Cognitive Development and Language Skills Development
“Cognitive development underpins all the other aspects of development
as children start to explore and make sense of the world around them.
It is closely linked to the development of language and communication
skills as children interact with the people around them.”
There are many theories written on the subjects of cognitive
development and language and communication. These theories vary in
several ways, but they all seem to make the link between the too
subjects. Childcare settings put these theories into practise in a lot
of ways, sometimes without even realising it, just through
Piaget’s theories of cognitive development are that children learn
through exploration of their environment. An adult’s role in this is
to provide children with appropriate experiences.
He said that cognitive development happens in four stages.
1. Sensory – motor
· Babies and young children
learn through their senses, activity and
interaction with their environment.
· They understand the world in terms of actions.
2. Pre – operations
· Young children learn through their experiences with real objects in
· They use symbols e.g. words and images to make sense of their world.
3. Concrete operations
· Children continue to learn through their experiences with real
· They access information (using language) to make sense of their
immediate and wider environment.
4. Formal operations
· Children and adults learn to make use of abstract thinking.
Piaget also believed that children would only learn when they are
ready. Children's use of language represents their stage in cognitive
development, but he didn’t see language as a ‘central’ to children's
development, as cognitive development begins at birth and is required
for language development.
He also states that children are egocentric – they can’t understand
another person’s point of view.
Criticisms of Piaget’s work
Margaret Donaldson suggests that Piaget underestimated young
children's abilities; she said that appropriate language with
meaningful context allows 3 and 4 year olds to think logically.
She also argued Piaget’s theories about children being egocentric. She
believed that children are capable of seeing things from another
persons point of view they are just not very good at it. But this is
something that adults can find difficult as well.
I have experienced Piaget’s theories both in childcare settings and at
home with my own child.
He said that babies learn about the world in terms of actions. When my
child was born he used to get very hungry very quickly, and would cry
until I had managed to warm up his bottle. By the time he was 3 months
old he would cry because he was hungry, but he would stop crying as
soon as he saw me leave the room. He had learnt that by crying a
certain way, he could make me leave the room and return with a bottle.
His theory of ‘language is being learnt therefore used to learn’ is
also a practical theory as children ask questions to learn, they then
remember things that they are told and access it from their memories
A child in my infant placement, George, was also my next-door
neighbour. One night when I was babysitting him, he asked me why the
moon changed shape, I told him all about it then thought no more of it
until, 3 months later in school the teacher asked the class if anyone
knew why the moon changed shape. George stuck his hand straight up and
reeled off everything I had told him.
On Piaget’s theories on children being egocentric, I feel that
Margaret Donaldson was probably more accurate; children can see things
from another person’s point of view. I remember my step – daughter
(aged 5) coming running into a room really upset having watched a film
where 2 dogs and a cat were lost on there own trying to find their way
home, she had seen the whole film from the animals point of view. I
do believe that children are egocentric to an extent; it entirely
depends on the situation and how well the child can relate to it, just
as it is with adults.
Lev Semonvich Vygotsky (1896 – 1934)
Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist, like Piaget, he looked at the
active process of cognitive development.
He said that social interaction enables the child to develop the
intellectual skills needed for logical reasoning and thought.
Through language and communication, children learn to think about
their world and modify their actions.
Adults have an active role in fostering a child's cognitive
development. Children need to receive knowledge from other children
and adults. Adults support cognitive development with appropriate
Adults support children's learning by assisting the child's own
efforts, enabling the child to gain skills, knowledge, understanding
As children develop skills through assisted learning, adults slowly
decrease their support until the children are able to work
independently. With adult supervision young children are able to
complete tasks that they would have been able to complete alone.
A lot of childcare settings use Vygotsky’s theories. Most private
nurseries use ‘key workers’ to monitor and nurture a select group of
children's development. This ensures that the child has more ‘one on
one’ contact with adults.
Another example is a child learning to read. This begins with a lot of
adult input, learning letter sounds, putting the sounds together and
recognising words, reading simple words with adult assistance, adults
slowly increasing the complexity of the words and assisting in
recognising them until the child can read independently with
Vygotsky’s theories of cognitive development had several differences
to Piaget’s even though they were analysing the same subject.
Piaget believed that children are egocentric and separate from others
for a long period of development (0-7 years) but gradually begin to
Vygotsky thought differently, stating that children learn a sense of
self through interaction with others.
Piaget said that adults provide the stimulants and environment to
learn but too much interference can damage a child's natural
Vygotsky believed that social interaction is crucial. The adult role
in teaching is very important e.g. providing assisted learning.
Vygotsky also said that language is a tool for thought whereas Piaget
believed that thought develops independently of language.
Both men have been extremely influential to childcare today.
In my current placement, in the reception class, children are shown
what to do with constant assistance offered. But they are also
encouraged to attempt things alone with assistance given only when
In my baby placement, children were encouraged to play together as
well as being left to play independently and explore their
All childcare settings offer a wide variety of activities to encourage
cognitive development. Babies will be given puzzles including colour,
shape, words, young babies are constantly developing cognitive skills
as they take in the world around them, all activities will help gain
more knowledge and in turn language.
Language is often used to describe the process of speaking and
listening. But it is much more than verbal communication. Our ability
to use language relies on the use of recognised systems and symbols
and a common understanding of what those symbols mean. Anybody could
make up their own language but they would not be able to communicate
with anyone unless they shared the system or code with them. In this
country we speak English, but anyone living in an English speaking
society who could not speak the language would struggle to survive.
There are many other systems of language throughout the world.
Babies and young children are not able to use our complex language
system, it takes time for them to learn the code of their particular
home language. Whilst they are learning they use other methods to
communicate their needs and feelings, this can be frustrating for both
adults and children as it isn’t always obvious to the adult exactly
what the child is trying to say.
There are several different viewpoints as to how babies and young
children learn to communicate-
The ‘nurture’ theory
This is a behaviourist theory based on the work by John Locke (1600’s)
and was developed by psychologists such as Pavlov (1950’s). this
theory suggests that a baby is born with a ‘clear mind’, meaning
babies have to learn everything, including language, from scratch.
Parents and carers shape the way language is learnt by encouraging
sounds and words. Children learn language by copying sounds, words and
phrases around them and through positive reinforcement of their
attempts to communicate.
When my child was learning to talk, one of the first phrases he learnt
was ‘what’s that?’ we then spent hours walking around answering to
whatever he was pointing at, in time he copied what we were saying and
with encouragement hasn’t stopped speaking since!
At baby placement there were posters with animals etc all round the
room, we used to take them off the wall and sit with individual
children pointing and talking about the picture. One child in
particular loved hearing the noises the animal made and could name
them all at a really young age.
The ‘nature’ theory
This is a nativist theory by Noam Chomsky (1960’s) it states that
babies are born with some knowledge of language. He argued that
language is too complex to be learnt entirely by copying adults. He
said language is innate and all humans have a genetic pre- disposition
towards learning language.
Chomsky concludes that humans have a ‘language acquisition device’,
which allows use to process and use language. He pointed out that all
children learn language the same way and the early stages of language
are the same for all children no matter which language they are
learning to speak.
The ‘social interaction’ theory
This is a social constructivist theory. Vygotsky( 1930’s) and Burner
(1970’s) suggested that children learn language as a means to
communicate more affectively with others. This theory is similar to
behaviourist theories in that children learn language through
interaction with others, but this theory differs in that very young
children are seen as active participants in their language
development. For example research has shown that babies can initiate
and control pre-verbal conversations with their parents/ carers rather
than the other way round; babies make adults pay attention to them
using body language, crying, babbling and they end conversations by
breaking eye contact or falling asleep. The role of the adult is to
provide the social context in which communication can take place.
This theory stresses the link between language development and
cognitive development. Language is learnt due to a need to understand
the environment and from social interactions with others.
I agree strongly with the social interaction theory, my child lived a
year with just me and a few of my friends and family to talk to, he
also suffered with glue ear for 3 months, so his speech was delayed.
We spent a lot of time teaching him words and pointing to things, but
when he started nursery and had lots of adults and children his own
age to talk to everyday he showed a lot of frustration. But as his
language improved his frustration slowly disappeared, I believe the
need to socialise drove the need to communicate and in turn understand
the world around him.
Childcare settings provide a huge range of activities to promote
language and communication skills, the activities tend to fall into
the following topics.
· Toys and other interesting objects to look at and play with such as
· Sounds to listen to including voices, music, songs, rhymes, and
· Noise makers such as rattles, simple musical instruments
· Construction toys such as wooden and plastic bricks like Lego
· Natural materials like water, sand, play dough.
· Creative materials like paint.
· Outings like visits to the park.
· Animals, including trips too a farm.
· News time
· Recording events
· A variety of books and stories.
· Talking about their day and experiences.
· Talking during imaginary play activities such as role-play.
· Talking about special events such as a birthday.
· Talking whilst doing activities.
· Problem solving activities
· Follow up to activities, like after a story
· Co-operative group work.
· Games and puzzles
· Appropriate television programmes
· Preparation before an activity.
· Explanation of what to do
· Instructions during an activity to keep the child on task.
· Step by step instructions.
Language is encouraged in all sorts of ways, all childcare settings
encourage language just by talking to the children, along with
language comes cognitive development as the children learn more about
the world around them through conversation, instruction, exploration