Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd. ed.


Foundations of Linguistics - Approaches and Concepts:
Constructivism, applied linguistics, and language education


Thomas Cobb

Dépt. de linguistique et de didactique des langues

Université du Québec à Montréal

Montréal, Canada
March 2005


Tom Cobb taught English for specific purposes (medicine, engineering) for several years at universities in Canada and abroad (Saudi Arabia, Oman, Hong Kong), and then did a PhD in educational technology involving constructivist approaches to exploiting information technology in language learning. He now gives courses and directs dissertations involving computation and language instruction at a French-language university in Montreal.




Constructivism, the notion that knowledge must be assembled from pieces rather than assimilated whole, has been a principal learning theory in psychology for about 20 years and in psycholinguistics for 10. The theory is now making a strong entry into educational thinking, but in language education it is less in evidence. That is because applied linguists have “always been constructivists,” implicitly, and have already confronted some of the implementation problems facing constructivism in mathematics or science education. Nevertheless, a more explicit understanding of the constructivist approach is useful within language education, particularly in providing a framework for exploiting information technologies.



Constructivist, constructivism, objectivism, learner-as-linguist, language technologies, second language acquisition, educational reform




Second language acquisition; Teaching technologies, second language; Communicative Language Teaching; Corpus studies, second language; Vocabulary, second language



Reading the educational research literature of the last 10 years, one encounters many instances of the terms ‘constructivist’ and ‘constructivism.’ Here education is following its parent discipline, psychology, where the occurrence of these terms ‘multiplied five-fold … between 1980 and 2000’ (Mahoney, 2003). Unfortunately, one might also emerge from these encounters without a very clear idea of what these terms actually mean. In recent classroom-based research, constructivism often seems loosely associated with any type of student-centered or project-based learning. In more theoretical research, the situation is no more clear. In Constructivism in education, Steffe and Gale (1995) identify no fewer than six core paradigms of constructivism, namely social constructivism, radical constructivism, social constructionism, information-processing constructivism, cybernetic or systems constructivism, and sociocultural or mediated-action constructivism (1995, p. xiii). It is somewhat difficult to determine (or indeed “construct”) any sense of what is common across these approaches, partly because of their proponents’ tendency to wage private battles against each other rather than a common foe.


And yet there is a common foe implicitly known to all constructivists, if not always stated, and that is the epistemological claim (variously designated as dualist, positivist, objectivist, or Cartesian) that knowledge in the head is both separate from and an objective representation of an out-there reality, and further, that the transmission of whole, objective representations from out-there to in-here is the main business of education. The positions can be distinguished by differing stances toward external reality:

·        it does not exist, or it may exist but we have no way of knowing much about it (von Glasersfeld);

·        it exists objectively, but it cannot enter a learner’s head whole from out-there, rather must be reconstructed in-here through piecemeal encounters with previously unencoded data (Spiro);

·        … and the success of this depends hugely on what has been constructed previously (Bruner);

·        it exists intersubjectively, and must be reconstructed by each learner, but this works best as a social not individual operation (Vygotsky).

For a more detailed linking of names to ideas, see Ryder’s excellent online collection of hundreds of new and classic constructivist documents, or an insightful review of Steffe and Gales’ book by Jaworski, both online.


For psycholinguists, the particular reality that must be reconstructed piecemeal from data by each language learner is, of course, the grammar of a language. For Chomsky (e.g., 1980), a universal grammar exists in each human mind, whole and prior to the arrival of any linguistic data, and indeed is the precondition for building a system out of such data.  But this idea has been strongly disputed since the mid-1980s by constructivists, emergentists, construction grammarians, and connectionists, whose neural-network computer simulations seem to show that grammatical systems could be constructed from interacting instances alone, i.e., from raw data. On this view, the rules and structures of language do not precede instances but rather ‘emerge from simple developmental processes being exposed to massive and complex environmental input’ (in the words of Nick Ellis, whose 1998 paper provides a broad review of the idea). In approaches to language acquisition, then, constructivism is an important and novel idea.


Against such a background, it seems truly amazing that if you enter the term constructivism into the search engine of a major journal in applied linguistics, you come up with a resounding “Not found.” The journals Applied Linguistics and Language Learning, at least in the years covered by their online collections, apparently offer no titles or references whatever bearing this term. Why is this? Let me introduce a perspective on this question through a homely analogy.


The Ministry of Education in Quebec, Canada, has recently launched a major reform in the public school system. Everything from textbooks and teaching methods to classroom organization has been affected. The word constructivism is writ large across the many documents accompanying this reform; we are effectively living through a constructivist revolution. And yet, as many of the province’s language educators point out, the “new” recommendations for science and mathematics classrooms seem to be about doing precisely what ESL (English as a Second Language) and FSL (French) language educators have been doing for a long time: group work, project work, emphasis on active use rather than passive understanding, emphasis on what the learner does rather than on what the teacher does, concern for the key roles of motivation and prior knowledge—and  many others in the constructivist line-up.


The language educators’ observations are more than coincidental.  When applied linguistics, and more broadly modern approaches to language learning, departed from the behaviourist agenda in the late 1970s, they did so in ways that anticipated the more general adoption of constructivism in educational thinking. Consider several of the key learning principles in the constructivist agenda:


  1. The to-be-learned knowledge, a human language, is not exactly out-there in any objective sense. (Who imagines that if there were no humans to speak it, a language could be said to exist?)
  2. Fully formed knowledge representations can not be successfully ‘transmitted’ to passive learners, conceived as ‘containers,’ in Bereiter’s, 2002, metaphor. (Who would dispute that a language learner must use a language in order to gain control of it or truly know it? There is a large body of literature in applied linguistics devoted to the ‘output hypothesis’ e.g., Swain, 2005.)
  3. Knowledge can be constructed collaboratively. (There are longstanding research traditions in applied linguistics in both interaction and group work as a main source of learning, e.g., Long, 2001, and specifically Vygotskian manifestations of this idea, e.g., Lantolf, 2004.)
  4. Constructed knowledge is difficult to test, since learners will construct individual representations of any to-be-learned content. (Who would dispute that my mental representation of English or French is inevitably and legitimately different in large ways from anyone else’s?)


At some point in the 1970s, it seems that most applied linguists departed from audiolingualism-behaviourism, our own brand of objectivism, and adopted, instead of the Chomskyan principles that were the official alternative (but which never really lent themselves to a useful pedagogy), a proto-constructivism. There were, after all, two roads out of behaviourism for language, Chomsky’s innatism and Piaget’s constructivism (Piatelli-Palmarini, 1980). Applied linguists and language educators paid lip service to the former but in truth were closer to the latter.


And having gone into constructivism earlier, applied linguists have run into some of its problems earlier. For example, in second language vocabulary acquisition, which has been a test-bed for many constructivist ventures, a major proposal from Brown et al (1989) is that learners should not be handed fully formed or “pre-emptively encoded” word meanings, but rather should grapple with raw evidence, constructing their own meanings out of numerous partial encounters with instances. This is a rather familiar idea to applied linguistics researchers. Under the headings of “inductive” or “data-driven” learning (e.g., Johns, 1991), a number of studies have looked into the value of this approach. In fact, such approaches, for all their theoretical appeal, have a mixed track record in the language classroom. In vocabulary studies, there is a long bibliography of research findings showing learners unable to make much use of raw data for the purpose of inferring word meanings (Laufer & Sim, 1989; Schatz & Baldwin, 1986) or for inferring rules for grammatical forms. Grammatical rules and word meanings may be constructible over a lifetime, but classrooms work in a somewhat shorter time frame. And where constructivist approaches have been successful, they are known to interact strongly with learning style, intelligence, and (in one of my own studies, Cobb, 1997a), gender.


In education, the case for constructivism tends to be argued from nature and first principles: if reality and the human mind are thus constituted, here is what a classroom should look like. In applied linguistics, with our longer experience, the case is more likely to be argued in relative terms and judged by outcomes. Second language learning is known from the beginning to be a somewhat unnatural enterprise, where one is typically acquiring a selected portion of a human language, often as an adult rather than a child, usually in a few months rather than 15 years, and so on. If constructivism is to have any value in the practice of language learning, it will be on the grounds of utility, not nature. And is there a case for utility?


A hue of constructivism that seems relevant to learning a first or second language is one proposed by Spiro et al (1991) within the information processing paradigm mentioned above. This paradigm proposes a number of specific and verifiable benefits to be realized through a constructivist approach, especially within ill-structured domains including language acquisition. One is that representations constructed from grappling with raw data, as opposed to representations resulting from someone else’s having grappled, are not just generally “better” in some vague way but specifically are more successfully transferred to novel contexts and form a better preparation for further independent learning. This paradigm also proposes a methodology for helping learners perform this grappling with raw data, namely the adaptation of the tools and methods that experts have developed over the years to help them with their own grappling. Like learners, experts in any domain experience difficulties in their encounters with unencoded data, but unlike learners they have developed tools and methods to overcome these difficulties.


I have argued (in Cobb, 1999) that constructivist ventures in language education would involve pedagogical adaptation of the tools and procedures of relevant language experts, such as lexicographers and computational linguists. For example, the word-learning task facing a learner and a lexicographer are essentially the same, and are essentially ‘constructivist.’ Both must make sense of an overwhelming amount of raw and distributed information in an artificially brief amount of time. Lexicographers use a corpus and concordance to assemble in moments and force the patterns out of data that would otherwise require years, and it is not inconceivable that learners might be able to do some scaffolded version of this too.  In two controlled experiments (Cobb, 1997b; Cobb & Horst, 2001) a strong transfer-of-learning effect was found for constructing word-meanings from learning-adapted corpus and concordance tasks, as compared to learning pre-constructed meanings from dictionary definitions. Work is currently underway to extend this approach and technology to grammar (Gaskell & Cobb, 2004). 


It is often noted that the exploitation of information technology in language education is proceeding without a theoretical underpinning. A learner-as-linguist variant of constructivism might provide this underpinning. It might also provide what was often missing from the inductive, discovery, and constructivist approaches of the past—the tools learners need to induce, discover, and construct.





Applied Linguistics [Online at http://applij.oupjournals.org/ ].


Bereiter, Carl. 2002. Education and mind in the knowledge age. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Online at http://www.observetory.com/carlbereiter/ [Retrieved Dec 22, 2004.]

Brown, J.S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher 18 (1), 32-42.

Cobb, T. (1997a). From concord to lexicon: Development and test of a corpus-based lexical tutor. Concordia University: Unpublished doctoral dissertation.

Cobb, T. (1997b). Is there any measurable learning from hands-on concordancing? System 25 (3), 301-315.

Cobb, T. (1999). Applying constructivism: A test for the learner as scientist. Educational Technology Research & Development, 47 (3),15-31.

Cobb, T., & Horst, M. (2001). Reading academic English: Carrying learners across the lexical threshold.  In J. Flowerdew & M. Peacock (Eds.) The English for Academic Purposes Curriculum (pp. 315-329). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chomsky, N.  (1980). Rules and representations. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3, 1-61.

Ellis, N. (1998). Emergentism, connectionism, and language learning. Language Learning 48 (4), 631-664.

Gaskell, D., & Cobb, T. (2004). Can learners use concordance feedback for writing errors? System, 32(3), 301-319. [Online from http://www.er.uqam.ca/nobel/r21270/cv/#Publications, retrieved Dec 22, 2004.]


Barbara Jaworski (1998). Review of Steffe & Gale, Constructivism in education.
International Reviews on Mathematical  Education, 30 (2), 50-54.

[Online at http://www.fiz-karlsruhe.de/fiz/publications/zdm/zdm982r2.pdf , retrieved Dec 22, 2004].

Johns, T. (1991a). Should you be persuaded - two examples of data-driven learning. In T. Johns & P. King (Eds.) Classroom concordancing: English Language Research Journal, 4 (pp. 1-13). University of Birmingham: Centre for English Language Studies.

Language Learning [Online at  http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/bpl/lang].


Lantolf, J. (2004). Sociocultural theory and second language learning: Select bibliography. [Online at http://language.la.psu.edu/aplng597f/VL2BIB.html, retrieved Dec 22, 2004).]


Laufer, B., & Sim, D.(1985). Taking the easy way out: Non-use and misuse of clues in EFL reading. English Teaching Forum, April, pp. 7-10.


Long, M. H. (2001). Native speaker/non‑native speaker conversation and the negotiation of comprehensible input. Reprinted in C. Candlin & T. Macnamara (Eds.), A reader in applied linguistics. London: Routledge.


Mahony, M. (2003). What is constructivism and why is it growing? [Online at http://www.constructivism123.com/What_Is/What_is_constructivism.htm ,retrieved 22 December 2004].


Piatelli-Palmarini, M. (Ed.) (1980). Language and Learning: The Debate Between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.

Ryder, M. Constructivism website. [Online at http://carbon.cudenver.edu/%7Emryder/itc_data/constructivism.html : retrieved 22 December 2004].

Schatz, E.K., & Baldwin, R.S. (1986). Context clues are unreliable predictors of word meanings. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 439-453.

Spiro, R.J., Feltovich, P.J., Jacobson, M.J., & Coulson, R.L. (1991). Cognitive flexibility, constructivism, and hypertext: Random access instruction for advanced knowledge acquisition in ill-structured domains. Educational Technology, 31 (5), 24-33.


Steffe, L., & Gale, J. (Eds.) (1995), Constructivism in education. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


Swain, M. (2005). The output hypothesis: Theory and research. To appear in E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook on research in second language learning and teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.