How is learning to speak different from learning to read and write?

Time to read: 6 minutes

It appears de rigueur at the moment to make bold proclamations, usually based on flimsy evidence, about what students need to know, in order to learn this or that. For example, people pushing phonics make claims about the essential knowledge readers need to have about reading. Proponents of direct instruction make claims about the incompatibility of using play or inquiry to learn specific scientific concepts of mathematics, while others outline the non-negotiable knowledge that student writers apparently need to know in order to write.

Recently, I’ve encountered people trying to justify their beliefs in specific essential learning by citing “biological primary and secondary knowledge,” ignoring that fact that Vygotsky, Piaget, and others have differentiated spontaneous and non-spontaneous concepts for eighty years! Though it is disappointing that these academics don’t refer to those who came before them, I feel that this is great opportunity to have discussions about what, when, and how people form scientific concepts. This is the subject of this post.

Vygotsky outlines the differences between spontaneously developed and non-spontaneously developed concepts in Thinking and Speech Chapter 6 The Development of Scientific Concepts in Childhood. He also describes Piaget’s position, and the differences between the two. It is a fairly heavy read, but worthwhile, and I will use examples from this chapter in this post. [Note: The Russian word obuchenie has been poorly translated as “instruction” in English translations of Vygotsky’s writings, instead according to Moll 1992 substitute “teaching/learning” or Wertsch 1988 “teaching-learning processes” whenever “instruction” is used.]

There is general agreement that there are two types of concepts, spontaneous and non-spontaneous, which are often more commonly referred to as everyday and scientific concepts. In this post, I will attempt to outline my understanding of Vygotsky’s position using his examples, from the position of cultural-historical theory.

Even the most devout direct instructionists admit that everyone learns to talk spontaneously. That is, young children form concepts of oral language spontaneously through their everyday interactions with their parents and others, all the way to becoming fluent speakers. Yes, there are many scientific concepts that form our understanding of language. For example, through the study of language we form scientific concepts around the construction of words certain prefixes and suffixes, which provides us the ability to understand unfamiliar words. However, no one that I’ve encountered has yet to claim that specific scientific concepts need to be explicitly taught, and known by children, before they can learn to talk.

Vygotsky uses the contrasting examples of brothers and Archimedes principle, to illustrate the differences between everyday and scientific concepts. We form the concept of a brother through many and varied experiences of brothers through interactions with them. Compare our understanding of a brother with the scientific definition of brother, obtained from the google, a brother is “a man or boy in relation to other sons and daughters of his parents.”  Further, compare this with Archimedes principle from wikipedia “Archimedes’ principle states that the upward buoyant force that is exerted on a body immersed in a fluid, whether fully or partially submerged, is equal to the weight of the fluid that the body displaces and acts in the upward direction at the center of mass of the displaced fluid.”

We can see clearly, and Vygotsky explains as such, that everyday concepts and scientific concepts have opposite strengths. A child’s understanding of what a brother is rich in real-life experiences with brothers, yet they most likely have difficulties defining what a brother is in precise terms, something  Wikipedia also has difficulty with! However, a student’s understanding of Archimedes principle is rich in the abstract. They can learn such scientific definitions by heart and apply them to problems and relate them to other scientific concepts. Yet the weakness of scientific understanding is the ability to associate it with real objects. By simply knowing the principle can they use it to explain what happens to a ship being unloaded at the dock, a helium filled balloon, or a person floating?  Initially, probably not.

Scientific concepts and everyday concepts coexist, they don’t replace each other. Studying the literature featuring sibling rivalry doesn’t replace our everyday concepts of a brother, rather the everyday and scientific concepts connect to enable, as Vygotsky says, the “mastery of the higher characteristics of the everyday concept.”

Another example. I’m currently teaching my oldest child to drive. Cornering speed, understanding the speed in which the car can navigate a corner safely, is extremely complex and difficult to master. Different corner shapes, different road and weather conditions, the width of the road, and the speed zone, all play a part, and largely can only be learned through experience of different corners in different conditions. Some corners taken to cautiously, some taken to fast, and some taken just right. For a beginning driver, actually for any driver, feeling safe is a good indication of whether the speed is suitable, but I’ve suggested to my daughter that if she needs to break in the second half of the corner then she’s travelling too fast. By using this clearly defined scientific concept, she can assess whether she chose the right speed for a corner, and modify her driving in the corner.

Of course, this scientific concept of not needing to break in the second half of the corner, coexists with the everyday concepts developed spontaneously during the thousands of corners she’ll navigate during her 120 hours of learner practice, as required here in Victoria. There is, however, a limit to the scientific concept of slow in, fast out cornering. It would be ludicrous and negligent by me, as her driving instructor, to simply teach her the scientific concept, without the everyday experiences of cornering, as both a passenger and a driver. Without the opportunity to form concepts about driving spontaneously, there isn’t the necessary developmental foundation for the scientific concept to form, and my rule of thumb would be just meaningless words. Again, as Vygotsky says, the scientific concept allows the higher aspects of everyday concepts to emerge.

Some will argue that some things can only be learned scientifically first due to their nature.

Vygotsky points out that the way we learn to speak a second language does not occur the same spontaneous way. When we learn a second language we learn it scientifically first, and everyday second. I’ve already discussed that everyone accepts we learn to speak spontaneously, this is not true of how we learn a second language. In fact, Vygotsky shows, we learn it completely opposite to our first language. In our first language, we can communicate with others right from the beginning, yet we don’t understand grammar and the like. In second languages, we learn the rules of grammar first, and can only communicate with others, and develop spontaneous concepts through oral interactions, is a long way down the learning path.

This is because we learn the scientific concepts of a second language in the context of the everyday concepts of our first language. Scientific concepts of a second language still come after everyday concepts, but they are the everyday concepts of our first language.

Naturally some will argue that reading, writing, mathematics, music, and everything else is closer to learning to speak a second language, than learning to speak a first language. They’ll argue that their subject can’t be learned spontaneously, it needs to be learned scientifically. This is not true. Papert for example, showed how students learn mathematics spontaneously.

Sadly, we’re beginning to see this approach in the teaching reading and writing becoming more widespread. The inability of students to use a phonetical approach to read their own writing demonstrates the flaw in thinking. I’ve seen first hand how the scientific concepts students used to write words on paper, doesn’t enable them to read their own words back. They struggle to use the scientific concepts to write, and then they find it impossible to use the scientific concepts to read their own writing. This is in contrast to much younger students who scrawl a mix of letters, lines and symbols on paper, and read them back clearly and confidently.

Without the opportunity to spontaneously form concepts of writing, through their own form of writing to communicate their ideas, they don’t have the basis to form the scientific concepts. Like a student driver who has never been in a car before, and yet who finds themselves heading towards a corner they don’t have the slightest clue whether to hit the accelerator or the brake! It is not the lack of the scientific concept that is the issue, it is the lack of everyday concepts to give the scientific concept meaning.

The ever bigger danger of the scientific concept first approach, is that the scientific concepts we’re teaching our students might not actually be scientific concepts. Without spontaneously developed everyday concepts it is impossible to tell whether promoted scientific concepts are in fact pseudo concepts. Whether or not the slow in, fast out concept is actually a scientific concept can be ascertained through the everyday concepts already formed, but without those everyday concepts we’re lost.

In this way, for scientific concepts not only need a broad range of everyday concepts to be formed but they also need a broad range of everyday concepts so that they can be adequately understood. As such, teaching the scientific concept of phonetic awareness through non-words appears a particularly futile approach, as it severs the relationship between the scientific concept (phonetic awareness) and the everyday concepts (known words). Rather, strengthening a student’s understanding of scientific concepts of reading and writing, first requires a strengthening and expanding of their experience of everyday concepts.



It is often asked whether teachers need to know learning theory, or whether they just need to know good practice and what works. It is a legitimate question. I do believe an understanding of everyday and scientific concepts show that they two, everyday practice and theory, are not only related but they are dependent upon each other. A strong understanding of pedagogy reveals the “higher characteristics” of teaching, while a strong understanding of pedagogy is dependent on a broad range of spontaneously formed concepts during actual learning and teaching.


2 thoughts on “How is learning to speak different from learning to read and write?”

  1. I think this is a helpful explanation of the two kinds of concepts. In the case of “mathematical concepts” there is a linguistic problem, I think, as one can never be sure, on which “level” we are. For instance the spontaneous development of mathematical concepts still means an “everyday concept of mathematics” and not a “scientific mathematical concept”. As “mathematics” as a word is often seen as “scientific” anyway, the former (everyday c.) could be misunderstood.

    1. Thanks for the comment Peter,

      Yes you make a good point. I think what makes a scientific concept, a scientific concept, is as according to Vygotsky, that scientific concepts “are formed through an extraordinary effort of his [sic] own thought.” A local primary school here in Melbourne, shared with me that five year old children in their school have spontaneously develop the mathematical concept of supply and demand while playing shop. This occurred when many children created the same object to “sell” in the play shop, but discovered no other children wanted to buy their creation due to over supply. I would imagine that supply and demand would usually be viewed as a scientific mathematical concept, yet through play it has been shown by this school that it can be developed spontaneously.

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