Relationships Between the Early Development of Drawing and Language: The Role of Executive Functions and Working Memory

Sabrina Panesi1, 2, *, Sergio Morra1
1 Department of Education, University of Genoa, Genoa, Italy
2 CNR, Institute for Educational Technology, Genoa, Italy

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© 2018 Panesi and Morra.

open-access license: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License (CC-BY 4.0), a copy of which is available at: ( This license permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

* Address correspondence to this author at the DISFOR (Department of Education), University of Genoa, Dr. Sabrina Panesi, Corso A. Podestà 2, 16128 Genoa, Italy; Tel: +390106475682; E-mail:



Extensive research examined the development of both language and drawing, but the relationship between these symbolic representation systems is less investigated and controversial. Working memory and executive functions seem to be involved in the acquisition of both drawing and language, but how they are involved in the relation between language and drawing is still unclear.


This article reviews the relevant literature and, as a synthesis, outlines a set of models that future research could use to specify the developmental relations between language, drawing, working memory, and executive functions.

Drawing and Language:

Four theoretical positions are discussed: (a) drawing and language emerge from the same general-domain symbolic resource; (b) drawing and language as two independent systems; (c) drawing as a form of language (d) drawing influenced by language.

Executive Functions and Working Memory:

The literature on the role of executive functions and working memory in the development of either drawing or language is rather fragmentary, but on the whole, it indicates that these domain-general cognitive resources and abilities are involved in supporting the development of these representation systems. An ongoing controversy on the structure of executive functions in early childhood adds further complexity to the debate on their role.


A set of models is outlined that systematically embodies the different theoretical views regarding (a) executive function development and (b) the relations of drawing development with language, executive function, and working memory. Future research can benefit from explicit models of the causal relations between these aspects of cognitive development.

Keywords: Drawing, Language, Symbolic representation, Working memory, Executive functions, Development, Young children.