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  • Destiny Yarbro

3 Domains of Learning in the Language Classroom: Affective, Cognitive, & Psychomotor [Infographic]

Sign language is a tactile language. Thus, it is quite natural for a sign language lesson plan to operate mainly in the psychomotor domain. This was my initial assumption, as was made clear in my forum discussion post this week, so it has been enlightening and invigorating to analyze my pedagogy this week through the lens of all three domains.

Affective Domain

As I look at language learning in the States, a harsh irony is that a student can study Spanish for four years in high school, graduate with As, without ever having a conversation with their Hispanic classmates. This completely disregards the purpose of language!

This is something that is very unsettling for me and something I aim to do something about.

Language is inseparably connected to the people and culture who cherish it. By prioritizing grammar, conjugations, and written language in the classroom (called the Grammar-translation method, a method that also happens to be easy to test in classrooms), we strip a language from its identity. Sign languages are not repetitive gestures; spoken languages are not grunts and groans.

Language is about communication and connection, not the sterile and archaic cases, vocabs, grammar, conjugations, we have emphasized in language learning for too long. “The complexity of the grammatical system to be mastered makes it highly unlikely that it can be taught and learned” in the classroom (Krashen, 2012). (Thank you, Greece, for setting this terrible pattern in motion for the last 3,000+ years…)

Psychomotor Domain

“Taxonomies related to abilities and skills that are physical, or psychomotor, have also been used less widely than affective taxonomies, with the notable exception of one area of teaching where they are obviously relevant: physical education” (Seifert & Sutton, 2009, p. 223).

I believe the quote above is quite correct; psychomotor taxonomies have been used very little in language learning. (Ironically, this is the case even in sign language classrooms due to the heavy-emphasis on traditional methods of teaching language which emphasize grammar, conjugations, and written examinations. Which further communicates how much we assume psychomotor activities are really only applicable in physical education.)

Yet, in its very nature, language requires “performing sequences of motor activities to a specified level of accuracy, smoothness, rapidity, or force” but with the flexibility needed to create “new movement patterns to account for problematic and new situations” (Kasilingam & Ramalingam & Chinnavan, 2014, pp. 29-30). Speaking, signing, writing, and reading language all require fine-motor skills and are physically demanding whether in the use of mouth/tongue muscles in oral languages or face/hand/body muscles in signed languages. (For anyone who would question whether spoken languages are ‘physically demanding,’ I think I would simply ask them to correctly make the qh click sound in isiXhosa or the gy sound in Hungarian. Perhaps this would sufficiently and succinctly convey how kinesthetic all languages can be?)

Cognitive Domain

Language learning and instruction has traditionally resided in the lowest taxonomy of the cognitive domain. It has placed undue focus on memorization, rote recitation, and written assessment of comprehension. (It reminds me of “The Think System” in The Music Man: “If he thinks the Minuet in G, he won’t have to bother with the notes.”) (Wilson et al. 1962).

However, I realized that despite my aversion to traditional methods of language teaching, I do have elements of the cognitive domain in my pedagogy. For example, I do encourage the memorization of vocabulary; a low level activity in taxonomy of the cognitive domain according to Wilson (2016). But rather than providing a predetermined list of vocab for my students to learn, I make sure that their lists incorporate the terms they would use in their unique and diverse environments. (For example, if a student mows lawns after school for work, vital terms for them to memorize would include grass, payment, mow, etc. Words that would probably not be a priority on most general vocab lists and completely unusable for a student who roofs houses with his dad during the summer.)

I also encourage students to first act out the idea or concept they are trying to convey. More often than not, their gesture will have elements that are similar to the formal sign. (For example, the sign for “mow” is nearly exactly how most people would act it out. Arms out, hands curled, and moved forward, as if pushing a hand-mower.) While this would be considered a primarily psychomotor activity, there are cognitive elements. Asking students to first act it out is helpful for many reasons: 1) it engages their critical thinking when they recognize the root of the new sign, 2) better retention retain the sign now that they see the resemblance, and 3) they realize how much they can act out until they have the skills sufficient to communicate expertly. In the case of spoken languages, identifying the roots can be helpful in the production and retention of new vocabulary. (For example, when learning Romanian for “Have a good day!” - “Bună dimineaţa!” - we can note that “bună” is similar to bon in Haitian Creole, buena in Spanish, or bonum in Latin and “dimineaţa” is similar to domenica in Italian, dimanche in French, or dia in Portuguese.)


I believe that incorporating all three domains in my classroom is key. (Just as I hold to the theory of multiple intelligences - despite the critics - as a vital perspective-altering tool for teachers to expand and diversify their teaching styles.) Ensuring that there are at least elements of all three domains in each lesson helps me enrich the classroom experience, from my lesson plans to my instructional delivery approach, to how I manage my classroom. It helps me break out of the limitations of teaching in only one domain.


Kasilingam, G., Ramalingam, M., & Chinnavan, E. (2014). Assessment of learning domains to improve student’s learning in higher education. Journal of Young Pharmacists, 6(1), 27-33.

Krashen, S. (2012). The wrong and right way to learn a foreign language. The Washington Post.

Wilson, L. O., (2016, October). The three domains of learning: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor / kinesthetic.

Wilson, M., Hargrove, M., DaCosta, M., Preston, R., Jones, S., Hackett, B., Gingold, H., & Ford, P. (1962). The music man. Special ed. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video.


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