Case Study: SLA Theories and the Role of Social Interactions

Sep 12th, 2017 | By | Category: News, News and Events
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author image of Zhaoyu Wang

Zhaoyu Wang


—In this case study, I used classic ethnographic methods to analyze a focus student, including her language skills, learning environment, and learning needs. This case study inspired me, in my future teaching, to not only pay attention to the classroom, but also to consider what is happening outside the classroom. Culture, family, politics, and so on all have great impacts on a person’s learning experience. It is a teacher’s duty to help a student choose the right path and become a lifetime learner.

This article describes the path I took to reach that conclusion. It is a mini-ethnographic case study of a fifth grader who is an English language learner (ELL). I used second language acquisition theories to analyze the ELL’s learning environment and to evaluate the ELL’s language-proficiency development. My theoretical focus is constructivism, behaviorism, and sociocultural theories. Through observations and interviews with the ELL, family members, instructors, and friends, I analyze and describe the role of social interactions in the ELL’s language-learning experience, and how personal cultural identity influences the ELL’s learning outcomes and academic performances.

School Context

I was placed in an elementary school (grades K-5). It is in Los Angeles and part of LAUSD. According to, more than 80% of the students in this school are Pacific Islanders, with the rest being mostly African Americans. Approximately 52% of the students are ELLs. More than 80% of the students are from low-income families and the ratio of male to female is 49:51. The observation classroom was a fifth-grade coed classroom with 26 students: 14 girls and 12 boys.

Instructional Context

Based on my observation, the classroom is equipped with various accommodations to help students study, such as whiteboards, projectors, computers, and a television. Students sit at different tables to participate in activities and discussions. In the class, students use notebooks, while the teacher uses the projector to show the students major points of the lesson. Students can also use word flash cards to do their ELD (English language development) reading and fluency assignments. While doing writing practice, students have the chance to type their compositions on a keyboard.

Student Context

Students in the classroom are both male and female, and their ages range from 10 to 12 years old. I observed that they have received formal education in English, with little distinction between students’ language level (however, there are maybe one or two students with below-average English proficiency, since they do not actively participate in or contribute to group discussions). Students talk to each other in English only, speak fluently, and with well-organized grammar and sentence structure.

My focus student is a fifth grader named J (an alias). J is 11 years old and from a rather low-income family. Her mother was born in the US but left for Mexico at a very young age. Her father was born in Central America. At home, J’s mother mostly speaks Spanish and her father speaks only English to her. Her first language is English, and according to her teacher, she is now at Level 3 of English language proficiency. J was born in the US; therefore, she has a better English-learning environment compared to others who are not native born. She primarily uses English at home, and most of her media consumption is in English, so, naturally, she has more opportunities to use English other than in school.

J was chosen because her language proficiency is relatively low compared to that of her peers; I hoped that tutoring sessions would help accelerate her progress. Although her speaking skills are high and she can handle communicative conversations, her reading-comprehension skills are not sufficient to pass the CELDT (California English Language Development Test). Therefore, she has been in the ELD program for five years.


According to Whitehead (2005), there are several basic classical ethnographic research methods, including “secondary data analysis, fieldwork, observation/participant observation, and informal and semi-structured interviewing” (p. 2). In this case study, I was to conduct interviews with J herself, her teacher, parents, classmates, and the administrator of the school. Also, I observed the classroom for eight weeks to analyze J’s learning process. Furthermore, I take J’s assignments and homework into consideration to conduct this research.

Data Collection and Analysis

Theoretical Focus

The theory of constructivism suggests that individuals construct their knowledge through their interaction with their social and physical environments and by reflecting on their experiences (Simina & Hamel, 2005). As a result, different people may construct different meanings from the same stimuli because of their unique prior experiences and knowledge (Ormrod, 2011). From the viewpoint of constructivist theory, learning is an active constructive process through which learners play the crucial role while tutors are seen as facilitators or guides (Simina & Hamel, 2005). Students are supposed to monitor their own learning to determine whether they are on the right track (Ormrod, 2011). Whereas constructivism gives teachers methodology to design a better class, students would have the tendency to be influenced by the prior knowledge and expectations, especially when the new information is ambiguous (Ormrod, 2011). Plus, reconstruction error might take place while students are retrieving knowledge based on what seems logical (Ormrod, 2011).

In sociocultural theories, learning can be regarded as a mediated process, and it is also seen as socially mediated (Mitchell, Myles, & Marsden, 2013). Therefore, learners can perform at a higher level with the support of interlocutors, which is scaffolding. (Lightbown & Spada, 2013). Scaffolding is defined by Jerome Bruner as follows: “a process of ‘setting up’ the situation to make the child’s entry easy and successful and then gradually pulling back and handing the role to the child as he becomes skilled enough to manage it” (as cited by Walqui, 2006). One of the main assumptions of sociocultural theories is that the zone of proximal development (ZPD), which was initially proposed by Vygotsky (1978), plays an essential role in the learning process, and some sociolinguists maintain that it is only within the ZPD that scaffolding can take place (Walqui, 2006). As a result, knowledge or abilities too far outside the ZPD can be demotivating.

Another second language acquisition theory that can be used to explain the student’s learning process is behaviorism. In behavioral theories, learning is defined as a behavior change (Ormrod, 2011). Lightbown and Spada (2013) suggest that behavioral theories explain learning from different aspects, such as imitation, practice, reinforcement, and habit formation. To sum up, learning involves forming associations among stimuli and responses. Based on my observation, the teacher used a lot of activities to reinforce students’ stimuli and encourage them to do imitations in the class.

Observation Summary

In Weeks 3 and 4, the students had different topics to study, such as differentiating common and proper nouns, ELD practice, and American Indian cultural regions. In the classes, most of the students could participate in the activities, which testified to the obvious evidence of learning. For example, when students were learning how to differentiate proper and common nouns, the teacher would first draw a word-bridge map, and then the students were asked to draw the same one on their own. This scenario showed that students could learn through imitation and practice, which fell under behaviorism. As a result, the students would acquire some new knowledge at the end of class and put it into use, such as in class discussions and compositions.

In Week 5, students learned about erosion by using context clues. Students were also required to draw word pictures to explain the new vocabulary words. Most important, students should be able to differentiate between common and proper nouns. In the class, most of the students could not use context clues to solve questions because they were not able to find the connections between contexts. However, they were able to differentiate common and proper nouns very well, since they had been working on this the whole week. Students were capable of following the teacher’s instructions to draw word pictures, but some of them could not completely understand what the words meant. Consequently, they had some difficulties when drawing them. In this week, the teacher used relevant pictures to help students understand the concept of erosion, which was activating students’ background knowledge in order to help students process the new ambiguous concept. In this case, constructivism was exemplified.

In Weeks 6 and 7, the focus was still on the use of context clues to analyze the passage and guess the meaning(s) of (a) word(s). Students were required to practice inflectional endings and read an article about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. At first, students showed great interest in this topic. While taking turns reading the passage, they raised many questions about the event. For example, “Why would people at that time follow the law? It was severe racism.” Moreover, students would follow the teacher’s instructions when being corrected on word pronunciation. They would read the words several times to make sure that they could get them right. While doing exercises about plural vocabulary words, most of the students had mastered the inflectional endings already. Additionally, during class time, the students had a lot of opportunities to share their ideas with peers and the teacher. According to sociocultural theories, learning can be processed by social interactions (Mitchell, Myles, & Marsden, 2013). Therefore, the majority of learning took place during student discussions in class, facilitated and guided by the teacher.


With the purpose of analyzing the learning process of the focus student, I conducted several interviews with J herself, her mother, teacher, and a classmate (participants signed a consent form). The interviews would reflect some basic information about the student, her learning environment, and attitude.

In the interview with the focus student (see Appendix A for the questions), I knew some basic background information. Of utmost importance to J’s English learning was the primary language used at home. Both of her parents spoke English (her father spoke only English to her), which created a positive learning climate for her. In addition, her affection for movies also helped her with her spoken English.

In the interview with the teacher (see Appendix B for the questions), I understood that the focus student had been in the ELD program for five years, yet she was still at Level 3. I was also informed that the biggest difference between ELD students and non-ELD students was their vocabulary base. Normally, non-ELD students had better vocabulary and they were typically more fluent readers so their comprehension was at a much higher level. Compared to non-ELD students, J had a relatively weak comprehension ability.

a shot showing a sample of J's homework

A sample of J’s homework

In the interview with J’s mother (see Appendix C for the questions), I spoke with her via video conference online. During the interview, it was obvious that J’s mother was not well versed at speaking English. Her pronunciation was difficult to understand and she had poor grammar skills. However, her mother was very engaged in J’s education and hoped that she could get into a good college for further study. In terms of learning styles, I noticed that J did not pay much attention to her homework after school, and she preferred to finish it at school. This situation might cause rushed work instead of good work, which meant J might make some simple mistakes when she was hastily doing her homework.

In the interview with one of J’s classmates, I perceived the importance of social interactions when learning (see Appendix D for the questions). The classmate named B (an alias) had also been in the ELD program for five years. According to B, they were the best friends in the class and J was willing to share her life with B. J liked to read and write stories sometimes, and they also enjoyed talking to each other about school life. As a consequence, the social interactions helped J process the new knowledge she gained at school.


Based on my observation, I can state that the focus student has basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) but lacks in developing cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP). During the interview, J was able to answer questions involving her family and daily life. However, in tutoring sessions, she always hesitated when asked to analyze a science article. Consequently, she still needed improvements in academic language proficiency.

Analysis of the Focus Student’s Speaking Skills

Based on my interviews and observation, I could see that the focus student performed better in social conversation skills than in academic conversation skills. As I mentioned before, the focus student spoke only English at home; thus she had the basic preexisting knowledge and experience about it, in which constructivism took place. However, in tutoring sessions, she had some difficulties in using proper academic language to summarize the main point of the passage. What is more, she sometimes could not understand the hidden meaning, or subtext, of a sentence. As a result, when asked to summarize the main idea of a certain paragraph, she was barely able to finish the task on her own.

Analysis of the Focus Student’s Listening Skills

In terms of listening skills, students did not have a lot of listening tasks during class time. Nonetheless, students had fluency activities in ELD class, where they worked in small groups to read words and sentences. In the fluency activities, every student took turns to read words and sentences, while other team members listened to him/her and made corrections accordingly. In this session, the focus student was able to point out her classmates’ mistakes and gave corrections precisely. In this case, J had opportunities to interact with her peers, whereas sociocultural theories facilitated the focus student to learn more efficiently.

Limitations of the Study

There are three main shortcomings in this case study. First, ethnographic study needs long-term research; therefore, a 10-week case study could not yield sufficient evidence for me to conduct thorough research. Second, the interviews were limited for multiple reasons. For example, I did not get to interview the administrator of the school because of timing conflicts. J’s father should have been taken into consideration in this study, since he was the only one who spoke only English at home; this could have had a great influence on her learning experience. Third, J was only 11 years old, so I did not ask many questions involving politics. Also, J’s mother refused to talk about politics. Consequently, political perspectives were not included in this case study.

Summary of Conclusions and Recommendations

My observations and interviews showed that the ELD program that the school provided was a good way for the focus student to learn English. The program covered listening, speaking, and writing sessions and was helpful for ELLs. Also, this program nurtured a cooperative learning environment in the classroom, where students would have a lot of chances to interact with peers. Sociocultural theories suggest that learning is a social process (Lightbown & Spada, 2013); hence students were able to learn with the help of scaffolding provided by teachers and peers. Notwithstanding, the program did not pay close attention to reading-comprehension ability, which was the biggest weakness of ELLs. Additionally, students’ cultural backgrounds were different, so I suggest that when designing the program, students who shared the same culture could be assigned to the same group. In this case, they would cultivate personal identities naturally, which could help them develop a self-learning concept.

Zhaoyu Wang is a student at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education.


Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (2013). How languages are learned. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Mitchell, R., Myles, F., & Marsden, E. (2013). Second language learning theories. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ormrod, J. E. (2011). Educational psychology: Developing learners. New York City, NY: Pearson.

Simina, V., & Hamel, M. (2005). CASLA through a social constructivist perspective: WebQuest in project-driven language learning. ReCall, 17(2), 217-228. doi: 10.1017/S0958344005000552

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Interaction between learning and development. In Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes (pp. 79-91). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Walqui, A. (2006). Scaffolding instruction for English language learners: A conceptual framework. The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 9(2), 159-180.

Whitehead, T. L. (2005). Basic classical ethnographic research methods. Ethnographically informed community and cultural assessment research systems (EICCARS) working paper series. College Park, MD: Author.


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