Written Language: An Indicator of Children’s Cognitive Development

by Carol Chandler-Wood

With the ever growing use of computers, cell phones, and other forms of technology there is concern amongst many educators and parents that children will never fully develop their potential in creative and mechanically sound written expression. We have all seen the abbreviations used in text and instant messaging and often witnessed what appears to be a thwarted ability of children to verbally communicate with clear thought, full intent, in descriptive and expressive sentences, and a logical sequence of problem solving skills. Many say that children should be trained and required by their parents to write “thank you” notes because it is proper etiquette and teaches our children to express gratitude. This is no doubt true; however, there are other often missed reasons why our children need to be trained and required at home and school to write letters and other correspondence and papers. One reason is because developing writing skills enables children to reach their full cognitive potential.

There is a relationship between cognitive development and written language. Cognitive abilities are the brain-based skills and mental processes that are needed for a person to carry out tasks; from the simplest to most complex. Every task can be broken down into the different cognitive skills that are needed to complete that particular task successfully, and these skills can be improved upon given regular practice (Wellman & Gelman, 1992). The actual act of writing, as demonstrated in penmanship, is a fine motor skill, which is the coordination of small muscle movements in the fingers and hands and usually in coordination with the eyes. By children using technology before they have developed the fine motor skills of writing with a pen, pencil, or crayon, they have been deprived of developing part of their cognition. Similar to why it is important for babies to crawl before they walk to train their brains left/right side coordination, learning the fine motor skill of the writing further develops children’s cognitive skills as demonstrated in dexterity.

Additionally, it is believed by many professionals that students’ level of cognitive development determines the organization of thought which they express in written form, and students cannot use language at a level that reaches beyond their stage of cognitive development. Piaget, a Swiss philosopher and psychologist, theorized that children’s thinking skills are demonstrated in their written expression and can be categorized in four ways: In children’s early developmental years, they think in images, and their writing consist of brief descriptions of physical characteristics of events and objects and focuses on only one part of it as if it were all of the image. In the next stage of writing, children have a broader understanding of how the descriptive concepts of language interrelate, so their writing is organized and indicates how the parts of the image, event, or object interact. As children further develop, they begin to see that there are alternative ways to describe images, so the material they write about can be broken into groups centered on a theme, issue, or more abstract point, not related to each other. Eventually, children evolve into a stage of writing in which their thoughts are organized and coherent and include a statement of the problem, rationale for solving it, supporting data, and a conclusion. At this latter stage, children’s writing reflects their more mature cognitive development. Likewise, children’s inability to write at this latter stage indicates they have not cognitively developed to their full potential and would benefit from educational training to develop this ability (Santmire, 1984).

So, the next time you require your children to write “thank you” notes for birthday gifts received, a summer journal describing their activities, or a paper detailing why they will not do something again as a consequence for violating parental expectations, you can tell them by doing so it will enable them to reach their full cognitive potential, and it is your job as a parent or teacher to take responsibility in enabling them to reach this potential!

Other benefits of children expressing themselves in written form are it forces them to think and think in a logically proper sequence of what they want to say. Writing causes children to think about word choices and to use words that most accurately depict and describe their emotions and thoughts. It allows them to demonstrate their mastery of correct writing mechanics as it pertains to grammar, word usage, punctuation, and capitalization. Writing causes children to improve their personal presentation by enhancing their verbal communication skills. Writing also enriches their relationships with others by them putting their thoughts and emotions on paper in their “thank you” notes and letters. And, writing teaches children to use good social skills and rules of etiquette in a culture that certainly could use some verbal poise!

Santmire, T. E. (1984). Cognitive Development in Writing. Opinion Paper/Speeches and Opinion Papers, 1-15.

Wellman, H. M. & Gelman, S. A. (1992). Cognitive Development: Foundational Theories of Core Domains. Annual Review of Psychology, 43(1), 337-375.