishing.

Short Film Project

Description: Students will form into small groups (5 to 6 students) and each group will produce a short film or commercial (5-10 minutes each). Teacher may assign groups or students may choose their own. While the teacher has the option of assigning predefined roles and responsibilities, students should be encouraged to decide these on their own. Students should submit a copy of the script with direction and framing notes one week prior to due date of film for teacher’s approval, and a final draft with the film. Direction and framing notes should specify why they chose these elements and what effect they hope it will have on the final product. Students must also submit a short reflection stating their role, what they learned about creating as a group, how well they think they performed, why they made the decisions they did and whether or not they worked, how they could improve it, and what part of their work of which they are most proud.

Rationale: This activity is designed to be the culmination of a month-long media studies unit, in which the students would first examine film editing and other non-text media elements in the context of storytelling devices, watch for these elements in the movies or television they encounter in their daily lives, and finally utilize them in their own film project to show their understanding of how they are used and the effects they have on storytelling. During work on the film project, student groups would create and problem-solve collaboratively, and also have class time to report decisions and progress to the rest of the class, and gain input and suggestions from the other groups and the teacher to help improve their final product. This activity therefore allows the students to “apprentice” under the teacher and create a media text as a group, and to use and build on their previous lived experiences with media.

Understanding Atmosphere

Description: Students will learn how setting and atmosphere support the construction of other elements in a text, including character, plot, and theme. Students will begin by drawing on their own experiences of setting and will free write to describe a setting that it meaningful to their own lives (with initial emphasis on physical characteristics before transitioning to discuss the mood of the setting). In small groups, students will then create a mixed media piece inspired by an extract from a literary text, incorporating elements of collage, drawing, found poetry, and other techniques, with an emphasis on the setting and atmosphere communicated in the extract. Once groups have completed their pieces, they will trade their work with a group that received a different excerpt. With the new work in front of them, students will then free write using the art created by their peers as inspiration.

Rationale: This activity speaks to the interplay between reader and text and the active creation of culture by learners. The process of creating an artwork using a literary text as inspiration also provides insight into the writing process as it makes obvious how the author creates fictional worlds from the blank page. By guiding students through this process, the teacher can provide an opportunity for students to analyze and explain how texts construct narrative elements, like setting, and to what effect.

Assessment Considerations

Sociocultural-Historical Theory seems to emphasize assessment for learning, in part due to the emphasis placed on student-teacher relationships and the mentoring role of the teacher.

Such assessment strategies may include:
  1. Effective questioning
  2. Descriptive feedback
  3. Peer assessment
  4. Self assessment

An example of how this type of assessment can be carried out in class follows:

Students will work with the same group during one unit. At the beginning of the unit, the teacher will use a diagnostic activity that assesses students’ proficiencies in some of the learning outcomes. For instance, for a unit centring on oral communication students would initially be asked to silently read a very short story and then explain the story to the rest of the group. The group would ask questions and display their understanding by rephrasing the explanations.

After this activity the teacher will distribute a list of learning outcomes and expectations for the unit to each group. Group members will then discuss how well they met the expectations in the activity and will identify their areas of strengths and areas in which they need growth. They will write down these points and hand them in to the teacher.

At the end of the unit, each group will examine this list of strengths and weaknesses and will evaluate themselves as a group to determine their own learning over the course of the unit, handing in a list of discussion points at the end of the period.


Goulet, Jean-Guy A. (1998). Ways of knowing: Experience, knowledge, and power among the Dene Tha. Vancouver:
UBC Press.

Larson, J. & Marsh, J. (2010). Making literacy real: Theories and practices for learning and teaching. Sage: London.

Rogoff, B., Goodman Turkanis, C., & Bartlett, L. (2001). Learning together: Children and adults in a school community. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rogoff, B. (2003). The cultural nature of human development. New York: Oxford University Press.

Serafini, F. (2003). Informing our practice: Modernist, transactional, and critical perspectives on children’s literature and reading instruction. Reading Online, 6(6). Available:

Wang, L. (2007). Sociocultural learning theories and information literacy teaching activities in higher education.” Reference & User Services Quarterly, 47(2): 149-58.