Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Helping Children to understand abstract language

Following on from my post about my daughter's Speech and Language Impairment (SLI) I thought I would share more about the Test of Abstract Language Comprehension (TALC) assessment she received. 

There are 4 levels, each of which test her understanding of language. She needed a minimum of 80% to pass and she achieved;

Level 1 - 100% Competency achieved
Level 2 - 100% Competency achieved
Level 3 - 82% Competency achieved
Level 4 - 77% Competency not achieved

I was given some information to help her which was taken from the book Elklan Language Builders and explains all about each level and what understanding the child requires to pass each level and how they can be helped. I have copied the information below as it might prove helpful to another parent whose child suffers from a SLI. 


The blank language scheme of the language and learning model was devised by Black, Rose and Berlin (1978). It encourages the development of children's verbal reasoning and abstract language. The model breaks this very complex area of language into four acheivable steps. The following explanation, about planting a bulb, gives examples of the different levels. 

Level 1 - Language matches materials
Level 2 - Language relates to materials but must focus selectively
Level 3 - Language does not map directly to materials. Have to use language and materials to reorganise a response
Level 4 - Demands go beyond materials. Have to use language to justify and solve problems

Elklan has worked hard to make this model accessible. The following table gives key themes which summarise the types of questions and directions at each level. Whilst it risks losing some of the information it may be easier to understand. 

Level 1 - Naming
Level 2 - Describing 
Level 3 - Re-telling
Level 4 - Justifying

Level One
Naming (matching perception)
The child is required to match his immediate perceptions to language, and so responds to simple commands which involve matching what he is seeing to what he is hearing. The child focuses on the whole object.

Type of question
  • Point to an object i.e. Point to the bulb, pick up the watering-can, give me the fork, show me the trowel
  • Find a matching object i.e. Find another bulb like this
  • Name an object i.e. What's this?

Level Two
Describing (Selective analysis of perception)
The child is still required to match language on to her immediate perceptions, but she must focus more selectively on the material. The child is encouraged to focus on objects and situations in more detail. He is introduced to concepts both concrete and abstract which enable him to describe objects and determine how things are different e.g. a ball can be round, hard or soft, red or blue, plain or spotty, big or small. This descriptive language helps a child to understand simple stories or describe pictures. The child focuses on part of the object

Type of question
  • Function i.e. Which do we dig with?
  • Sentence completion i.e. You water the garden with a...
  • Things that go together i.e. What goes with fork?
  • Sorting & categorising. Give an example (objects in sight) i.e. What else can grow in the ground. Name another plant (objects in sight)
  • Linguistic concepts i.e. Find a black pot, find a big pot, find two pots
  • Describe a scene i.e. What is happening? What is happening in the picture?
  • Showing a picture or giving information and asking i.e. "Mum planted the bulbs in the garden"
  • Who? i.e. Who planted the bulbs?
  • What? i.e. What did she plant?
  • Where? i.e. Where was she?
Level Three
Re-telling (Reordering perception)
At this level the child can use language to restructure and reorder her perceptions and experiences. She is expected to have an understanding of language itself and will be required to use language to talk about language. She is expected to make deductions or generalisations about a situation and to be able to make a common link in order to group information together. The child has to focus on the object in its context.
  • Follow a set of directions i.e. Put the bulb in the top, add soil with the trowel and tap it down
  • Give another example BUT listen to extra conditions i.e. Find me something else you can put plants in that is not made of plastic
Narrative/re-telling events
  • Arrange pictures in a sequence
  • Tell a story or describe an event i.e. Tell me how to plant a bulb
  • Summarise the story in one sentence i.e. What have you done?
  • Predict i.e. What might happen next
  • What does a character say? i.e. (looking at picture) What does mum say?
  • How does a character feel? i.e. (looking at picture) How does mum feel?
  • Define a word i.e. What does "sow" mean?

Level Four
Justifying. This level requires the child to solve complex and abstract verbal problems. All "why?" questions are level 4. 
The child has to think about the relationships between objects, people and events and give reasons why things happen. He has to justify why events have occurred and why he is making a particular prediction. Level four skills develop between 4.5-6 years of age. 

  • Justify a prediction i.e Why will the bulb grow?
  • Identify the cause i.e What made the plant grow?
  • Solve a problem i.e. What could you do if the plant doesn't grow?
  • Solve a problem from another person's point of view i.e. What could mum do if the plant doesn't grow?
  • Make an inference from an observation i.e. How can we tell that this trowel is old?
  • Explain why something cannot be done i.e Why can't we grow a plant without soil?
  • Select a means to a goal i.e What do we need to plant a bulb? (objects not in sight)
  • Explain the logic of compound words i.e. Why is this called a flower pot?
Typical Development (based on Blank, Rose and Berlin 1978)

Level 1 Naming Things and Level 2 Describing things. Answering Who? What? Where? - 60% of 3 year olds understand level 1 and level 2 questions

Level 3 Talking about stories and events and Level 4 Solving problems and answering Why? Questions - 65% of 5 year olds understand level 3 and level 4 questions

These development norms are based on the acquisition of English. The development of underlying verbal reasoning skills e.g. being able to categorise, sequence and event, predict, problem solve and infer are similar across different languages. However, Cummins, 2000, suggests that a child may learn to use language to socialise relatively quickly. However, it may take much longer before he can use a new language for complex thinking tasks. The Blank Language Scheme can therefore be valuable in assessing the understanding of question types in additional language and the level of suport needed. 

Level 4 is the level that my daughter failed, although in her defence she wasn't that far off the pass rate, missing it by just 3% so she has made a lot of progress. So we were sent information on Level 4. 


At this level the children begin to be able to justify why or how events may have occured. Being able to say what did or might happen in a given situation is a level three skill but being able to justify or answer "Why...?" involves level four type questions

1. Problem solving
  • Start by using problems the child faces every day. Use problems she can solve herself by showing you the answer. Next, help her to verbalise what she is doing or why. For example have a pencil sharpener in view and ask "What do you need to sharpen your pencil?" Pause and if necessary model the language needed to verbalise the answer e.g. "What do you need to sharpen your pencil? You need a pencil sharpener to sharpen your pencil."
  • Manipulate situations so that she has to give a verbal response e.g. don't have sharpeners available so she has to tell you rather than show you what is needed.
  • Graduallly move towards abstract problems
    As the problems become more abstract:
  • Provide forced choice alternatives with pictures or photos of the different options. 
  • Remove the pictures and just give a forced choice. 
  • Move towards helping the child answer this type of open-ended question without needing this additional support
Science and D.T lessons provide valuable opportunities for problem solving.

2. Problem solving from another person's point of view
  • Start with real situations. Initially, ask what the child would do and then encourage him to think what another child could do. The other child must be present. This is real, not theoretical. 
  • Use role play and toys to act out scenarios as explained at Blank Level 3 but now ask the child to suggest what the characters could do to solve a problem.
  • Consider, as above, using pictures of options or giving forced choice alternatives.
  • Comic strip conversations can provide valuable visual support.
3. Justifying a decision
This involves the ability to justify why a decision was made. For example, "Why did you join that with a stapler and glue?" If the child does not understand repeat the question and model the answer e.g. "Why did you join that with a stapler? You joined it with a stapler to make it stronger."

4. Justifying a prediction
  • The suggestions given for working at Blank level 3 involving prediction can all be used at level 4 as long as you remember to ask the child why he thinks something might happen. What is it that he has gleaned from the situation that causes him to think that a certain event may occur?
  • Praise any attempt to provide justification, however strange it might seem. 
  • It may be necessary to give forced choice alternatives, however strange it might seem.
  • Work initially from pictures where it is very obvious visually why something might have happened. For example
    ADULT: "Why do you think the horse fell?"
    CHILD: "Because the fence was too high."
  • Move into more abstract justification only when the child can easily justify from pictures or photographs.
5. Inference
Level four involves developing the child's ability to make appropriate inferences, initially from picture stimuli and observations, moving towards understanding information from text and discussions. 

Consider the following when working on inferencing. 
  • Work from the child's observations.
    ADULT: "How does the boy feel?"
    CHILD: "He feels sad."
    ADULT: "How do we know he feels sad?"
    CHILD: "Because he's crying and has a sad face."
  • If necessary give forced choice answers.
    ADULT: "Is it because he's laughing or crying? Is his face happy or sad?"
  • Only move to more abstract inferencing when he can cope with inferencing from a picture, e.g. "How do you know mum was happy when you left home this morning?"

The blank model has important implications for the management of behaviour. Children with low language levels are frequently asked complex questions, e.g. "Why did you do that?" "What should you have done?" Because they do not understand the type of questions and are at a loss to answer them, they get into trouble for not responding.

At Level Two
  • Tell the child directly and clearly what happened and how their behaviour has affected others. Don't ask her questions about why she behaved as she did.
  • Describe appropriate behaviours using short, simple sentences.
  • Avoid negative statements such as "Don't run" try "Walk please" instead. 
At Level Three (this is the level at which my daughter is at)
  • Ask the child to describe what happened, what people said and how others felt. 
  • Don't ask her to justify her behaviour
  • State the justification i.e. say why she should not have done something.
At Level Four
Ask level four questions but if the child does not understand repeat the question and model the answer.

Remember that if a child is upset or angry, she may not understand as well as she would in calmer circumstances. It is therefore particularly important to reflect carefully on the levels of language used and check the child has understood by asking her to explain the information in her own words, if she can, or by monitoring her behaviour. If the language of the questions asked and/or the explanations given is too difficult, the child will not learn from the situation and it could all be a waste of time!

To summarise, Blank can help to;
  • Assess the types of questions and directions a child understands.
  • Assess a child's verbal reasoning skills.
  • Ensure realistic expectations of child's understanding.
  • Modify our language to make sure the question is at an appropriate level for a child 
  • Develop a child's verbal reasoning skills by working on the next stage.
  • Support learning across different curriculum areas.
  • Manage issues of discipline more effectively. 
Having this information has made a lot more sense and it helps us understand her behaviour. In fact I see a lot of her behaviour in this and I can now see that it comes from frustration and because she doesn't really understand! A good example is how she cannot realise why she must wear a jumper to school when it's cold and we have had lots of lots of arguments about that! She simply doesn't realise why and in fact, when her speech therapist tested her they showed her a picture of a boy who was wearing a jumper and asked her why he was wearing a jumper. Her answer was she didn't know and she couldn't grasp that he was wearing it because he was cold! 

The good news is that she almost passed level four and did pass level 3. This means that she is learning and developing all the time and now that we know how we can help her, I'm sure she will soon pass Level 4!

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