Playfulness in classroom interactions: A sociocultural approach

Hanae Katayama*

*Corresponding author for this work

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This paper uses Vygotsky's sociocultural approach to examine collaborative language play in an ESL class. While play is commonly considered to be peripheral to or distracting from the learning process (cf. Cook, 2000; Pomerantz and Bell, 2007; Swann and Maybin, 2007), play in Vygotsky's view is essential for cognitive and functional development, particularly for children's development. According to Vygotsky's sociocultural theory, play creates a zone of proximal development (ZPD), a metaphorically conceptualized zone that designates "the distance between the actual developmental level" and "the level of potential development" (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86). ZPD emerges when a child is engaged in play with more capable peers or under the guidance of adults, enabling the child to appropriate and internalize a higher level of performance and ultimately become independent at performing a task he or she was previously incapable of doing. Sociocultural research on second language learning applies Vygotsky's theory and illustrates how playful manipulation of a second language mediates the learner's language development (Kim and Kellogg, 2007; Lantolf, 1997; Ohta, 2000; Sullivan, 2000). Building on these and other studies that re-consider the value of playful language use in classrooms, the current study analyzes studentteacher interaction in an adult ESL cooking class. The analysis shows that while the students are at first reserved when it comes to speaking up, they soon engage in collaborative play in which they not only imitate the utterances of others but also become bold and experiment with new phrase combinations. By focusing on playfulness in classroom interaction, a rather marginalized aspect of second or foreign language research, this study attempts to contribute to the understanding of the nature of classroom discourse from a fresh perspective.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)19-32
Number of pages14
JournalUbiquitous Learning
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2009

Bibliographical note

Copyright Common Ground and The Author. Article originally published in Ubiquitous Learning : an International Journal, Volume 1, Number 2, pp. 19-31. This version archived on behalf of the author and is available for individual, non-commercial use. Permission must be sought from the publisher to republish or reproduce or for any other purpose.


  • English as a second language (ESL)
  • Language learning
  • Language play
  • Sociocultural theory
  • Vygotsky


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