Sociocultural theory and the dialectical-materialist approach to L2 development

Introduction to the special issue


  • Matthew E. Poehner The Pennsylvania State University



learner responsiveness, mediation, regulatory scale, self-regulation, zone of proximal development, L2, dialectical materialism


Sociocultural Theory (SCT), as formulated in the writings of Russian psychologist L. S. Vygotsky (1987), was first introduced to the L2 field 30 years ago (Frawley and Lantolf, 1985) as a powerful lens for interpreting processes of L2 development and their relation to particular activities, practices, and interactions (see also Lantolf and Appel, 1994). Beginning with Lantolf and Thorne (2006), L2 SCT researchers have drawn upon principles from the theory to inform educational practices to actively promote learner L2 abilities. Lantolf and Poehner (2014) further elaborated this work in their analysis of the foundational role of dialectics in Vygotsky’s thinking. These authors determined that Vygotsky’s commitment to understanding the relational unity of seemingly disparate and contradictory processes provided the basis for his elaboration of a scientific psychology as well as for his practical work with teachers and learners. For SCT, dialectics functions at the level of a meta-theory, providing a coherent logic for domains of inquiry including natural as well as social and humanistic sciences. It is argued that to appreciate the differences among theoretical approaches currently pursued by SLA researchers and to evaluate their commensurability requires taking account of the meta-theory, or philosophy of science, in which they are rooted. Post-positivism and interpretivism are identified as philosophical positions that underlie and have influenced much SLA research. Both are examined with particular attention to assumptions they make regarding ontology, epistemology, causality, and teleology. Following identification of key differences between these two philosophies, discussion turns to dialectical materialism and to the ways in which this perspective poses new challenges to fundamental assumptions in both post-positivism and interpretivism. Finally, the four papers included in this special issue are examined as representative of the implications of dialectical materialism for L2 research and practice.

Author Biography

Matthew E. Poehner, The Pennsylvania State University

Dr. Matthew E. Poehner is Associate Editor of Language and Sociocultural Theory and Associate Professor of World Languages Education and Applied Linguistics at The Pennsylvania State University, where, he directs the teacher education program for candidates pursuing certification to teach a world language in the K-12 school system and also contributes to the doctoral programs in Curriculum and Instruction and Applied Linguistics. Dr. Poehner’s research examines the use of Sociocultural Theory, as conceived by Russian psychologist L. S. Vygotsky, as a basis for second language educational practices, including Dynamic Assessment, Mediated Development, and Systemic-theoretical Instruction. Much of Dr. Poehner’s work has focused specifically on Dynamic Assessment as a framework for organizing interactions with learners in order to simultaneously diagnose their abilities and promote their continued development. Dr. Poehner’s research has involved partnerships with language teachers, learners, and program directors and has been supported through grant awards. His work has appeared in venues including TESOL Quarterly, Language Teaching Research, The Modern Language Journal, Language Testing, and the International Journal of Applied Linguistics. He is the author, co-author, or editor of four books, including Sociocultural Theory and the pedagogical imperative in L2 education: Vygotskian praxis and the research/practice divide (2014, with J. P. Lantolf), which received the 2015 Kenneth W. Mildenberger Prize from the Modern Language Association. An earlier book, Dynamic Assessment: A Vygotskian approach to understanding and promoting second language development (2008), was a finalist for the Outstanding Book Award through the British Association for Applied Linguistics. In 2008, Dr. Poehner received the Pimsleur Award for Outstanding Research Contribution from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.


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How to Cite

Poehner, M. E. (2017). Sociocultural theory and the dialectical-materialist approach to L2 development: Introduction to the special issue. Language and Sociocultural Theory, 3(2), 133–152.



Special Issue Editorial