Understanding words at different levels
Words are information carriers in communication. They allow a person to express their thoughts, feelings and ideas. In a language, words have a shared meaning that is agreed on and understood by people. This helps people to understand what others are trying to say. Children can struggle to understand spoken information or instructions for several reasons, for example, they may struggle to understand the meaning of a word or they may struggle to understand a sentence due to the amount of words there are in the sentence to understand.
Our speech and language therapists can assess your child’s skills to determine what words your child understands and the amount of information carrying words your child can understand in one instruction. Our speech and language therapists will use the information from the assessment to create a therapy programme that works on increasing your child’s ability to attach meaning to words and understand instructions with increasing amounts of information.
Words at different levels
In order for there to be successful communication, a child must recognise and understand the meaning of the word that is being spoken to them. Most conversations however do not take place in just single words, they are usually done in utterances and phrases. These utterances can be of varying lengths, complexities and intents. A child must be able to understand these utterances to then be able to respond appropriately.
A child must first learn words, by adding meaning to them, in order to understand them in conversation. If the child does not have exposure to these words through experiencing new objects, toys, activities and experiences, they will struggle to understand them.
A child may regularly see and play with a ball, and they may regularly hear the word ball, but if the word and object are not heard together, the child will not associate them together. Therefore if they are asked to find a ball they may not understand.
Information carrying words (ICW)
When we speak, we use lots of words, but not all of these words carry meaning, nor do they all have to be understood. A lot of the time we do not just listen to what is being said but look for additional clues to help us understand, such as the person’s intonation, body language, gestures and the immediate contextual environment around us.
If you were sat at a table that had a ball, and you said to your child “give me the ball” and put your hand out. The words used are seen as redundant as the child did not have to understand any of them to follow the instructions. Give becomes redundant as you held your hand out, me is redundant as there is nobody else sat with you and you have held out your hand, ball is redundant as there is nothing else to choose from.
If you remove all clues from spoken language only then can you really see how much your child is understanding. This can be done by stopping gestures and body language impacting communication as well as by giving choices.
Now reconsider the situation, this time there is both a ball and an apple at the table. If you said to your child “find the apple”, the child would have to understand the word apple to be able to follow the instruction. This is because the child has to choose between the apple and the ball. “Find” and “the” have no alternative in this situation so therefore they become redundant. The word apple carries meaning, it gives the child information.
Words that carry meaning are referred to as information carrying words (ICW’s) or keywords.
Once a child can understand words for their meaning or associate them with the correct object they can understand them at a 1 ICW level. Gradually, a child will understand more ICW’s at a time to long utterances and eventually being able to follow a narrative.
The amount of information carrying words a child can understand in an instruction depends on their age, for example:
- At one year a child can understand 1 information carrying word e.g. find the cat.
- At two years a child can understand 2 information carrying word e.g. find the cat and the dog.
- At three years a child can understand 3 information carrying word e.g. put the big teddy in the bag.
- At four years a child can understand 4 information carrying word e.g. give me the blue pen and the small dolly.
For a word to be an information carrying word it must always have an alternative in the situation. The phrase “find the blue pen and small dolly” to be a 4 information carrying words instruction there must be, a red pen, blue, pen, red pencil, blue pencil, big dolly, big teddy, small dolly and small teddy.
Children then move on to understanding words and information in different sentence structures, paragraphs and long narratives.
Impact of difficulties understanding words at different levels on receptive language
Difficulty understanding words at different levels can impact a child receptive language skills, for example:
- Difficulty following instructions.
- Difficulty responding to conversations.
- Difficulty playing games that require instructions.
- Difficulty understanding stories.
Children that struggle to understand instructions with various amounts of information carrying words can often find aspects of school and home life difficult. Teachers often give instructions in lessons such as PE using many information carrying words such as “jump on the spot and touch your nose with your finger”. Children may also find it difficult to play games with peers such as Simon says.
Our speech and language therapists increase a child’s understanding of words at different levels by providing them with therapy activities that work on information carrying words (ICW’s) at several utterance levels. Our speech and language therapists also provide parents and teachers with advice and training on how to adjust their language to suit the needs of their child. Our speech and language therapists can provide parents with training on how to implement language therapy at home in day to day living activities.