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This issue of CDTL Brief is the last of a two-part Brief that features the teaching practices of the 2004/2005 Annual Teaching Excellence Award (ATEA) winners.

September 2006, Vol. 9, No. 4 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Applying Principles of Constructivist Pedagogy to Foreign Language Teaching
Dr Chan Wai Meng
Director, Centre for Language Studies
1. The learner as active constructor of knowledge

[.] knowledge is not passively received, but is actively built up by the cognizing subject. .That is, as much as we would like to, we cannot put ideas in students' heads, they will and must construct their own meanings. (Wheatley, 1991, p. 10)

The above quote expresses succinctly the basic tenet of constructivist pedagogy. Learning is an active and subjective process for the construction of meanings and knowledge. It thus emphasises the agency of the learner whose role is that of an active constructor and not one of a passive reproducer of externally transmitted information (Chun & Plass, 2000; Mandl & Reinmann-Rothmeier, 1998). Teachers cannot thus hope to directly transmit their knowledge to students and expect their students' minds to become a second store of this same knowledge. Teaching practices should instead seek means to activate learners and to support the construction of meaningful new knowledge on the basis of their existing cognitive structures (Perkins, 1992). It is also vital to help students to develop the ability to engage in independent learning, for which competence in metacognition and learning strategies are of vital importance (Bednar, Cunningham, Duffy & Perry, 1992).

2. Activating learners and providing open-ended tasks

If the perception and interpretation of objects and experiences do indeed represent, as constructivists claim, subjective processes unique to individuals, then learning, or the construction of knowledge, will invariably also lead to different learning outcomes among individual learners even if their learning takes place in a common environment. Wheatley (1991) thus proposes to provide tasks in which students assume the role of explorers and permit them to experiment, question, reflect, discover, invent and discuss, while the teacher becomes a resource person and facilitator. Learning tasks need to be open-ended and should permit as well as encourage potentially different outcomes.

Figure 1. Open-ended learning in ISS (Vocabulary Practice)

An example of such open-ended learning that involves students' active participation is the Interactive Situation Simulation (ISS)1-a series of multimedia applications developed by the German Language Programme in the Centre for Language Studies. Each ISS unit consists of a vocabulary and a conversational practice section. It exploits computer media's interactivity to give students a high degree of control over the selection of vocabulary items to learn, the construction of dialogues and the customisation of the application.

Figure 1 shows a screenshot from an ISS unit based on a situation in a restaurant. In the vocabulary practice section, students learn various lexical items related to the situation. By clicking on an item in the picture, the German and English words for the selected item appear on the right of the user interface. An image of the selected item and an audio reproduction of the German word enable multimodal learning and provide students with learning support. Learning tips with useful information on gender and plural formation rules are also at students' disposal. The interactive features give students full control over their own learning, allowing them to explore the illustration of a typical restaurant in Germany.

Figure 2. Open-ended learning in ISS (Conversational

In the conversational practice section (Figure 2), four common communicative situations (studying the menu, ordering food, talking about the food and paying the bill) are simulated in the ISS. Students play an active part in each of these situations and construct dialogues in tandem with the computer (the conversation partner). Two to three responses are available for students to select for each question or statement posed/uttered by the computer. The task here is thus open-ended, enabling students to co-determine the progression and outcome of the dialogue. All dialogues are pre-recorded and students can listen to them while constructing their dialogues. Their self-constructed conversations are then played back automatically at the end of the session. Students can exercise further control by customising the application (e.g. switching to English instructions, adding background noise or activating a glossary) to suit their learning preferences.

3. Developing metacognitive competence

Metacognition is considered by many to be the linchpin of effective learning, for "students without metacognitive approaches are essentially learners without direction or opportunity to plan their learning, monitor their progress, or review their accomplishments and future learning directions" (O'Malley & Chamot, 1990, p. 8). Focusing on the development of metacognition is consistent with constructivist pedagogy, as constructivists place as much emphasis on the construction of knowledge (i.e. the process) as on the knowledge constructed, (i.e. the product). Planning, monitoring and evaluating one's learning are vital metacognitive processes accompanying this process of construction. As the execution of these metacognitive processes draws upon one's metacognitive knowledge (person, task and strategy knowledge), it is thus necessary to raise students' consciousness about their own learning preferences, the nature and demands of the learning tasks they undertake and strategies for accomplishing these tasks. Figure 3 illustrates a letter-writing task that supports students' metacognitive processes. In this task, students are provided with metacognitive tips and guided through the following steps: collecting and arranging keywords, writing skeletal sentences, connecting sentences and checking for errors using a checklist.

Figure 3. Metacognitive tips for a letter-writing task (Funk &
Koenig, 1996, p. 80)

Besides metacognitive strategies, it is also important to help language learners develop memory strategies for vocabulary learning, cognitive strategies (e.g. to aid comprehension), communication strategies and social strategies. An important subset of learning strategies comprises strategies for inductive learning discussed in the next section.

4. Enabling inductive learning

Creating opportunities for students to learn independently through self-discovery is vital to constructivist pedagogy. For students to benefit from such opportunities, it is imperative to cultivate a culture of inductive learning and to equip them with suitable strategies. In a language course, this means developing students' ability to recognise new linguistic structures, identify regularities in their formation and use, organise such data into systematic schemata, formulate rules for the structures' formation and use, and discern the functions of these structures in the broader context of the target culture. Such strategies necessarily involve application of critical thinking skills to linguistic and sociolinguistic domains.

Figure 4. Encouraging inductive learning in a hypertext unit on 'Subjunctive II'

Figure 4 shows a screenshot of an ISS hypertext reference unit on 'Conditional Mood or Subjunctive II'. Instead of directly informing learners about the formation and functions of subjunctives, learners are presented with selected examples and asked to distinguish the new linguistic structures and hypothesise about their functions. If they need help, students can activate the rules and hints (embedded in the webpage using DHTML2) that determine the functions of the new linguistic structures. Internet technology thus makes it possible to design an interactive inductive learning unit for students to learn independently. The design of this section of the ISS also allows learners to practise and internalise inductive learning techniques while learning a new linguistic structure. The same design is applied to a series of other hypertext units to cultivate a habit of inductive learning.

5. Conclusion: Providing positive affective conditions for constructivist learning

Active participation as well as acceptance of process-oriented independent learning will only be possible if the proper affective conditions can be created. Research has indicated that negative affects such as anxiety, fear, stress and anger can be obstacles to effective learning (c.f. MacIntyre, 1999; Oxford, 1999). Conversely, positive classroom experiences, which boost self-esteem and motivation, can facilitate learning (c.f. Dörnyei, 2001). The teacher should thus strive to create an anxiety-free and supportive environment for learning. Such an environment is particularly important in beginning language courses, where students inevitably encounter some measure of regression as they struggle to express themselves with their limited proficiencies in the foreign language. To create such an environment, it is imperative that the teacher treats all students equally with empathy and respect, and seriously considers students' inputs and viewpoints, provides informative instead of evaluative feedback, and creates opportunities for interactions and relationship building through group-and pairwork.


Bednar, A.K.; Cunningham, D.; Duffy, T.M. & Perry, J.D. (1992). 'Theory into Practice: How Do We Link?' In Duffy, T.M. & Jonassen D.H. (Eds.), Constructivism and the Technology of Instruction: A Conversation. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. pp. 17-34.

Chun, D.M. & Plass, J.L. (2000). 'Networked Multimedia Environments for Second Language Acquisition'. In Warschauer, M. & Kern, R. (Eds.), Network-based Language Teaching: Concepts and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 151-170.

Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Funk, H. & Koenig, M. (1998). Eurolingua Deutsch 2. Berlin: Cornelsen.

MacIntyre, P.D. (1999). 'Language Anxiety: A Review of the Research for Language Teachers'. In Young, D.J. (Ed.), Affect in Foreign Language and Second Language Learning: A Practical Guide to Creating a Low-Anxiety Classroom Atmosphere. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hall. pp. 24-45.

Mandl, H. & Reinmann-Rothmeier, G. (1998). Auf dem Weg zu einer neuen Kultur des Lehrens und Lernens. In Dörr, G. & Jüngst, K.L. (Eds.), Lernen mit Medien: Ergebnisse und Perspektiven zu medial vermittelten Lehr- und Lernprozessen. Weinheim & Munich: Juventa. pp. 193-205.

O'Malley, J.M. & Chamot, A.U. (1990). Learning Strategies in Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Oxford, R.L. (1999). 'Anxiety and the Language Learner: New Insights'. In Arnold, J. (Ed.), Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 58-67.

Perkins, D.N. (1992). 'Technology Meets Constructivism: Do They Make a Marriage?' In Duffy, T.M. & Jonassen, D.H. (Eds.), Constructivism and the Technology of Instruction: A Conversation. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. pp. 45-55.

Wheatley, G.H. (1991). 'Constructivist Perspectives on Science and Mathematics Learning'. Science Education, Vol. 75, pp. 9-21.


1 All web-based learning applications and units referred to in this article are housed in the German Language Programme’s electronic self-access centre called ‘e-daf’ and accessible at

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2 DHTML stands for Dynamic Hypertext Markup Language which combines HTML with Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and Javascript to make web pages more dynamic and interactive.

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