Developing language processing skills (1)

The Problem

If what we try to treat to develop children’s comprehension skills is anything to go by, then there are four main components to a child’s ability to understand what is said to them:

  1. The quality of their phonological form – how well they know the words, how well they listen and watch what you say to them, and the speed at which they are able to rifle through the ‘mental rolodex’ and select the word they heard.
  2. The depth or connectedness of their ‘semantic tree’ or lexicon. What is fired off when they hear a word? How deep is their knowledge of the concept that has been triggered? How sure are they that they know what they know? How good are they at integrating one concept along with the concept(s) that they have just heard? Furthermore, how much information from other associated concepts can feed into the concept that they’re dynamically pulling together, as far as is relevant, given the quality of the logical structure of their lexicon?
  3. The level of dynamism inherent in their language parser or ‘sentence-builder’; as it goes about slotting heard words in and out of the growing representation, scrubbing nonsensical interpretations, making judgements on shades of interpretation, inference and effect, and helpfully leaving semantically blurry holes for words that weren’t heard, or words that weren’t understood.
  4. Their working memory / limitations that arise from their ‘auditory scratchpad’. How many words / concepts are they able to recall and act upon at once?

Assessment often indicates that any one, or more, of these four areas is impacted. Of course, lots of other things play into a child’s understanding as well – their attention control, whether they are ‘on the same page’ as the speaker, their tiredness, and so on. But the areas listed above are the ones that are linguistically mediated.

My sense is that the ‘auditory scratchpad’ is not a thing in-and-of itself, but rather that limitations that stand out here actually follow from limitations with other aspects of the child’s phonological and semantic representation, as well as limitations that they might have building a whole from the pieces they hear.

Not that there is no such thing as working memory – famously our working memory for numbers is limited to 7, plus or minus 2, which is why we often struggle to recall a phone number that we have to hold in mind for a few seconds. Familiarity is everything though. A musician, asked to sing back a series of 7 entirely random notes would probably struggle greatly. However, write and play for them a well-structured melody, and they will be able to recall much longer phrases from the same kind of exposure.

A musician is not going to improve by spending time parroting back entirely atonal phrases. Neither is a language learner going to get better at understanding what is said to them by playing endless games of ‘I went to the shops and I bought…’.

And yet we do spend a lot of time on these kinds of games. Lots of resources exist to support working memory – for example Black Sheep Press have their Working Memory pack (25% off until the 12th of April), their Barrier Worksheets and their Barrier Concepts packs to tackle this area. I’ve worked on it quite a bit, and I will say this much – it’s not exactly fun for the adult or the child.

To me, exercising the brain, as if it were a muscle, using only fairly familiar concepts (big, red square, etc.), seems to miss the point. Gains made here are not going to mean anything when it comes to making interpretations of less familiar concepts, or under less ideal conditions. I would say instead that we need to boost the form, and then the ability to represent the form will improve.

The Task

This is why I have been trying to develop a task for children who struggle to listen to instructions in the classroom, and who have demonstrably poor processing and comprehension skills. This week I’ll be talking about the task I have been working on for children who have poor logical form. Next week I’ll talk about the parallel task I have been developing for children with poor phonological form.

I started off using pictures from the Black Sheep Press Categories pack. I wanted a two-step instruction that would challenge a child’s memory, while stretching their knowledge of features and categories. The idea was to emulate the type of classroom-based instruction where the children had to recall the second part of the instruction while they went about the first part.

For my first run at this, I placed five pictures, face down, and said something like ‘find me an animal [only one of the five was an animal], and if it’s a scary one, post it [it was to be posted 50% of the time]’; or ‘find me a toy, and if it belongs outside, post it’. The problem with this was, one child I was trying this out with (a year 1 child) started, very reasonably, to make predictions about what he was looking for (i.e. a lion, or a ball, in these cases) and this became the task for him. It stopped being a two-step instruction. Also the second part of the instruction was fairly obscure and meaningless.

I changed things around, putting six or seven pictures down, and asking questions such as ‘find me all the animals [there are always three] and put them in order of size’ and so on. This seems to be a much better task, it has some meaning in the end, and the children do genuinely forget what the second part of the task is. I work with children in pairs, and encourage them to prompt each other, and they do this in a very natural manner. Using the Black Sheep Categories pack, these are some of the distinctions I am using to get the children make as they classify and rank the objects.

Toys – how big, how expensive, how noisy, how heavy.
Animals – how big, how noisy, how scary, how good at climbing trees, how good they are at swimming, how useful they are, how easy they are to ride, how cute.
Clothes – in the order that you put them on / take them off, thickness / woolliness.
Food – how juicy, how big, how healthy, how good they are for breakfast.
Transport – how big, how fast, how high they go, how noisy, how many people use them at once.

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