Lev Vygotsky (“the Mozart of Psychology”)

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Tools, functions mediated activity and internalisation

Elementary mental functions.  These are present at birth and include sensation and attention.  They only show minor development by experience.  Elementary mental functions are present in all animals. 

Higher mental functions.  These include problem solving, mathematical ability, language and thinking.

Cultural influence.  This is required to take us from Elementary to Higher functions.  By cultural influence Vygotsky meant books, teachers, parents, experts or anything capable of passing on the knowledge of previous generations.


Language is essential for the communication of knowledge and ideas and as a result is crucial to Vygotsky’s theory.

To understand the theory it is important to understand the role language plays in thinking.  In fact the two are closely linked.  Try to imagine thinking without the use of words.  Vygotsky believed that thought and language develop through a number of stages:

 Ages 0 to 2 years

Language and thought develop independently of one another.  Children have pre-verbal thought and pre-intellectual speech.

 Ages 2 to 7 years

Language has two functions:

1.       Monitor and direct internal thoughts (inner voice we talk to ourselves with).

2.       Communicate thoughts to others (talk out loud).

When children at this age talk out loud to themselves, Vygotsky saw this as a sign that the child is unable to distinguish between the two.

Age 7 onwards

The child distinguishes between the two functions of language.  Private language is used for thinking and becomes central to cognitive development.  Vygotsky believed that language and thinking developed in parallel to each other.  As our ability to use language improves this increase our ability to think and vice versa.  

Language is crucial both for thinking and communication.  A child that has developed language is better able to understand that other children think differently (intersubjectivity). 

RESEARCH STUDY: Inner speech (Berk, 1994)

Convincing evidence of the important role played by inner speech was reported by Berk (1994). She found that 6-year-olds spent an average of 60% of the time talking to themselves while solving problems in mathematics. Those whose speech contained numerous comments about what needed to be done on the current problem did better at mathematics over the following year. This confirmed Vygotsky's view that self-guiding speech can make it easier for children to direct their actions. Presumably this self-guiding speech made it easier for the children to focus their attention on the task in hand.

Vygotsky argued that private speech diminishes and becomes more internal as children's level of performance improves. Berk (1994) discussed a study in which 4- and 5-year-old children made Lego models in each of three sessions. As predicted by Vygotsky, the children's speech become increasingly internalised from session to session as their model-making performance improved. Thus, as Vygotsky assumed, private speech is of most value to children when they are confronted by novel tasks that they do not fully understand.


The usefulness of Vygotsky's theory of diminishing speech depends on what is meant by “speech”. For example, some children with learning difficulties are unable to speak but can perform quite


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