Learning & Teaching Foreign Languages

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Skinnerian theory

Read and Reflect

Read this discussion of B.F. Skinner's contribution to psychology.

Read the theory section to find definitions for the following concepts:


  • schedules of reinforcement
  • shaping
  • positive and negative reinforcement

Which concepts might be relevant to second language learning?



  • schedules of reinforcement - rate of reward
  • shaping - reinforcement of behaviors similar to that desired
  • positive reinforcement - reward for response to stimulus
  • negative reinforcement - removal of aversive stimulus

Second language learning


  • reinforcement

Teachers do not systematically reward appropriate language use.  Though they do generally praise good performance, and such praise may contribute to learners' general motivation, a teacher's response to a student utterance cannot be considered to reinforce the behavior in the same way a food pellet rewards a rat for pressing a lever. On the other hand, teacher praise can guide a class by identifying examples of good language use. If individual students are pronouncing a new word aloud, the teacher may select one learner who shows particularly accurate pronunciation and have this learner demonstrate to the class, thus reinforcing the desired behavior for everyone.


  • shaping

Teachers can break down language for learners in various ways, for example by isolating sounds and words for separate practice. Many types of pattern practice found in audiolingualism are based on the notion of shaping.

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