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Improving cognition to build better writers

December 16, 2013

Typically when we think of teaching writing, we begin with the type of writing we want students to compose—persuasive pieces, personal narratives, academic essays. We might think of the steps of the writing process—prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing.

All too often, however, little attention is given to the cognitive skills of writing, however cognitive skills are the building blocks upon which writing depends.

The cognitive building blocks of writing

Cognitive skills such as memory, attention, sequencing and processing speed underlie all composition. It is generally presumed that by upper primary and high school, students have mastered these basic skills, however, research evidence is mounting that this is not the case for many students who continue to struggle with writing (Berninger, Fuller, & Whitaker, 1996).


To write organised, understandable text, the writer must not only have good oral language, but must also hold the concepts, vocabulary, and grammatical form of sentences and paragraphs in working memory whilst formulating each new sentence, keeping in mind what they’ve already written, and planning ahead. This process puts heavy demands on verbal working memory (Torrance & Galbraith, 2008).


Another cognitive skill that has been shown to affect writing is focused and sustained attention (Ransdell, Levy, & Kellogg, 2002). A writer’s full attention is given to thinking about what to say and applying correct spelling, punctuation and syntactical rules to what is written. Attention must be given to thinking of what to write while recording these thoughts and suppressing other distractions.

Sequencing and processing speed

Writers must process their thoughts sequentially as they compose letters into words, words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs that conform to the rules of language. The writer needs to coordinate the cognitive tasks required to do this almost simultaneously, placing heavy demands on processing speed.

What the research says

Because of the heavy cognitive demands that writing places on attention, sequencing, working memory, and processing speed, Robert Kellogg, professor of psychology, suggested that explicit cognitive skills training programs—especially ones that emphasize deliberate practice—might prove beneficial in improving student’s writing skills (Kellogg, 2008). In two studies, a significant improvement in students’ writing skills occurred after participation in computer-based cognitive and literacy skills training. Although writing was not explicitly trained, the training designed to improve foundational cognitive and linguistic skills generalized to improve writing skills – click here to read more about how improving cognitive skills can improve writing. (Rogowsky, 2010; Rogowsky et al., 2013).

Learning to write is one of the most cognitively demanding academic activities a student must perform. In addition to traditional writing methodologies, the future of writing instruction calls for the inclusion of cognitive skills training.

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