Article 07: The complementary contributions of Halliday and Vygotsky to a 'Language-based Theory of Learning'.

7 The complementary contributions of Halliday and Vygotsky to a 'Language-based Theory of Learning'

Wells, G (1994)
Linguistics and Education, 6(1), 41-90
There is a link to this via the
Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition (31.03.2010)

In brief:
I'm interested in Halliday's functional grammar and the language-based theory of learning, and use Vygotsky a lot when I refer to the Zone of Proximal Development which I believe Vygotsky was writing about CLIL before its time as CLIL language support instruments are structures to help learners move from their ZPD to beyond. I am interested in all of that, but it was only really the last section of this paper which brings together ideas from Halliday and Vygotsky to suggest an approach to learning based on the combined ideas of the two great minds, which are complementary ideas according to the Wells. The last section is about school learning contexts.

This combined approach is about the language of learning, and the design of the learning which embeds this language within it (my words).

At length:
It took me a while to read this article. I had to keep going back over sections to understand and I think that nowadays I'm just more drawn to writing which is directly about classroom practice, rather than theories, and this is about three theories, Halliday's 'Language-based theory of learning' (referred to as LTL), Vygotsky's 'activity-based theory of learning' and the third is the author's combination of the two to suggest a way forward to education which is

'A comprehensive language-based theory of learning should not only explain how language is learned and how cultural knowledge is learned through language. It should also show how this knowledge arises out of collaborative practical and intellectual activities and, in turn, mediates the actions and operations by means of which these activities are carried out.'

It is a powerful conclusion to the article, but there is a footnote which does sap my enthusiasm a little, and that is end note 7 which refers to Wertsch (1985) which states in short that we're still awaiting 'thorough investigation' of the relationship between grammar and the higher mental functions. So, in the space of ten years, 1985 to 1994, we have to assume that still no investigation had taken place. I wonder if it's now been done. Let me know if you find it. My feeling is that CLIL is in practice what Wells conclusion states is needed. The difference, of course, is that CLIL is about another language medium, not the mother tongue.

It was in fact the last section which interested me most in the article. Wells writes about the integration of Halliday and Vygotsky in the context of school learning.

(page 82) '... it is written texts - and talk about them - that provide the discursive means for the development of the 'higher mental functions' so we can plan a language programme for learning a subject based on an analysis of the formal written language of this subject (my words added).

(page 82) 'The reorganization of the grammar and the concomitant reconstrual of experience that is required in order to use written text as a tool for thinking and communicating does occur spontaneously for most children' so we have to teach it to them (my words added).

(page 82) 'children need to perceive (the language) as functional for them in relation to activities that they find both challenging and personally meaningful' so we have to make tasks challenging and meaningful and serving a clear purpose (my words added).

PS - (page 83) Wells refers to Halliday's distinction between 'meaning', 'doing', and 'saying'. It occurs to me that in CLIL, all of these factors have another language dimension, the foreign language dimension. See my article on onestopclil which takes Phil Ball's triad of procedural, conceptual and linguistic skills to create a 'cube' metaphor as an instrument for asking questions about learners to help plan learning.