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Cognitive science and linguistic theory have played an important role in providing empirical research into the writing process and serving composition pedagogy. As composition theories, there is some dispute concerning the appropriateness of tying these two schools of thought together into one theory of composition. However, their empirical basis for research and ties to the process theory of composition and cognitive science warrants their connection to some extent.

Theoretical constructEdit

The cognitive theory of composition (hereafter referred to as “cognitive theory”) can trace its roots to psychology and cognitive science. Lev Vygotsky's and Jean Piaget's contributions to the theories of cognitive development and developmental psychology could be found in early work linking these sciences with composition theory (see Ann E. Berthoff). Most notably, Linda Flower and John Hayes published “A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing” in 1981, providing the groundwork for further research into how thought processes influence the writing process.

Linguistic theories of composition found their roots in the debate surrounding grammar's importance in composition pedagogy.[1] Scholars, such as Janet Emig, Patrick Hartwell, Martha J. Kolln, Robert Funk, Stephen Witte, and Lester Faigley continued this line of thought around the same time that a cognitive theory of composition was being developed by Flower and Hayes. These scholars, like scholars researching cognitive-oriented composition theory, focused on research providing insight into the writing process, but were also committed to providing pedagogical advancements addressing deficiencies, trends, and insights gained from their linguistic research.


Cognitive TheoryEdit

An cognitive theory is focused on gaining insight into the writing process through the writer’s thought processes. Composition theorists have attacked the problem of accessing writers’ thoughts in various ways. Flower and Hayes’ seminal essay, “A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing” sought to outline the writer’s choice-making throughout the writing process, and how those choices constrained or influenced other choices down the line.[2] Other research has focused on capturing the cognitive processes of writers during the writing process through note-taking or speaking aloud,[3] while some early research by Birdwell, Nancrow, and Ross was done with computers to record writers’ keystrokes throughout the writing process.

Applied LinguisticsEdit

Linguistic composition theory has traditionally focused on sentence and paragraph-level composition, with the goal of providing instructors insights into the way students at various proficiency levels produce writing. Stephen Witte and Lester Faigley[4] utilized detailed syntactic analysis to redefine the importance of cohesion and coherence in judging writing quality. Paul Rodgers[5] and Richard Braddock[6] focused on paragraph structure, in separate studies, in order to dispel common misjudgments about the importance of traditional paragraph structure.

Applied linguistics, specifically EFL/ESL studies, has played a large role in development linguistic theories of composition. Liz Hamp-Lyons’ research in ESL/EFL writing assessment is valuable in informing ESL composition pedagogy. Paul Kei Matsuda,[7] though, has illustrated the deficiency in ESL composition research, and recent compilations by Matsuda and others[8] have attempted to bridge the gap between ESL instruction and composition theory by presenting pedagogical, theoretical, and assessment frameworks in the ESL composition classroom.


As mentioned briefly in previous sections, cognitive and linguistic theories of composition are heavily tied to process theory. Cognitive and linguistic theories have been instrumental in providing respected empirical research to the field of composition theory, but tend to stay away from making pedagogical suggestions. Instead, research in these fields is typically intended to inform process theory by providing data analysis regarding the writing process, and by bringing scientific research to the field.

See alsoEdit


  1. Hartwell, Patrick. "Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar." College English 47.2 (1985): 105-127. Rpt. in Cross-talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Victor Villanueva. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1997. 153-166.
  2. Flower, Linda, and John R. Hayes. "A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing." College Composition and Communication 32.4 (1981): 365-387. Rpt. in Cross-talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Victor Villanueva. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1997. 153-166.
  3. Penrose, Anne M., and Barbara M. Sitko. Hearing Ourselves Think: Cognitive Research in the College Writing Classroom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  4. Faigley, Lester, and Stephen P. Witte. "Coherence, Cohesion, and Writing Quality." College Composition and Communication 32.2 (1981): 2-11. Rpt. in Cross-talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Victor Villanueva. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1997. 153-166.
  5. Rodgers, Paul Jr. C. "A Discourse-centered Rhetoric of the Paragraph." College Composition and Communication 17.1 (1966): 2-11. Rpt. in Cross-talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Victor Villanueva. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1997. 153-166.
  6. Braddock, Richard. "The Frequency and Placement of Topic Sentences in Expository Prose." Research in the Teaching of English 8.3 (1974): 2-11. Rpt. in Cross-talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Victor Villanueva. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1997. 153-166.
  7. Matsuda, Paul Kei. "Composition Studies and ESL Writing: A Disciplinary Division of Labor." College Composition and Communication 50.4 (1999): 699-721.
  8. Matsuda, Paul Kei, Michelle Cox, and Jay Jordan. Second-language Writing in the Composition Classroom: A Critical Sourcebook. New York: Bedford / St. Martin's, 2006.

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