An investigation into the linguistic characteristics and cognitive implications of academic writing at senior secondary level

Meyer, Heather Lynn Boik
Bitchener, John
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Master of Arts in Applied Language Studies
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Auckland University of Technology

The idea that there is a link between language and abstract thinking is neither new nor startling yet it has not been the subject of detailed inquiry in the disciplines of linguistics or cognitive psychology and as a result, the nature of the connection is not well understood. Obviously, knowledge of this kind would be extremely useful to educationalists since, as Bruner (in his introduction to the translation of Vygotsky's Thought and Language, 1962) suggests, 'theory of intellectual development is theory of education' (emphasis added), based on the assumption that the development of intellectual maturity is the very purpose of education. A tentative and very practical attempt is made by this study to investigate the connection between language and thinking, in an educational context. Firstly, the existence of such a link is considered from a cognitive psychological point of view, then its possible linguistic manifestations are considered. The pragmatic, educational aspect is included as the investigation is operationalised as a comparative study of cognitive characteristics and linguistic features of writers at a senior secondary level. Forty essays by writers at this level, twenty graded as 'Excellent' and twenty graded as 'Non-achieving' were examined. Half in each grade grouping were Native-speakers of English and the other half were Non-native speakers. A cognitive and a linguistic profile for each essay was established according to specified criteria. Common features among essays of similar grading were sought as were common features among essays of native or non-native speakers. It was the grading factor that proved most productive, that is, essays of similar grading (not language background) resembled each other more closely both cognitively, which would be expected, and linguistically, which verifies the language-thought connection. Some effort was devoted to trying to specify the connection more practically, in terms of the features of Design Theory - Contingency, Complexity and Specification - as they are manifest cognitively and linguistically. The result is a modification of the original analytical framework which is intended to be helpful in assisting teachers to assess the cognitive and linguistic quality of their students' writing and perhaps identify features that they can teach directly. Finally, suggestions regarding the requirements for school-leaving are made, in the light of the necessity of intellectual maturity for successful participation in society.

Academic writing , Linguistics , Cognitive grammar
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