Word as a Tool for Scientific Concept Development

Written by Valentina Temina-Kingsolver

Written on . Posted in Language and Thought.

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Tagged with: Language and Thought, Vygotsky, Concepts

The purpose of the experiment reported by Vygotsky in his book Thought and Speech was to discover the role that a word plays and the character of its functional use in the process of concept development. He emphasized the importance of words for the development of a child’s thought processes and his concept development.

Role of Words for Concept Development

The functional use of a word, according to Vygotsky, plays the central role in this process. A word from the very beginning serves as a means of communication and mutual understanding between a child and an adult.

A whole word is incommunicable to a child who lacks a specific generalization. Vygotsky sees the problem here not in the lack of corresponding words and sounds, but rather in the lack of corresponding concepts and generalizations. Vygotsky refers to Leo Tolstoy who said that, “almost always it is not the word that is not understood by a child but the concept that the word conveys […] the word is almost always ready when the concept is ready” (Tolstoy, 1903, p. 143).

It is impossible to explain the meaning of a word or a phrase. Tolstoy said, “When you try to explain a word, for example the word impression, you use either another word that is as incomprehensible as the word impression itself, or a series of words the relationship of which are also impossible for a child to understand” (Tolstoy, 1903, ?. 143).

This turns out to be true with any child acquiring scientific knowledge. The problem, however, is even more significant with ESL students who have to acquire scientific concepts through the medium of a second language. This problem increases the responsibility of a teacher who works with this type of students.

Some researchers (Scribner & Cole, 1973) noted that school instruction heavily relies on linguistic forms thus limiting access to the knowledge of some category of students. They call for the need to employ more frequently concrete referents and such practical activity as observation, which they currently see as “a limited technique in the overwhelmingly linguistic environment of school” (p. 556).

An interesting study was reported by Verhallen and Schoonen (1998) in which they examined both qualitative and quantitative aspects of lexical knowledge of Turkish-Dutch bilingual children in both their L1 and L2. Their study revealed that in L2, the language of education for those children, their words were more extensive and varied than in their native tongue.

Development of the Word Meaning

Vygotsky noted a deep discrepancy discovered in their experiments between the development of a concept and its verbal definition. He claimed that the fact that a child grasps a new concept does not mean that he is aware of the concept and can give its verbal definition. According to Vygotsky, a child learns to analyze reality with the help of concepts and then he learns to analyze the concepts themselves.

Vygotsky stated that the concept and meaning of words evolve and the very process of their development is a complex and delicate process:

The child becomes conscious of his spontaneous con­cepts relatively late; the ability to define them in words, to operate with them at will, appears long after he has acquired the concepts. […] The development of a scientific concept, on the other hand, usually begins with its verbal definition and its use in nonspontaneous operations — working with the concept itself. It starts its life in the child's mind at the level that his spontaneous concepts reach only later. (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 192)

An adolescent forms a concept and uses it correctly in a concrete situation, but as soon as it comes to giving a verbal definition of this concept, his thinking runs into extreme difficulties and defining the concept turns out to be much narrower than the actual use of the concept. This fact proves that concepts do not arise simply as the result of logical elaboration of different elements of experience. A child does not discover his concepts, but rather they arise through a totally different path, and only later the child becomes aware of them.

From Vygotsky’s point of view, learning the meaning of a new word by a child is not the end but the beginning of the development of a concept that involves a complex internal process “that includes gradually developing from a vague idea of understanding of a new word, then on to his own usage of the word, and only as the final step his true acquisition of it” (Vygotsky, 2005, p. 180).

In regard to this discussion, it is necessary to note the presence of the element of consciousness during the process of concept formation. John-Steiner et al. (1998) refer to Vygotsky’s (1986, pp. 191-192) statement that, “[c]onscious awareness and the presence of a system are synonyms when we are speaking of [scientific] concepts, just as spontaneity, lack of conscious awareness, and the absence of a system are three different words for designating the nature of the child's [everyday] concept”. Therefore, we are reminded of the necessity of explicit teaching of scientific concepts.

Teaching of Concepts

Vygotsky called for subtle and complicated indirect methods of teaching as a means for interjection into the process of children’s concept formation, means that would move this process forward to its full maturity.

According to Vygotsky, Tolstoy considered direct concept/vocabulary teaching ineffective, and even impossible. Concepts cannot be simply transferred from a teacher to a child as one cannot transfer word meanings from one mind to another. The simple transfer of concepts from a teacher to a child is impossible, automatic transfer of the meaning of words from one mind to another with the help of other words does not occur. Tolstoy emphasized providing a child with multiple occasions to acquire new concepts and words:

If a child hears or reads an unknown word again and again in different situations, in different phrases, he will start having a vague idea of the new concept; he will finally feel by accident the necessity to use this word. He will use it once, and the word and the concept will become his intellectual property. (Tolstoy, 1903, p. 146)

Vygotsky disagreed with Tolstoy’s statement that direct teaching of concepts is impossible. He declared that this attitude moved instruction too far from development. Vygotsky valued direct teaching of new concepts and forms of words. He saw in this the source of higher development of a child’s conceptual system:

Direct instruction of concepts is quite possible in education. But this work […] does not only exclude one’s own processes of development, but gives them new directions and puts the processes of teaching and development into a new and more favorable relationship from the point of view of the ultimate goal of school. (Vygotsky, 2005, p. 181)

However, Vygotsky stressed that pure memorization of words and their definitions do not lead to concept development. The only goal a teacher can achieve here is thoughtless acquisition of words and bare verbalism. Meanings of words develop; scientific concepts also develop, they are not acquired in a ready-made form.

Verhallen and Schoonen argue that “acquiring vocabulary knowledge is more than just getting acquainted with the word form” (p. 454). They find it essential to connect the form to the appropriate concept and meaning in the networks.

Scribner and Cole (1973) criticize that too often school learners know definitions of words but fail to connect them to concrete referents. According to them, “the verbal schema [ideally should be] connected with the empirical referents from which it has been abstracted” (p. 557).

Vocabulary development is related to concept development. It is also crucial for increasing language proficiency and the competency of bilingual students. Therefore, it is imperative for teachers, syllabus designers and material creators to provide bilingual learners with instruction that promotes their concept development which will allow them to succeed in an academic setting.

It is important to reiterate that a word serves as tool in the development of the child’s thought processes and concept development. However, concepts cannot be acquired through direct and simple transfer of knowledge from a teacher to a child, and therefore teaching concepts (primarily scientific) should involve appropriate teaching methods and techniques, some of which were discussed in this article.

More empirical evidence needs to be obtained in order to find a scientific rationale of concept development in bilinguals and explore finer instructional ways to enhance their development.

Practical Implications

As we see from the discussion above, it is very important to implement appropriate instructional methods and techniques for teaching bilingual students. This discussion leads to some practical suggestions that can be used in order to promote concept development in bilingual students:

  • Provide students with multiple opportunities to interact with the teacher and those who are more knowledgeable.
  • Create multiple encounters of the same words in a meaningful context.
  • Use visual aids for presenting new concepts.
  • Present information in a web, conceptual map, and help students make a connection to their everyday experiences.
  • Remember that for ESL students it is even more difficult to understand concepts in subject-matter areas because they often lack the necessary language skills to understand the meanings of words. Therefore, vocabulary needs to be simplified when definitions of words are given.
  • Explicitly teach academic vocabulary to ESL students.


John-Steiner, V., Meehan, T.M., Mahn, H. (1998). A functional systems approach to cognitive development. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 5(2), 127-134.

Scribner, S., Cole, M. (1973, November, 9). Cognitive Consequences of Formal and Informal Education. Science, New Series, 182(4112), 553-559.

Tolstoy, L.N., (1903) Pedagogicheskie Stat’i [Pedagogical Articles]. Moscow: Kushnarev Co.

Verhallen, M Schoonen, R. (1998). Lexical knowledge in L1 and L2 of third and fifth graders. Applied Linguistics, 19( 4), 452-470.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1986). Thought and Language (A. Kozulin, Trans.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (2005). Myshlenie y Rech [Thought and Speech]. Moscow: Labyrinth.

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