Saturday, October 8, 2011

4 Major Theories of Speech and Language Development


Wanda Lee Ann Melchor
University of Central Florida
Department of Education and Graduate Studies
Fall 2011

A Survey of Communication Disorders for the Classroom Teacher, focuses on 4 primary theories of language development.  These theories include Behaviorism, Social Theory, Psycholinguistic Theory and Cognitive Theory.  Each theory builds the foundation of educational pedagogy and educational psychology in the classroom.


Behaviorism could be broken into two parts:  the conceptual study of behavior and the applied practice.  Both are based on Skinner's theory of verbal behavior.  Psychoanalytic theory, language development theory and Applied Behavior Analysis for Teachers and other professional use the concepts of behaviorism.  Behaviorism is taught in classroom management techniques, educational psychology and communication theory.  Behaviorism, as applied in communication theory, focuses on the function of language, the stimuli that evoke a verbal response, and the consequence of the performance (Lue, 2001). 

The use of behaviorism has created significant improvement for students with language disorders and delays as well as students who need to bridge the achievement gap.  Studying behaviorism and applying behaviorism in the classroom also benefits teachers and other professionals who work with SLD and other disabled students.  Behaviorism research also can assist administrators who wish to design functional curriculum to benefit students while meeting educational standards (Ross, 2004).
The use of behaviorism as it applies to communication is in essence the study of how the environment both provokes and reinforces verbal and nonverbal communication.  The theory centers around the thought children are conditioned by the environment and reinforcement of their verbal and nonverbal communication. 

Skinner’s theory of verbal behavior in his work Verbal Behavior, introduced the several critical concepts including the rate of response in verbal communication.  In addition, he emphasized schedules of reinforcement as a primary motivator in speech, language and communication.  Essentially, Skinner believed that people are the primary causes of communication.  This can be evidenced by placing a ELL child who rarely speaks in a seating arrangement surrounded by children that otherwise talk a lot.  The ELL child will be provoked into speaking by the prompts of the other students.

The theory of competency based training and vocational theory research is based upon the principles of behaviorism.  The Performance-Based Teacher Education movement which promoted the theory of Competency Based Training (CBT). The theoretical origins of CBT derive from the principals of behaviorism and systems theory – both of which are conceptual theories.  Currently, there is a debate in education of the United States regarding teacher salaries based upon performance measures including student achievement and test scores.  Although controversial, most elements of CBT were contributed by specialists with a background in either one or both concepts (Hodge, 2007).

The practical aspect of behaviorism in the classroom would be to include strategies such as Applied Behavior Analysis including studying the observable behaviors, collecting and recording data, developing a target behavior to work on, develop a hypothesis about the behavior and develop a behavioral plan to address these behaviors.  Next, implement the strategies and collect and record data.  Finally, you would analyze the data to determine if the strategy was successful and make any changes. ABA is a cyclical process.  The materials needed are forms and other materials for the recording and data collection for the teacher.  Also, picture cue cards and other trigger objects to promote desired behavioral outcomes for the student are beneficial.

Psycholinguistic Theory

            The basis of psycholinguistic theory of language development and acquisition is derived from the theory that the brain contains a mental plan or map to understand and generate language and the plan is guided by an independent rule system (Lue, 2001). This is basically the study of how the brain receives, interprets and applies language.  Psycholinguistic theorists believe that language is taught and influenced by the both culture and the environment.  Psycholinguistic theorists believe by examining these cultural and environmental factors combined with the knowledge of how the brain works, they can predict the expected outcomes as well as the rate of the language acquisition. 

            Noam Chomsky pioneered the study of psycholinguistic theory.  He believed that humans already have a natural ability to speak, including the use of syntax and that language is automatically hardwired in the brain.  Chomsky was highly critical of Skinner’s theory of behaviorism.  Chomsky believed that language is not learned, but an automatic ability and that language could not be taught.

            By manipulating the environment, under psycholinguistic theory, educators have tried to create instructional techniques to create a functional fundamental curriculum. Psycholinguistic theory is successful when combined with using the students’ own cultural awareness and using decontextualized techniques such as memorizing sight words to teach language.  The most useful and successful technique used in psycholinguistic theory in teaching language development encompasses practicing the four language skills of reading, listening, speaking, and writing can provide full context.

            Psycholinguistic theory research has the greatest benefit for ELL learners.  To benefit ELL learners, educators must look at the child’s history to determine whether the child has a speech and language developmental delay in their native language.  This applies to both oral and written language.  A child who has a speech or language delay in his native language will struggle with learning English, while a child that is proficient in his own language will acquire English more quickly. 

Psycholinguistic theory can be most effective for the ELL learner.  By utilizing the child’s strengths, incorporating familiar aspects of the culture, creating an environment such as labeling items in the environment with both the English and native language words and use of wrote and sight word recognition.  In the classroom, the teacher can incorporate aspects of the child’s culture and native language such as selecting books in English about a child or item from the child’s culture during reading, studying the child’s country in English for Social Studies or utilizing picture cue cards labeled with common objects found in the classroom or in the lesson in both English and the child’s native language.  Materials may include labels, books, pictures and other items.

Cognitive/Interactive Theory

            Jean Piaget was one of the leading pioneers of cognitive theory.  Piaget introduced the theory of developmental stages and that language is acquired through the stages with each ability or stage becoming more complex.  Under cognitive theory, there are many factors that influence language development including thought, mental ability, age, and other related factors.  Piaget believed that thought was a precursor for language and that language was merely the outward expression of thought. 

            The use of a combination of mental representation or mental ability and language skill in verbal language therefore, the use of language and fluency, combined with mental representation equals the abstract, implicit, and underlying linguistic system in a speaker’s mind/brain (VanPatten, 2010).  Cognitive theory emphasizes the higher order of thought and ability as a person moves through the developmental stages.

Cognitive theory combines the use of the environment factors, cultural grammar, and vocabulary with the mental and developmental processes that assess and interpret the environmental and cultural factors.  The two major contributions cognitive theory has made toward language development theory are the role of the environment in the development of language and the developing mental perspective of the child as the child matures (Lue, 2001).

            In the classroom, the practical application would be to utilize strategies that are age appropriate including selecting materials and developing lesson plans that are specific age and developmentally geared toward that child.  In addition, the teacher can create a supportive learning environment through the use of classroom seating arrangements, providing zones for both quiet and interactive play and learning, adjusting the classroom lighting, removing distracting items and noise and other environmental modifications.  Materials that can be utilized are seating, lighting, and background music, among others.

Social Interactionist Theory

            Social interactionist theory is the belief that language is developed through the use of social contact and relationships and that these relationships provide a framework for language comprehension, content, context and form (Lue, 2001).  While Chomsky believed that language has could not be taught as it is an ingrained ability rather than a learned ability, Vygotsky introduced the thought that it is the environment or relationships with others that stimulates communication.  Vygotsky first introduced the social interaction theory introducing social constructivism, based on zone of proximal development.  Social interactionist theory concurs with this approach; exploring ‘the distance between students with the actual developmental level determined by independent problem-solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers’ (Shawer, 2008).

            Vygotosky studied the influence of child development on language development noting the child’s culture and interpersonal communication influenced the child’s learning ability.  Vygotsky believed that children developed higher levels of thought and mental abilities as they progressed into different stages of life from infancy to adult and they acquired knowledge through their interactions with others throughout their life including with their parents, their community and society.  Therefore, children’s language was influenced both by interactions with others and their cultural but also social norms.  The child learns language patterns, the speed in which he speak, fluency and written language through these factors.  This has also been referred to a guided participation (guided by society), cultural mediation (the influence of culture) and internalization­­ ­­- the thought of knowing how (Santrock, 2004). 

            Social interactionist theory centers on student cognitive change.  Cognitive change includes the processes of reading, writing, speaking, and listening abilities combined with affective change (motivation and interests) in the use of language development.  The most important role social interaction theory provides is the role that social experiences play on the role of pragmatics.  Also, those social experiences provide a framework in which children apply the use of language.  Social interaction theory can be applied in creating curriculum for speech and language development, reading, writing and listening skills.  It is important to create curriculum that is centered on the principles of active learning, interaction between thought and experience, sequential construction of more complex cognitive schemas and student experiences including social culture, understanding, interests and needs.

            The practical applications in the classroom would be to provide students opportunities to interact with one another and with the teacher.  Successful applications include allowing students to partner with peers to complete assignments, to ask questions, to receive feedback and to utilize conversational speech.  In addition, the teacher can encourage parents to interact with their child and to provide the child multiple social opportunities including developing friends, interacting with their community and participating in social events.  For materials, the teacher can incorporate activities, dvds, pictures, audio or any objects that show social interaction and conversation across a variety of social situations (peer, speaking with adults, cultural, etc.).
            All of the theories of language development have overlapping characteristics. While there is no proven theory clearly responsible for the development of language, each theory illustrates the different factors that influence language development.  It is important to understand the concepts of each.  To advocate for one position can be difficult. Many educators in exceptional student education would advocate for behaviorism as behavioral issues cross many areas of learning beyond just speech and language development.  However, many children with speech and language delays associated with other disorders such as autism, appear to be missing the social interaction link.  To advocate for one theory, would be to stress the importance of social interactionist theory as the many behaviors, language patterns, applications of language, learning and thought are influenced by the environment, culture, society and other observable factors found in interactions with others.

            Each theory clearly shows an influence on speech and language development.  It is important to apply each of these theories as needed by the individual and to record strategies, curriculum, internal and outside factors that influence the individuals learning ability.   

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