Verbal and Intellectual Development

William James thought the newborn infant's world must seem "a blooming,buzzing confusion." Yet within months the infant can recognize familiar faces,respond to commands, and produce sounds that resemble the language of his parents. Within a few years of his birth every normal human child develops a vocabulary of thousands of words and demonstrates conceptual ability far surpassing that of any lower animal. Language, conceptualization, and thought are intimately related. We will discuss their development in this module.


Physiological development is not a limiting factor in the development of speech

When the umbilical cord is severed, the infant's prenatal oxygen line is cut off. The carbon dioxide content of his blood builds up and produces a reflexive expansion of the lung cavity. Air is sucked in rapidly and drawn over the vocal cords of the larynx. The infant's first sounds are associated with swallowing, breathing, and hiccuping, and are the rudimentary sounds of speech.

Before the end of the first year of life, a child has made all the basic sounds that a human voice can make, including German gutturals and French trills. Early indiscriminate vocalizations like babbling and cooing are simply a reflex emission of air through the vocal cords. The infant both hears these sounds and senses the movements he makes in producing them. Babbling and cooing, therefore, may act as self-stimulating activities which seem to be rewarding in and of themselves.

Word formation starts when an infant gets attention for some sounds and not others

When an infant babbles, the parents normally reward him by paying attention to him. The parents attend to sounds appropriate to their language more than to inappropriate sounds. This attention affects both the form and frequency of vocalizations (Rheingold, et al., 1959). By the age of six months there is a marked resemblance between the child's sounds and the parents' language.

Parents are more likely to emit a word in the presence of some condition or object for which it is appropriate. The word and the objects thus become associated. Finally the child develops true speech. The three steps leading to speech are: (1 ) vocalized self-stimulation; (2) rewarded imitation; and (3) association.

A child builds a vocabulary by learning new associations of words with ideas and objects

Since association plays such an important role in language development one might expect that nouns, which refer to objects in the immediate environment, would be the words a child learns first. McCarthy's research (1930) largely substantiated this conclusion. Her data also indicated that parts of speech are largely learned in the following sequence: first nouns, then verbs, then adjectives and adverbs, and finally pronouns.

The first word is usually taken as a major event in the family. The proud parents of early talkers and the worried parents of late talkers seem to share a common belief that early language development means superior intelligence. Whether or not this belief is true is uncertain. In his study of gifted children, Terman (1925) found that the average age for the first word was eleven months; however, some gifted children in the group did not speak at all until the second or third year. The eleven-month average was based on parents' memories rather than on data from direct observation, and thus should probably be considered too low. Terman's study would indicate that there is little reason to believe that early language development, in itself, means anything significant about the child's potential. A child who speaks early is almost surely bright; but one who does not is not necessarily dull, since other factors may delay the onset of speech.

The development of language proceeds very rapidly after the first birthday. One study of language development found that by the age of 2 the average child had a vocabulary of 272 words; by 2 1/2 446 words; and by age 3, 896 words. Figure 13 shows data on vocabulary increases from birth through the age of 6 (Smith, 1926). When the child accumulates a vocabulary of 200-300 words, around the second birthday, he begins forming sentences. At this point he also seems to discover the general principle that things have names.

Intelligence is only one of many factors that influence vocabulary development

Various factors affect the size of vocabulary and rate of vocabulary growth. One of the most important factors seems to be the socioeconomic level of the child's family. Speech develops earlier and better in the higher social classes because of a more stimulating environment. Other important environmental factors in speech development are exposure to verbal materials, such as books, magazines, radio, TV, and interaction with adults.

Language is the result of both heredity and environment.

The Greek historian Herodotus believed that language was unique and that children, if left on their own, would eventually come up with the word for "bread." In modern times, Noam Chomsky, though not taking such an extreme position, did maintain that there was a universal grammar that provided structure for all languages. Other linguists have maintained that language depends more on the reinforcement from others. Recent observation of Nicaraguan deaf children, however, have convinced some researchers (Judy Kegl and others) that both routes are important. Following the 1979 Sandinista revolution, the government started a program to train deaf children. But the children had only crude signs used in their families. Teaching signs for Spanish letters got no where. But the children themselves apparently developed their own language by communicating with each other (Osborne, 1999). These deaf children apparently had basic concepts in mind, but were able to order them after observing other deaf children. It appears that there are structures in the brain waiting to be activated by interaction with others.

Is the use of language strictly a human ability? Until recently it seemed so. Several attempts to raise baby chimpanzees just as a human child was raised did not result in the chimpanzees developing linguistic abilities (Kellogg and Kellogg, 1933). Recently however two new approaches have met with considerable success. R. Allen Gardner and Beatrice T. Gardner (1969) have taught

Humans may not be the only animals with an ability to symbolize objects and ideas

American sign language to a young female chimpanzee named Washoe. David Premack (1970) and his associates have created an artificial language for their chimpanzee Sarah. Sarah can manipulate plastic word shapes on a magnetic clip board to communicate with the researchers. These developments are fascinating for they open up a whole new area of research. What might the chimpanzee be capable of doing if he can operate with a symbolic language?


Perhaps you have heard a parent exclaim, "Oh, he's just at that stage" as their child emits some behavior (or more likely some misbehavior). Psychologists are divided on the issue as to whether development does occur in well defined stages or not. That is, is development a continuous process where each new learning depends primarily on what the child has previously learned or must children mature enough to reach a stage before they can learn new skills? Stage theories imply that no matter how much specialized teaching a child may receive, he will only learn when he has matured to the point where he is capable of learning.

Stage and non-stage theories. Non-stage theorists believe mature development is a cumulative process whereby more complex skills are dependent on the acquisition of simpler ones. Stage theorists on the other hand view development as depending primarily on the maturational level reached by the organism. They would predict that no amount of training would help the child until he is neurophysiologically mature enough; but once he reaches that level of maturation, then acquisition is very rapid.

The stage theory of learning asserts that each type of learning occurs when an appropriate level of maturity is reached

By far the most plausible and influential stage theory on the development of intellectual ability is that formulated by the Geneva group, under the guidance of Jean Piaget. Piaget evolved a method of working with children that does not fit nicely into our categories of research design. His approach to child study combined clinical interviewing, direct observation, and actual experimentation. With young infants, Piaget took detailed notes on behavior. These observations resemble observational records more than they do experimental results. Bassoon as the child was capable of interacting with the researcher, however,Piaget provided standardized stimuli and noted the child's reactions. These stimuli were at first physical objects. Later, questions or statements to which the child responded were used. As the child grew in conceptual ability, Piaget was able to measure the level of development by presenting specific problems for the child to solve. It was on the basis of such observations that Piaget formulated his theory of cognitive development.

Piaget divided the conceptual growth of the child into four major stages.

Stage 1

The sensori-motor stage lasts from birth to about 18 months. During this stage the infant learns to interact with his environment by grasping, manipulating, and controlling the objects around him. The generalizations and discriminations formed during these early months provide the basis for rudimentary concepts and language. The child learns, during the sensori-motor stage, to attend to certain sounds and sights, to vocalize, and to predict the effect of his actions on his environment, to some extent.

As an example of early development in the sensori-motor stage, we will quote from Piaget himself (1969).

Observation 106._In the evening of 0:3 (13) by chance strikes the chain while sucking his fingers (Bobs.98): he grasps it and slowly displaces it while looking at the rattles. He then begins to swing it very gently which produces a slight movement of the hanging rattles and an as yet faint sound inside them. then definitely increases by degrees his own movements: he shakes the chain more and more vigorously and laughs uproariously at the result obtained. On seeing the child's expression it is impossible not to deem this graduation intentional.

At 0.1 (21) as well, when he strikes with his hand the toys hanging from his bassinet hood (Obs. 103) he visibly graduates his movements as functions of the result: at first he strikes gently and then continues more and more strongly, etc.

In the later phases of the sensori-motor stage, the child forms his first primitive representations of time, space, and causality. He makes his first attempts to solve problems by means of thought. Imitation and pretending during play give the child practice in interpreting his world. An example of imitation is given by Piaget as follows:

Observation 42. At 1:1(23) L carefully watched me swinging my watch which held by the end of the chain. As soon as I put it down, she imitated me, but held the chain at a point close to the watch. When her hand was too near the watch to allow it to swing properly, she put it down in front of her and then picked up the chain again, taking care to increase the distance.

Stage 2

The stage of pre-operational thought lasts from the end of the sensori-motor period (13/, to 2 years) to the beginning of the stage of concrete operations (7th 8 years). During this period the child begins to use symbols to solve problems. His thought is characterized by egocentricity (the inability to take the role of another) and inflexibility (the inability to change the steps in reasoning). An example of pre-operational thought taken from Piaget is given below:

Again at 2:7 (12), seeing L. in a new bathing suit, with a cap, J. basked:"What's the baby's name?" Her mother explained that it was a bathing costume, but J. pointed to L herself and asked, "But what's the name of that?" (indicating L. 'space) and repeated the question several times. But as soon as L. had her dress on again, ~ exclaimed very seriously: "It's again," as if her sister had changed her identity in changing her clothes.

Stage 3

The stage of concrete operations extends from the age of 7 or 8 to approximately 11 years. Piaget has studied this phase of development extensively, and examples of the development of concepts of space, number, geometry, moral judgment, and various comer areas are abundant in his writings. A typical experiment Piaget used to test conceptual growth in this period involves the idea of number:

The (5:61 "If I make a bouquet of all the primroses and you make one of all the flowers, which will be bigger?_Yours._(The experimenter takes~ primroses and 4 other flowers and repeats the question.)_The same(A=A,)_ If you gather all the primroses in a meadow will any flowers remain'_Yes._If you gather all the flowers will any primroses remain?_Yes . . . no._Why,_because you take all the flowers._And if one gathers all the yellow primroses will any primroses remain?_Yes, there will still be the violet ones._And if one gathers all the primroses, will there be any yellow primroses left?_No, because you take all the primroses and there aren't any left._The questions on quantification of inclusion still remain insoluble.

Stage 4

The stage of formal thought is reached around the age of 11 or 12 and proceeds on through adolescence. The child is now able to think symbolically with more and more skill. He is able to form and test hypotheses, to deduce conclusions, and to do completely abstract reasoning of the type required in mathematics or logic. The following example illustrates the extent to which children in the stage of formal thought are able to dissociate their thoughts from concrete realities.

Bet (11:7). "How many points could be drawn along this line,_You can't say. You can't count them. You could make points that get smaller and smaller . . ._How many are there in this circle,_It's impossible to tell._But roughly: 10,000; 100,000; 1,000,000_It's impossible to tell, there are so many you just can't say._Make a drawing showing what the smallest possible line looks like._But it can't be done because it could always be made smaller still."


Considerable research has been done on the possibility of advancing the child's grasp of fundamental concepts through a process of systematic teaching. Many of the early Piagetian training studies produced largely negative outcomes, supporting the position that the major stages of development are quite fixed (Piaget, 1952, 1954). For example, on one study (Piaget and Inhelder,1941) children were given clay to make into a ball equal in size to another ball of the same material. This can be done by an average four-year-old child.But if one of the balls is now rolled into a long snake-like shape the four-year-old will insist that it is now "bigger" than the other one. Not until age five does Piaget find that the child will have reached the stage where the round object will be perceived to contain the same amount of clay as the original. This is an example of what Piaget terms conservation, that is, the realization that the amount of a substance does not change when its shape changes or when it is divided into parts.

Several researchers have criticized such experiments on the grounds that the instructions given to the children may mean different things to different age groups (Hulsebus, 1969). Gelman (1969) raises still another criticism. She argues that children who fail to conserve may merely have not learned to attend to the relevant features of the task. She found that when "non-conservers"were taught to attend to length as an independent dimension they were much better at solving problems similar to the one above.

Some critics claim that Piaget has restricted his view of the child by selecting for study only those learning tasks whose outcomes tend to support his preconceived notions. Ginsberg (1967) found that in certain types of learning tasks,pre-schoolers could visually estimate relative proportions as well as adolescents. Tosti and Chadwick (1965) found that when using a programmed learning task which relied on items requiring syllogistic deductions (supposedly not developed until the age of eleven) most eight-year-olds and all the nine-year olds in the test population could solve such problems with ease if the exercises were presented in small steps.

According to the non-stage theory of learning, each learning experience provides the basis for further learning

Researchers other than Piaget have supported stage or readiness theories.The pioneering studies of Morphette and Washburn (1931) showed a very sharp dividing line between success and failure on reading tasks as a function of mental age. But again there are other data that cast suspicion on the generality of these findings. One group which has frequently opposed stage theories is the programmed learning researchers. In their development of learning materials, they frequently reject conventional approaches to teaching a subject. Instead they attempt to determine just what skills the child brings into the learning environment and then to build the program around those entering behaviors. For example, Evans (1965) found, using a programmed learning approach, that he could easily teach three-year-old children to read. Evans dismissed the experiments which support stage readiness as meaningless. He states: "They take teaching strategies designed to be effective with seven year-olds and are surprised to find they don't work for three-year-olds." Evans concluded that an academic skill could be taught to any child regardless of his age as long as the instructional strategies used assumed as prerequisites only those behaviors that the child possessed. A similar position has been taken byDr. Jerome Bruner (1960). Bruner phrased it somewhat differently: "Any subject can be taught in a manner that is intellectually honest to a child at any stage of development." Both Evans and Bruner see the primary task in teaching a subject as discovering a way to represent the structure of that subject in terms of the child's view of things.

In this module we have studied how verbal and intellectual abilities develop with time and have explored such questions as, "Is there a consistent pattern?"In the final analysis, however, we must conclude that no one has yet adequately described the process of human development. All fall short of providing an answer to the problem of analyzing and predicting the growth of skills and capabilities.



Now test yourself without looking back.

1. Babbling, cooing and other early sounds made by infants are:

a. caused solely by the physiological state of the child.
b. not associated with breathing, swallowing, or hiccupping.
c. produced by reflex emissions of air through the vocal cords.
d. one way in which the infant can stimulate himself.

2. Which of the following is(are) important in the infant's rate of progression from such indiscriminate vocalizations as babbling to the appropriate use of language?
a. The amount of attention the child receives for each particular sound he makes
b. The social-economic level of the family the availability of books, magazines, TV, radio, and the interactions the infant has with others.
c. produced by reflex emissions of air through the vocal cords
d. (none of these)

3. Below are the parts of speech. Number them in the order a child learns to speak them.

and adverbs verbs

4. Match each example with the stage of cognitive development it illustrates (more than one is possible).

1 ) Sensori-motor stage ( )

2) Pre-operational thought ( )

3) Concrete operations ( )

4) Formal thought ( )

a. Child vocalizes Benjamin while eating, to indicate the foods that he likes.

b. Jimmy is shown two identically shaped glasses, glass A and glass B. Each glass has an equal amount of liquid. The investigator asks Jimmy whether each glass holds the same amount of liquid. Jimmy agrees. Then the investigator pours the liquid from glass B into a taller, thinner container, B'. The investigator asks Jimmy whether the amount of liquid in A and B' are the same. Jimmy indicates that therein more liquid in B' than in A.

c. "Well, it is clear from the data that A might be the necessary and sufficient condition for X, or that B might be, or that both together might be needed; my job is to test these possibilities in turn to see which one or ones really hold true in this problem."

d. Child makes up a new word and assumes everyone knows exactly what he means by it.

e. The subject is presented with a horizontal row of pictures of different colored leaves (class of leaves). This row of pictures meets to form a right angle with a vertical row of pictures of green-colored objects of different kinds (class of green objects). The subject places a picture at the intersection of these two rows which contains both class attributes.

5. Those who feel that educational practices should not be based on stage theories argue that:
a. effects of early toilet training have not generally been controlled for in such experiments.
b. experimenters whose data support stage theories often use techniques developed for younger children with older populations.
It leads educators to ignore the need to build on the behaviors that the young child brings to the learning experience.
d. the method of punishment used by the parent usually affects the~growth of a child.




Match each example with the stage of cognitive development illustrates.

1) Sensori-motor stage(Child learns to grasp, manipulate, control his environment, to imitate, and to pretend.)

2) Pre-operational thought(Child learns to use symbols to solve problems, but his thought is characterized by egocentricity and inflexibility.)

3) Concrete operations(Child learns to use symbols to reason about concrete [non-abstract] problems and to classify and order events.)

4) Formal thought
(Child learns to form and test hypotheses, to deduce conclusions,
and to reason abstractly.)

a. Child is given three or more objects that appear to be of differing weights. The volume of each object is nota reliable cue for its weight. The child is basked to compare two objects at a time and order them in a series,from the heaviest to the lightest. The child can accomplish this task.

b. Sam my believes that the sun and the moon follow him as he walks.

c. Child accidentally sticks his thumb in his mouth and starts sucking his thumb. Child is hungry and mother is not in sight. Child moves his hand toward his face and after some effort gets his thumb into his mouth.

d. If A and B are two variables of which outcome X might be some kind of function, contingencies like the following need to be tested: a) neither A nor B produces X,alone or in combination; b) A elicits X but B does not;c) B elicits X but A does not; d) both A and B can induced separately or jointly; e) A and B together produce X,but neither alone does; B) A produces X if B is absent,but not if B is present. Child analyzes these hypotheses to confirm each. He successively puts these hypotheses to empirical tests.

Piaget's theory of cognitive development evolved from research using the techniques of interviewing, direct observation, and experimentation. Which of the following is true of Jean Piaget's theory?
a. It concerns the development of thought or conceptual ability.
b. It resulted from the use of an unusual method of research which involved clinical interviews, direct observation, and actual experimentation.
c. Piaget used experimental methods of research only.
d. Piaget's theory is solely concerned with the child's acquisition of language skills.


Early sounds of the infant associated with breathing, swallowing, had hiccuping are:

a. produced by reflex emissions of air through the vocal cords.
b. self-stimulating activities.
c. independent of vocalizations like babbling and cooing.
d. (none of these)


The amount of attention the infant receives for his vocalizations influences the frequency and rate of the sounds he makes. Another factor important in the acquisition of language skills is the richness of the environment_how many books, magazines and other stimulating materials are available. In general, the children of the poor are deprived of the kind of stimulation that children of richer, better educated families normally receive. The more stimulating the environment, the faster the language development. Which of the following is(are) important in the development of language?

a. The socioeconomic level of the family
b. The attention received for appropriate sounds
c. The fertility of the environment
d. (none of these)


In discussing the development of language in infants, we noted that,usually, the child first acquires what part of speech; adjectives,nouns, verbs or adverbs?



1 a,b

2) b
3) a
4) d

3 nouns

4 a,b

5 a,b,c

Evans (1965) questioned the generality of the data which show that a child must reach a certain mental age before he is ready to read.He claimed that the techniques that were used to teach reading in such experiments were developed with the abilities of a seven-year old in mind and the same techniques should not be expected to be effective with a four-year-old. Following Evans' logic, we might assume one could teach a three-year-old to read if:
a. he had a parent who cared if he read or not.
b. we used techniques which only assumed the existing skills of a three-year-old.
c. we were shown the child had reached the concrete operation stage.
d. none of the above.


Bruner (1960) stated that "any subject can be taught in a manner that is intellectually honest to a child at any stage of development."He proposed adapting the material to be learned to the level of understanding of the child. Bruner sees the educator's problem as one of matching material to be learned with the learner's development. According to this view past failures in teaching younger children may have arisen because:
a. the educational materials may have been designed for older children and were therefore not appropriate for younger children.
b. the materials presented are not matched to the characteristics of the learner.


Another factor which may account for the poor performance of younger children on certain tasks is that of motivation. There are usually few reasons a four-year-old would want to learn to read. On the other hand, the five-year-old finds himself suddenly being pressured to learn both at home and at school. Mehler and Bever (1967)did a study to show the effects of motivation on children ranging in age between 2 and 5. Children were told they could eat all the candies from a row if they chose the row that contained the most.In contrast to most studies of this type, they found that there was nonsignificant difference in the ability of the children to "conserve." In this experiment what factor made the difference?

a. the motivation for the children to solve the problem was very high.

b. the effects on different cognitive stages of development between the younger and older children were evident.

c. the fact that the test was designed for older children made the results invalid.


1 a,b

4 b

5 a




1. The first sounds of the infant are:
a. produced by reflexive emissions of air through the vocal cords.
b. self-stimulating.
c. associated with babbling and cooing.
d. (none of the above)

Jacqueline stops crying when her mother lifts her out of the crib. The mother sets her down for a moment and she immediately starts crying again. As soon as her mother picks her up again she stops crying. Jacqueline is in the:

a. sensori-motor stage of cognitive development.
b. pre-operational stage of cognitive development.
c. concrete operations stage of cognitive development.
d. formal operations stage of cognitive development.

3. A child is totally unaware that other people have different points of view. The highest stage of cognitive development that he could be in is the:

a. sensori-motor stage.
b.pre-operational stage.
crotchet operations.
d.formal operations.

4. Jane agrees that the liquids in two identical glasses, A and B, are equal. The experimenter then pours the liquid from B into a taller, thinner container, B'. He then asks Jane whether the amounts of liquid in A and B' are equal. Jane agrees that they are equal, even though the level of liquid in B' is higher than the liquid in A. Jane is in the:

a. sensori-motor stage.
b. pre-operational stage.
c. concrete operations stage.
d. formal operations stage.

5. List two criticisms that have been made of experiments which support stage theory.



6. In what order do children learn the parts of speech?

a. verbs, adjectives and adverbs, nouns, pronouns
b. nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs
c. verbs, nouns, pronouns, adjectives and adverbs
d. none of these are in the correct order.




August 6, 2001