Instructor Resources – Cultural-Historical Activity Theory as Pedagogy

Students will be expected to demonstrate familiarity with the terms of Cultural-Historical Activity Theory and other important Activity Theory terms and concepts – this specifically includes the ability to use Activity Theory and other concepts as practical writing research tools for making decisions about new genres and writing situations.


Learning About

Video –  CHAT: How Sweet It Is! Mapping Out the Activity of Writing

Description: This short, animated video is probably the best “first resource” for learning about Pedagogical CHAT, which is the framework the ISU Writing Program uses to connect Cultural-Historical Activity Theory to specific practices for thinking and learning about writing in real-world situations.

What’s it good for?:  Great for instructors who are new to the concept, who could watch it first and then share with students. The video is set up as a story, but through the narrative viewers are introduced to the seven concepts related to Pedagogical CHAT.  Good to pair this with Grassroots Writing Research Journal Articles also on CHAT (see below). Written definitions of P-CHAT terms and concepts can be found in our Key Concepts page.

Student Readability Rating:  10 – this video is great for students!

Keywords: Cultural-Historical Activity Theory, Activity Theory, Actor-Network Theory

Author: Michelle Wright


Video – Activity theory: Because things are actors too

Description: This video provides a short, easily accessible explanation of the triangle model used to explain Activity Theory.  Activity theory is an important part of our Pedagogical CHAT model, although we don’t use the AT triangle specifically. However, the important concept discussed in this video, which is the relationships between humans, tools and activities, is a critical component of our program.

What’s it good for?:  Great for instructors trying to get a handle on Activity Theory and how it connects to our program’s goals.  Great also to share with students.  The example used (of Driver Dave and the speed bump) is actually an homage to Bruno Latour’s related framework, “Actor-Network Theory,” because the speed bump is an example he used to explain “mediated activity” in his book Pandora’s Hope (1999).

Student Readability Rating:  10 – This video is great for students!

Keywords: Cultural-Historical Activity Theory, Activity Theory, Actor-Network Theory

Author: The Word Bird


Video – History And Writing: Is Writing Ever a Solo Sport?

Description: This video challenges the idea that writing is just something a single writer does in a single place in time.  It uses concepts of activity theory to show how even the process of writing a love letter is mediated by tools and settings and other humans.  It also focuses on the idea that all the tools and activities of writing are complicated processes that evolve over time (which is a genre theory concept, so this video can also be used to discuss the idea that “genres are typified responses to reoccurring situations” (Carolyn Miller, “Genres as Social Action,” 1984).

What’s it good for?:  This video doesn’t provide a detailed explanation of activity theory or P-CHAT.  But once these terms have been introduced (maybe through the two videos above or through GWRJ articles), this video offers a great way to start a discussion about how P-CHAT actually changes the way we typically understand writing in the world.

Student Readability Rating:  10 – This video is great for students!

Keywords:  Activity Theory, genre

Author: The Word Bird


Handout – A CHAT overview Handout

Description: This is a graphically oriented handout, which is short and pretty easy to read.  It offers a very basic overview of CHAT as a pedagogical concept, and compares it to some other, more traditional models for thinking about the teaching of writing.

What’s it good for?:  This handout is nice for teachers who have a background in English Education or Rhetoric and Composition, who may have been exposed to a range of different ideas about how to teach writing.  The handout tries to explain what’s different about the P-CHAT model.  [Note that this was created in 2012, so you may find we’ve updated our ideas about P-CHAT since this was written].

Student Readability Rating 3 – This handout is specifically useful for teachers thinking about how to teach P-CHAT.  It might be useful for students in a class specifically for education majors or language arts instructors.

Keywords:  CHAT, Writing Instruction, CHAT teaching ideas

Author: Kellie Sharp-Hoskins and Erin A. Frost  


Handout – CHAT_maps_explained: Using Visual Mapping to Understand Literate Activity

Description: This is a short, visually-oriented article that specifically addresses how P-CHAT terms can be used in meaningful ways in the classroom (or in life in general).  It covers the idea of the CHAT MAP, which is a term that is used a lot in our program and on our website. It explains the “why” of mapping literate activity and talks about some of the different situations (both in our program and in life in general) where mapping our knowledge about the complexity of a literate activity can be useful.

What’s it good for?:  Overall, this handout can  be useful for instructors to help them think about using CHAT concepts in the classroom.  But there are also particular parts of this handout that could be really useful to help students understand how to actually go about “mapping” or investigating literate activity in useful ways. In particular, the handout emphasizes that CHAT maps don’t necessarily describe linear movements in time.

Student Readability Rating 6/7 – This handout could definitely be useful for students, but might require some explanation from teachers.  It’s not meant to be a handout for a particular classroom activity.

Keywords:  P-CHAT, CHAT Maps, literate activity

Author: Joyce R. Walker 


Article –  CHATPerson and the ANT — The Story of Pedagogical CHAT

Description: This is a short article that tries to give a quick explanation about why our P-CHAT model is different from videos you might find if you search for Activity Theory or Cultural-Historical Activity Theory on YouTube (some of these videos are provided in the “Further Reading” section below).

What’s it good for?:  This article is specifically designed to answer questions about why our program uses our specific P-CHAT terms (see our Key Concepts page), rather than using the extended triangle model and accompanying terms,  which are frequently used by Activity Theory scholars like David Russell and Yrjo Engestrom.  It’s specifically oriented towards teachers trying to use our P-CHAT model.

Student Readability Rating: 4 – If an instructor is really getting into CHAT in one of our writing courses, students could end up having questions about this issue.  In that case, this article could be useful. However, it doesn’t offer an introduction to CHAT, so readers should read some of the GWRJ articles or watch videos before reading this.

Keywords:  P-CHAT, Activity Theory, Paul Prior

Author: Joyce R. Walker


Hypertext – Remediating the Canons (“Re-situating and Re-mediating the Cannons: A Cultural-historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity: A Collaborative Webtext”)

Description: This is the article that started it all!  The core text of this article presents the idea that models for understanding rhetorical activity that borrow from the Greco-Roman “canons” (note: this also holds true for the rhetorical triangle of speaker/content/audience) are not really robust enough to help us understand  complex activities of communicating and writing as they happen in the world.  This monograph expands out from the core text into additional articles where the authors use CHAT to think about literate activity.  The article that Joyce Walker wrote, “Constructing a BIG text: Developing a multimodal master plan for composition instruction,” is actually the tiny kernel of the idea that has become our ISU Writing Program curriculum.  In addition, this piece provides a short explanation of CHAT that some might find useful. (What is CHAT?)

What’s it good for?:  Members of our community (especially instructors) who want to really understand the background that shapes the “why” of our curriculum should absolutely read this piece (at least the core text).  But because it is a scholarly piece of writing, and it discusses concepts and theories that many people might not find familiar, this article can be a bit of a struggle.  However, without this article as a starting point,  it’s difficult to really see the connections and differences between Activity Theory as a model for research and P-CHAT as a model for thinking about and DOING writing in diverse genres and situations in the world.

Student Readability Rating:  0/1.  This is a scholarly piece of writing.  Would only be appropriate for students who are truly interested in understanding Activity Theory and P-CHAT.

Keywords:  CHAT, Rhetorical Canons

Authors: With Paul Prior, Janine Solberg, Patrick Berry, Hannah Bellowar, Bill Chewning, Karen Lunsford, Liz Rohan, Kevin Roozen, Mary Sheridan-Rabideau, Jody Shipka, Derek Van Ittersum, and Joyce Walker.  Kairos, 11.3, May 2007


Our Favorite Grassroots Articles on CHAT

Articles – The Grassroots Writing Research Journal specifically focuses on using CHAT to explore a wide range of literate activities. Below is a list of our favorite articles that can help to explain and give examples of CHAT in action.


Issue 2.2 – Understanding Language and Culture with Cultural Historical Activity Theory 

Description: This article gives an overview of CHAT, and also explains a couple of different ways our PCHAT model can be used to explore writing in the world.

What’s it Good for?: Understanding CHAT!

Student Readability Rating: 10 – Perfect for students!

Keywords: CHAT

Author: Tyler Kostecki


Issue 1 – Just CHATting

Description: Joyce R. Walker discusses cultural-historical activity theory and how it’s a useful tool for examining “how/why/what of writing (Literate Activity)

What’s it Good for?: Understanding CHAT!

Student Readability Rating: 10 – Perfect for students!

Keywords: CHAT, Literate Activity

Author: Joyce R. Walker


Issue 6.2 – Cultural-Historical Activity Theory: Because S*#t is Complicated

Description: Joyce R. Walker discusses cultural-historical activity theory and how it’s a useful tool for examining “how/why/what of writing (Literate Activity)

What’s it Good for?: Understanding CHAT!

Student Readability Rating: 10 – Perfect for students!

Keywords: CHAT, Literate Activity

Author: Joyce R. Walker


 Issue 7.2 – Gone to the Dogs (and Cats, and Rabbits, and Various Other Small Animals): Writing for Animals at HSCI 

Description: Heidi Bowman, an animal person who describes herself as “half-cat” and is only half-joking, uses CHAT to look at how human beings can use writing to help other animals. She focuses on the writing surrounding the animals at the Humane Society of Central Illinois (HSCI) in Normal,

What’s it Good for?: Uses CHAT terms in a real, live activity system, showing how our literate activities impact others.  This article doesn’t give a complete overview of CHAT terms, so readers might want to read other GWRJ article first, or watch videos (above!).

Student Readability Rating: 10 – Perfect for students!

Keywords: CHAT, Literate Activity, Human Society

AuthorHeidi Bowman


Issue 8.1 – CHATting About Greatness: Applying CHAT to “the 46” Defense

Description: Using his antecedent knowledge about the game he loves (football), Braeden Weiss explores how cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) helped him to understand the creation of one of the most innovative defenses of all time.

What’s it Good for?: Like the Human Society article (above), this article doesn’t provide a complete overview of CHAT; however, it does illustrate how CHAT concepts can be used to understand literate activities that might not, at first glance, seem to employ much “writing.” Football as writing — who knew?

Student Readability Rating: 10 – Perfect for students!

Keywords: CHAT, Literate Activity, sports

Author: Braeden Weiss


Issue 5.1 – Angela Rides the Bus: A High Stakes Adventure Involving Riveting Research, Amazing Activity Systems, and a Stylish Metacognitive Thinking Cap

Description: Using a visual style that remediates genres of children’s books, this article uses Activity-Theory to explore the process of researching and learning to navigate the Bloomington-Normal bus system.

What’s it Good for?: Rather than starting out with an overall explanation of CHAT concepts, this article uses the example of a common activity (riding the bus) to show how many genres we encounter — and how we use different genres to navigate activity systems.  The article doesn’t use the Literate Activity concepts of CHAT, although is does connect them to generally, “activity-based” CHAT models.  Great article, and an easy way to think about how we live surrounded by writing we never even notice.

Student Readability Rating: 10 – Perfect for students!

Keywords: CHAT, Activity Systems

Author: Angela Sheets


Background, In-Depth, and Related Resources

Podcast –  Episodes of the ISU Writing Program’s Let CHAT podcast series.  These episodes can all be found on our Let’s CHAT podcast page.

For an introductory discussion of Teaching with CHAT:

  • Let’s CHAT – Fall 2013 – Episode 1: Chatting about CHAT (Three ISU program instructors discuss how they incorporate CHAT into their teaching).

Other CHAT-related Episodes:

  • Let’s CHAT – Spring 2014 – Episode 4: CHAT in Action (Similar to Episode one, this episode offers more examples of how to incorporate CHAT).
  • Let’s CHAT – Fall 2015 – Episode 12: Disrupting a Text and Where Is the Evidence? (This episode consists of excerpts from a conversation about how NTT faculty, who don’t get the same training as new M.A. and D. instructors. It deals with some of the difficulties that instructors can face as they work to take up this new curriculum).  Note:  Here is a quote from Jeremy Hurley, from the interview:  “I know that if I don’t try [to use CHAT], if I don’t try to put it in the classroom, then I won’t learn it. Because it’s just going to be something that I think about, maybe at the beginning of the semester when I look over the learning outcomes, and I think, ‘maybe I’ll try to incorporate some of these things.’ But until I actually put it into practice in the classroom I’m never going to learn it.  So if I’m serious about learning CHAT, then instead of just putting my toe in the water I probably just need to just dive right in.

Student Readability Rating1 – These podcasts are designed for instructors, so they specifically discuss teaching strategies and activities. They probably wouldn’t be that useful for students, except those planning careers in education.

Keywords:  CHAT, CHAT Teaching ideas

Author: Multiple authors


Videos –  Three Videos On Activity Theory and Writing Situations

Description – These three videos, created by Faith Benson, were done as part of a course that focused specifically on writing.  This makes the videos applicable to our program in ways that other, more general CHAT videos may not be.  They are relatively short and fairly easy to understand.


What’s it good for?:  These are great videos for understanding how Activity Theory models can be used to study and investigate writing situations.  But they might cause some confusion if you are not yet familiar with our P-CHAT terms or with Activity Theory. So perhaps the introductory videos and GWRJ articles would be a better place to start learning.

Student Readability Rating: 7 – Since the videos focus on the Activity Theory model (the triangle), they may be confusing for some students, because our PCHAT model uses different terms.  However, if you feel ready to discuss the similarities and differences with students, these videos do offer great examples of how to think about literate activities as taking place within complex systems, and they are definitely accessible for students. They might particularly be good for students in our 145 & 145.13 (that is to say, Writing Across the Curriculum settings).

Keywords:  Activity Theory, Literate Activity

Author: Faith Benson


Article –  Cultural-Historical Activity Theory – Exploring a Theory to Explain Practice and Research

Description: This article provides a basic overview of how CHAT works as a framework for scholarly research and thinking, and provides examples of how different fields have used it.

(excerpted from the article introduction). Cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) is one of several practice-based approaches that provides a robust framework for analyzing professional work practices, including social service provision (Julkunen, 2011, 2013). By offering a multi-dimensional, systemic approach that includes both psychological motives and all kinds of tools, as well as the always-present dynamics of power, money, culture, and history, CHAT enables researchers to analyze complex and evolving professional practices, and practitioners to engage in reflective research (c.f. Foot, 2013; Yliruka & Karvinen-Niinikoski, 2013).

What’s it good for?:  For those interested in getting a little deeper into CHAT and how it connected specifically to what we’re doing in P-CHAT in our program, this article would be a great way to learn a little bit about how this theory works for various scholarly enterprises.

Student Readability Rating:  1 – This is a scholarly article which describe Cultural-Historical Activity Theory as a framework for understanding activity in the world.  It’s an interesting read, but challenging.  Readers should have a basic understanding of CHAT before reading this article.

Keywords:  CHAT scholarship

Author: Kristen Foot


Videos – Two Short Videos about Activity Theory: First Generation Activity Theory; Second Generation Activity Theory

Description: These videos are very short!

What’s it good for?:  Very short and not particularly connected to writing.  So maybe useful as a quick reminder of the activity theory model only.

Student Readability Rating: 1 – Students in our program, learning about P-CHAT, would probably not find this content relevant.

Keywords:   1GAT; 2GAT

Author: Kenton Hemsing


Blog Post – From ZPD to WAGR: An Activity Theory Primer

Description: A blog post that provides a fairly short discussion of the evolution of CHAT and how it is used by researchers.

What’s it good for?:  This blog post represents another good resource for thinking about CHAT as a tool for investigating literate activity in the world, (it gives a bit of history and overview and even talks a bit about research methods CHAT scholars might use). However, it does not address the idea that CHAT might be a framework that could be useful as tool for individuals and groups to understand and ENGAGE in literate activities in different settings.  However, reading this post might help members of our community interested in understanding the different between CHAT and P-CHAT.

Student Readability Rating: 2 – This would not be a particularly good resource to share with students in our writing classes.

Keywords:   Writing Activity and Genre Research,  CHAT,



Ideas for Teaching

Video – Activity Theory Applied to a Digital Marketing Plan.

Description: This video doesn’t really provide a very complex application of activity theory.  However, it could be useful to help ENG 145.13 students connect business writing to our P-CHAT curriculum.

Student Readability Rating: 8 – Easily accessible (in a general way) for 145.13 students, but will need work to connect it in a meaningful way to our P-CHAT curriculum.

Keywords: Activity Theory, Marketing Genres

Author: Amy Zawistowski


Video – Using Cultural Historical Activity Theory

Description: A short video about how a group used Activity Theory concepts to examine the problem of access to water in a South African community.

What’s it good for?:  This fairly short video is definitely not an introduction for either Activity Theory or P-CHAT. But it could be useful, once the concepts have been introduced, to start a discussion about how P-CHAT and Activity Theory are models that can be used to unpack situations and search for solutions to complex problems.  In other words, it IS useful, not just for research, but in practical ways in the real world.

Student Readability Rating: 5 – This video won’t really work without context (because it doesn’t provide an explanation of CHAT), but if teachers interested into discussing “activism” as a topic in their writing classrooms, this video could be a really useful start for a discussion about how we need to understand how people use literate skills, within communities, to solve problems.

Keywords:   Activity Theory, Marketing Genres

Author: Amy Zawistowski

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