In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Lev Vygotsky and His Cultural-historical Approach to Development

  • Introduction
  • Vygotsky’s Basic Works
  • Vygotsky’s Theoretical Legacy
  • Journals
  • Early Childhood Education
  • Critical Voices

Childhood Studies Lev Vygotsky and His Cultural-historical Approach to Development
Vera John-Steiner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0128


The impact of the Russian psychologist L. S. Vygotsky on the study of children’s development happened only very slowly because cultural and political events interfered with an exchange of ideas between Russian and Western theorists. After his untimely death, his worldwide impact was aided by the publication of his writings in English and other languages. He is increasingly cited as a key figure of the 20th century in developmental psychology and related disciplines. Vygotsky was born in 1896 and spent his childhood in Gomel as a much loved son of a large nonreligious Russian Jewish family. As a young man he experienced World War I and various occupations occasioned by the world war and the Russian civil war. He possibly witnessed pogroms and, at the end of his life, political repression. These traumatic events affected Vygotsky deeply. During his university studies, he became increasingly interested in psychology. Subsequently, he taught in a public school in Gomel and began to think systematically about a new approach to the field of psychology. In 1924, he and his wife moved to Moscow. During the following decade Vygotsky worked closely with a group of young psychologists who shared his interests. His theoretical focus included human cognitive processes and the construction of social artifacts, such as language. In his voluminous writings, Vygotsky explored the active nature of young learners, their play and creativity, the importance of the distinction between lower (biologically rooted) functions and higher (meaning-oriented) activities, the relationships between learning and development and between thought and language. Vygotsky distinguished himself in constructing a system of cultural-historical concepts (CHAT) that are still being developed. The CHAT approach is but one of many interpretations of Vygotsky’s legacy, which has taken somewhat different forms in Western and non-Western scholarly communities. Some of his work was schematic due to his recurrent illness of tuberculosis. His best-known books are Thought and Language, the edited volume Mind in Society, and his Collected Works (six volumes). He died on 11 June 1934 in Moscow. The contemporary impact of his work is due, in part, to his focus on the development of processes rather than the measurement of maturational-driven outcomes. This dynamic approach to learning has been of particular importance to educators, who have used his ideas to create programs that support children’s active construction of knowledge and in which language plays a central role in educational growth.

Vygotsky’s Basic Works

The most authoritative and complete set of Vygotsky’s writings are in his Collected Works, which include a republication of Thought and Language (renamed Thinking and Speech) in the first volume of the series (see Vygotsky 1987). The volumes are not chronologically presented. R. W. Rieber, the general editor, did not strictly follow the dates of the original Russian publications. The series was published in English by Plenum Press, New York. The contents of some of these volumes were drawn from different manuscripts, a number of them unpublished during Vygotsky’s life. The editors were guided by their goal to present a complete and cohesive collection of Vygotsky’s varied works. Each of the volumes is introduced by a specialist, who places the work into a more contemporary context. Jerome Bruner’s introduction to Volume 1 (Vygotsky 1987) in which he analyzes Vygotsky’s experimental and analytic approach is a good example. Most readers focus on particular topics within the collected volumes, which include both short and manuscript-length text, and rely upon secondary sources to clarify a particularly complex theoretical analysis. In Volume 2 (Vygotsky 1993), Vygotsky presents issues of special education that were of particular importance in the former Soviet Union in the 1920s. Vygotsky aimed to draft a general theory of psychology by bringing together a field that was fragmented into specific areas in Volume 3 (Vygotsky 1997a). He addresses this crisis in psychology as well as a number of topics, i.e., the problem of consciousness. He also introduces the works of Western psychologists to a Russian audience in Volume 3. The most predominant topic in Vygotsky’s broad scholarship is language. He approaches this subject in Volume 4 (Vygotsky 1997b) by focusing on the differences between the more basic functions (involuntary attention, concrete memory) and those that are constructed throughout the lifespan with the help of culturally developed artifacts. Volume 5 (Vygotsky 1998) is divided into a section on childhood and a section on adolescence. The former explores the various crises, or turning points, that children experience in infancy, preschool, and school years. In the section on adolescence, thinking and creativity are among the topics covered by the author. In the last volume (Vygotsky 1999), the topics range from tools and science in child development to emotions, including an interesting essay on the emotions of actors. Important themes cut across many of these volumes, which are challenging for the novice but essential for the specialist. The publication of Vygotsky’s selected writings, coedited by contemporary Vygotskian scholars—Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (Vygotsky 1978), provides a useful introduction to many of Vygotsky’s central ideas, including the zone of proximal development, his emphasis on methodology, and his essay on pre-writing, among others. It has been translated into many languages while also criticized for its partial presentation of Vygotsky’s rich legacy. Because he places strong emphasis on development, most of his work has implications for the study of children. Volume 5 is focused most specifically on child development.

  • Vygotsky, L. S. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Edited by Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Silvia Scribner, and Ellen Souberman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

    This collection is a useful introduction of Vygotsky’s ideas to beginning scholars. Content ranges between his major theoretical writings on learning and development to play and the early mastery of writing. The book has been widely read in a number of translations, but it has also been criticized for its extensive editing aimed at making it accessible to contemporary Western readers.

  • Vygotsky, Lev S. Problems of General Psychology: Including the Volume Thinking and Speech (1934). Vol. 1 of The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky. Edited by Robert W. Rieber and Aaron S. Carton. Translated by Norris Minick. New York: Plenum, 1987.

    This book includes Vygotsky’s classic study, Thought and Language, that first established his reputation. In addition, Volume 1 includes Lectures on Psychology. The topics range from perception to imagination in children. Originally published in Russian in 1932.

  • Vygotsky, Lev S. The Fundamentals of Defectology (Abnormal Psychology and Learning Disabilities). Vol. 2 of The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky. Edited by Robert W. Rieber and Aaron S. Carton. Translated by Jane E. Knox and Carol B. Stevens. New York: Plenum, 1993.

    In this book, Vygotsky argues that a child whose development is impeded by a defect is not simply a child who is less developed than his peers but is a child who has developed differently. His orientation has become increasingly influential in the last several decades. Originally published in Russian in 1928.

  • Vygotsky, Lev S. Problems of the Theory and History of Psychology: Including the Chapter on the Crisis in Psychology. Vol.3 of The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky. Edited by Robert W. Rieber and Jeffrey Wollock. Translated by Rene van der Veer. New York: Plenum, 1997a.

    In this volume, Vygotsky proposes that out of the fragmentation of psychology a unified field needs to be developed. This volume is less relevant to child studies than the previous two. Originally published in Russian in 1930.

  • Vygotsky, Lev S. The History of the Development of the Higher Mental Functions. Vol. 4 of The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky. Edited by Robert W. Rieber. Translated by Mary J. Hall. New York: Plenum, 1997b.

    The development and structure of higher mental functions, including speech, literacy, and voluntary attention, are carefully explored in this volume. Vygotsky’s description of the prehistory of written language has been a particularly influential part of this set of essays. Originally published in Russian in 1931.

  • Vygotsky, Lev S. Child Psychology. Vol. 5 of The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky. Edited by Robert W. Rieber. Translated by Mary J. Hall. New York: Plenum, 1998.

    The focus on the different phases of children’s development is presented in this volume together with Vygotsky’s emphasis on the crucial role of social relations. In the part on adolescence he includes discussions on concept formation, personality, and creativity. Originally published in Russian in 1930–1931.

  • Vygotsky, Lev S. Scientific Legacy: Including Tool and Sign in the Development of the Child (1930) and Teaching about Emotions (1933). Vol. 6 of The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky. Edited by Robert W. Rieber. Translated by Mary J. Hall. Historical Psychological Studies. New York: Plenum, 1999.

    Vygotsky develops his theory about language and consciousness and the role of internalization. Ideas that first appear here are fully expanded in Thinking and Speech (Vygotsky 1987). There is an extensive discussion of the James-Lange theory of emotion and of Spinoza’s ideas, but Vygotsky died before he was able to present his own contributions to the subject. Originally published in Russian in 1930.

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