By Nur Taslimah



Psychology  is a study of the thought processes and behavior of humans  in their interaction with the environment. Psychologists study processes of perception, thinking, learning, emotions, motivations, personality, abnormal behavior, interactions between individuals, and interactions with the environment.

Understanding the theories of psychology, especially psychology of learning, is very beneficial to all of the educational stakeholders: students, teachers, headmasters, curriculum developers or designers, government, society and educational observers. The theories help them to identify how the learners are and how they participate in and experience  the learning process. Another positive effect of understanding the theories is that the theories assist teachers to design the appropriate techniques of teaching.

This paper will discuss one of the learning psychology, that is behaviorism. In this paper, we attempt to find the answers of the following questions:

  1. What is behaviorism?
  2. What are  the  implications of behavioral theory to the English Language Teaching (ELT)?


In msu site, Behaviorism is defined as “the study of human behavior focusing on one’s observable behavior as a response to the natural stimuli in the world. One common belief in Behaviorism is that one’s behavior, and subsequent learning, is only a response to all of the stimuli one encounters during their life. By studying stimuli one can predict behavior. Behaviorism assumes that the thoughts of a person can not be measured, and only occur as a result of previous stimuli.”

Behaviorists say that learners originally do not own any potentialities. The potentialities that they have are the result or the influence of factors outside themselves or the factors stemming from their environments, for example, their families, schools, society,  nature, culture, and religion.

The Behaviorist Theory was first introduced in 1913 by the American psychologist John B. Watson. Watson’s view was largely influenced by the research of the Russian physiologist Ivan P. Pavlov during the early 1900s. The most influential version of this theory is put forward by B. F. Skinner in 1959. His version of Behaviorism is best known as Radical Behaviorism.(Shameem, 2010).

B.F Skinner is considered to be a Radical Behaviorist because of his belief that we do have such a thing as a mind, but that it is simply more productive to study observable behavior rather than internal mental events. (McLeod, S. A. 2007).

Behaviorists  believe that all behaviors are acquired through conditioning. Conditioning occurs through interaction with the environment. In this theory, there are two  popular types of conditioning: classical and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning was first described by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, in 1903 through his experiment on dogs. The general idea ofPavlov’s experiment is this: Pavlov presented dogs with food to examine their salivary response. He rang a bell just before serving the food. At first the dogs did not salivate until the food was served. However, when the bell was rung at repeated feedings, the sound of bell alone caused the dogs to salivate (Christopher, 2011).

Thus, in classical conditioning, an unconditioned stimulus (food) is paired with a conditioned stimulus (bell). When they repeatedly occur in pair, the conditioned stimulus will  produce a conditioned response (salivation). Finally, the conditioned stimulus alone can produce a conditioned response.

Subsequently, it was studied in infants by John B. Watson. Like Pavlov, he was originally involved in animal research, but later become involved in the study of human behavior. Watson believed that human are born with a few reflexes and the emotional reactions of love and rage.

The second type of conditioning is  proposed by B.F Skinner.  Expanding on  the previous stimulus-response model, Skinner developed a more comprehensive view of conditioning, known as operant conditioning. This  method of learning occurs through rewards and punishments. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior.

Skinner made a research using a rat  placed in a box. When a signal light was operated (the stimulus), the rat went up  to a bar in the cage and pressed it (the response) and a tasty food pellet dropped at its feet (the reinforcement). If the rat’s behavior is reinforced a sufficient number of times it will always press the bar when the light comes on (Christopher, 2011).

Skinner’s model was based on the principle that effective behavior consists of producing responses (behaviors) to the correct stimuli (situation). When a response is followed by a reinforcer (reward) then it is conditioned to occur again. This model is well known as Stimulus-Response-Reinforcement theory. Thus, operant conditioning was used by Skinner to describe the effects of the consequences of a particular behavior on the future occurrence of the behavior. Reinforcement and punishment are the main ideas of operant conditioning.

Reinforcement or reinforcer is a stimulus (encouraging activity) that increases the frequency/occurrence of a response it follows. The act of following a response with a reinforcer is called reinforcement. Reinforcement (prize) can be classified into the following types:

(i) Positive Reinforcement: It is the encouragement of a desired response (behaviour) by a pleasant stimulus. It increases the probability of the reoccurrence of the same response to the same situation. For example: If the child produces an alternative which is appropriate to the situation, the mother will reward him/her with some sign of approval (such as smiles, hugs, or food). This approval or reward will encourage him to repeat the same response to the same situation.

(ii) Negative Reinforcement: Negative reinforcement is the discouragement of an undesired response (behaviour) by an unpleasant stimulus. It decreases the probability of the reoccurrence of the same response to the same situation. For example: If the child produces an utterance which is inappropriate to the situation, he/she will not be rewarded. Consequently, the child will not repeat the same response to the same situation. The negative reinforcement is sometimes also calledpunishment.

The Implications of Behavioral Theory to the English Language Teaching

In the language application of  his conditioning theory, Skinner described language learning as a form of behaviour similar to the rat pressing the bar as a form of behaviour, in that:

(i)                 Language learning consists of acquiring habits, initially by imitation (like the parrot).

(ii)               The “good” response elicits a reward.

(iii)             The habit is reinforced by having the stimulus occur so often that the response becomes automatic. (Bell, 1981: 24 in Ismail, 1993)

Thus, according to this theory, learning language is by imitation, mimicry, constant practice and finally, the new language will become a habit or automatic.

Harmer (1983)  as cited in Ismail (1993) says that the behavioral philosophy thinks that language is a speech, habit formation, and a unique structure. Therefore, the aim of learning language is to enable learners to communicate in the target language. Language can be acquired by practicing it. Learners are compelled to use any of the language they learn to gain the ability to be creative on the basis of acquired rules.

Based on behaviorist theory, Margono (2003)  gives advice to the teachers to provide various stimuli to students so that they are eager  to learn English. The stimuli can be in the form of  teacher’s utterances, instructions, giving assignments, books, modules, music, and tape recorder. Subsequent response of learners should be followed by positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement (punishment). The teacher gives positive reinforcement when a response given is  as expected. Positive reinforcement is intended that these expected responses occur repeatedly and last a long time. Otherwise, negative reinforcement or punishment is given if the response given is not as expected, so that this unexpected  response will disappear.

This behaviorist theory has a great influence in teaching English and other languages. This theory is applied in Audio Lingual Methods  (ALM) which was born in America on the World War II. In this methods,  the teacher provides a stimulus in the form of direct utterances or speech in a cassette and then imitated by  students as similar as possible. If the imitation is good,  the teacher should give praise as a reinforcement.

In  the ALM, according to Larsen Freeman (2000) as cited by Cahyono and Widiati (2011) class activities are intended to develop language habits through mechanical drills; the purpose of which is to develop correct pronunciation, and intonation as well as to expose the students to the use of grammatical sentence patterns. Mechanical drill require students to repeat the teacher’s utterances with no attention to meaning. The ALM views language learning as stimulus-response activity, indicating that the way to acquire the sentence patterns of target language is through conditioning.

According to Prator & Celce Murcia, 1979 as cited by H. Douglas Brown (2007:23),  here are the features of the Audio Lingual Methods:

  • new material is presented in dialog form
  • emphasis is placed on mimicry, memorization of set phrases, and over-learning
  • structures are sequenced by means of contrastive analysis and taught one at a time
  • structural patterns are taught using repetitive drills
  • there is little or no grammatical explanation
  • Vocabulary is strictly limited
  • there is much use of tapes, language labs, and visual aids
  • great importance is attached to pronunciation
  • little use of the mother tongue is permitted
  • successful responses are immediately reinforced
  • there is great effort to have students produce error-free utterances
  • there is a tendency to manipulate language and disregard content



Behaviorist theory is  based on the stimulus, response, and reinforcement. According to this theory, teaching and learning English deals also with a stimulus-response-reinforcement process. This theory says that the language skills of children are caused by the process of imitation. This theory is the main basis for the Audio Lingual Method.

In ALM, class activities are intended to develop language habits through mechanical drills; the purpose of which is to develop correct pronunciation, and intonation as well as to expose the students to the use of grammatical sentence patterns.


Brown, H.D. 2007. Teaching by principles: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy.  Third Edition. New York: Pearson-Longman

Behaviorism. https://www.msu.edu/~mckin115/Matrix/theories/ Behaviorism.html, accessed 15 July 2012

Cahyono, B.Y. & Widiati, U. 2011. The Teaching of English as a Foreign Language in Indonesia. Malang: State University of Malang Press.

Christopher, Heffner.November 29, 2011.  Learning Theory and Behavioral psychology. http://allpsych.com/psychology101/conditioning.html . Psychology Education Organization funded by Heffner Media Group, Inc., a Florida corporation, accessed 15 July 2012

Ismail, Jamali. 1993. The Language Learning Process: What Can We Learn From The Learner?  Paper presented at the second International Conference Towards More Effective Learning and Teaching of English. Organized by
the Malaysian English Language Teaching Association (MELTA). Kuala Lumpur, May 1993. (http://www.melta.org.my/ET/1994/main1.htmlaccessed 15 July 2012

McLeod, S. A. 2007. Skinner | Operant Conditioning. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html accessed 15 July 2012

Margono. 2003.Teori dan Strategi Pembelajaran Bahasa Inggris. Jakarta: Direktorat Jendral pendidikan Dasar dan Menengah. Departemen Pendidikan Nasional.

Questio Online Library. Psychology. http://www.questia.com. accessed 15 July 2012

Shameem, Tanvir. March 2010. The behaviorist theory.  (http://tanvirdhaka.blogspot.com/2010/03/behaviourist-theory.html


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