Why We Shouldn’t (Usually) Separate Receptive and Expressive Language

As a speech and language diagnostician, I’ve tested a lot of kids.  I’ve seen many, many patterns of language deficits, and while admittedly, my evidence for my upcoming assertion will be entirely anecdotal, often anecdotal evidence does accurately reflect reality.  My assertion:  when determining goals, language therapists should (usually) not separate receptive and expressive language.  It’s usually much more effective to separate goals by morpho-syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.

Why?  The bottom line is that most kids don’t have major differences between receptive language and expressive.  It is just extremely difficult to produce something that you can’t understand.  In this way, receptive language can be thought of as foundational, or a precursor for similar expressive language.  Usually, the converse is true too – a kid can’t understand something that he can’t produce (with some exceptions).  If you have a deficit in an area – pronouns for example – the majority of the time this deficit exists in both receptive and expressive language.  So, since this is usually the case, and since it is usually the case that with most people there are not major differences between scores (and abilities) in receptive language and expressive language, it stands to reason that the deficits themselves can be more effectively addressed by shifting the focus.

Looking at reception as a foundation for expression also gives us a means of structuring our goals to more accurately reflect deficits.  What a lot of people accept as difficulties with understanding, or following directions, really are problems with understanding (and producing) specific structures.  Verb tense, prepositions, pronouns, negatives, clauses, etc. – these are the typical culprits of comprehension problems.  And when kids have problems understanding a certain structure, they nearly always have problems producing that structure.  Importantly, the pattern of these deficits vary from kid to kid.  This means that goals for following directions usually cast too wide a net, and miss a kid’s uniquely specific problems.  (Here’s another post for more on following directions.)

Continue reading →

Around the Web – Interesting Language Links

The games we play: A troubling dark side in academic publishing
The Guardian Head Quarters blog looks at some worrying allegations that researchers having been gaming the peer review system in several autism and developmental disorder journals.

Hand gestures improve learning in both signers and speakers

Spontaneous gesture can help children learn, whether they use a spoken language or sign language, according to a new report. “Children who can hear use gesture along with speech to communicate as they acquire spoken language,” a researcher said.

Research supporting the common sense conclusion that we need to keep schools quieter

These data suggest that school-aged children’s auditory working memory and comprehension are negatively affected by noise. Performance on comprehension tasks in noise is strongly related to demands placed on working memory, supporting the theory that degrading listening conditions draws resources away from the primary task.

Interesting blog post on dyslexia – language factors, myths, and therapists’ roles

The Skill More Americans Think Most Kids Need to Succeed?

This post comes from this link.  I didn’t have anything to add; I just wanted to point it out.FT_15.02.09_skills_overall1

Pew Research Center recently asked a national sample of adults to select among a list of 10 skills: “Regardless of whether or not you think these skills are good to have, which ones do you think are most important for children to get ahead in the world today?”

The answer was clear. Across the board, more respondents said communication skills were most important, followed by reading, math, teamwork, writing and logic. Science fell somewhere in the middle, with more than half of Americans saying it was important.

Rounding out the bottom were skills more associated with kids’ extracurricular activities: art, music (sorry, right-brained people) and athletics. There was virtually no difference in the responses based on whether the person was a parent of a child aged 18 and younger or not.

Objective Language Therapy

Earlier I described why there’s a need for making language therapy more objective.  Now I’ll specifically describe how this can be done.

  1. Check the deficits on the present levels and goals/objectives – They should be the same as from the most recent evaluation minus goals achieved since that evaluation.
  2. Keep referring to those deficits/goals – Make a list to put at the top of each data page, or the inside of speech folder – IEP goals can be copied, but make sure they reflect the present levels
  3. Take good notes – good notes help you as much as anyone else
  4. Be objective not subjective with your notes – Objective language data must have 3 things:
    1. Level of words – There are big time differences developmentally within classes of words. You may work on basic words or later developing words, but not at the same time with the same kid. For example, for a kid working on conjunctions, and and or should not be worked on at the same time as although and unless. You probably need a comprehensive list.
    2. Task type – Some tasks are easier; some are harder. To differentiate tasks, I use ID/Label/Use (ID is easiest, Use is hardest).
      1. ID tasks – Often involve pictures or objects and/or choices with foils – Easier tasks have fewer foils generally, with more foils making it harder with IDing objects in environment or in scenes being the most difficult, as they have tons of possible incorrect answers. Other tasks: “Wrong or Right,” and “Find It”
      2. Label – Can be spontaneous labeling (The kid just labels something as soon as he sees it); direct elicitation (What is ____?); choices (Is this a _____ or ______?); or fill in the blank (The giraffe is ____.), labeling from attributes, labeling category members
      3. Use – Can be using in a sentence (Use the word “fell” in a sentence); repair (Fix this sentence: “He are running.”), finishing sentence (Finish this sentence with the word “not:” “He did _____.”); describing; sentence repetition
    3. Cueing – Be consistent. This system seems prevalent: min (cueing required some of the time, generally less than 25%); mod (cueing required approximately half of the time or about 25 to 75%); and max (cueing required most or all of the time or greater than about 75%).
  5. Tons of great activities combine task types. Tons of great activities can’t be measured – Books, play activities, theme based activities, crafts, etc. These are all great to do, especially considering the tremendous motivational value from varying teaching techniques. However, you can’t perform objective measurements with combined tasks. Not all therapy should be objective, though – we know that best practice is to do baselines, and criterion referenced short “quizzes” to measure progress, and then devote much of therapy time to teaching, or activities that reinforce or integrate different skills.

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Getting Comfortable With Language Therapy

The following scenario is completely made up, but in a way that should be familiar to a lot of speech-language pathologists (SLPs).  Miraka has been working on time concepts for, well, a long time.  You, as the therapist, have worked on asking her questions like what she did yesterday, when she eats lunch, and maybe even differentiating between hours and minutes.  Perhaps you’ve worked with staff implementing routines and visual cues so that Miraka can anticipate what’s coming next in her school day.  You seem to be doing some good stuff, but you’re just not sure Miraka’s making progress, and you’re not even sure exactly how to tell when her goal’s been met.  People ask how Miraka’s doing, and we say things like, “She’s working hard.  It seems like you can understand her better,” or “Her sentences seem better.”  Inside we squirm because we can’t be more precise.

I’ll just state it bluntly:  a lot of SLPs do not like language therapy.  It’s just not as neat and straightforward as, say, articulation therapy, where you know exactly where the kid’s at, and exactly where the kid’s supposed to be going.  The practice of language therapy has often been messy, or more of an art than science.  And though we don’t like to admit it, we tend to measure language progress more from the gut than from any chart.  We go almost entirely by subjective measures, such as how we feel, and what others are reporting.  We can’t quantify Miraka’s progress, and this makes us uneasy.

Continue reading →

Levels of Play

In my many years of assessing many kids, so many of whom were three or under, I’ve often noted how different kids are in their abilities to play.   I’ve also been motivated by the Preschool Language Scale’s differentiation of play, generally into functional and relational play – though I feel this great start can be expanded.

girl playing with blocksHow a child plays tells us so much about that child, especially with children that are difficult to assess in traditional manners, because of compliance or a low level of function.  Not only that, but an accurate assessment of what level a child is playing at can help guide intervention and suggestions for caregivers.  Play can be an excellent method for developing other communication skills, such as initiation, imitation, and turn taking.  I came up with a list of these levels that I’ve started using in my own assessment, and thought it would be helpful to share that here.  It generally goes from a lower developmental level to higher, although there is much overlap.

1)  Shaking/banging objects in play

2) Smiling or laughing at or along with others

3) Attending to others who are singing, dancing, or reading

4) Examining novel objects

3) Anticipation – Does the child demonstrate sensing when something is going to happen, such as an object about to fall off a table, block tower about to fall, or a pretend plane taking off?boy playing with car

4) Functional play – Does the child use play objects appropriately, such as bouncing balls, driving cars, etc.?

5) Relational play – Involves using two objects together, such as pretending to pour juice for a play picnic, or having a figure ride in a car or on a horse.

6) Other directed play – Does the child watch others for reactions, or imitate play behaviors, with some basic turn taking?

7) Representative play – Involves pretending like something is something else, such as pretending a pencil is a rocket, or a block is an ice cube.

Three Reasons to Make This Distinction – 1:5

One reason why describing language as a third reality can be helpful, is that it can reduce linguistic confusion. A lack of realization of belief’s influence on language frequently leads to confusion. Whenever you comprehend the words of another you are always doing so through the filter of their beliefs. You can never remove this filter, though you can take steps to remove the distortions of its influence.

A gap seems to exist between our understanding of language and our potential to understand language, particularly for large swathes of people isolated and intimidated by the manner in which language is currently explained. Additionally, a greater realization that language is a way of depicting our beliefs rather than reality itself seems to lend itself to a potential of resolution of conflicts more due to differing definitions and concepts than people currently realize. My choice in words is not affected by truth as much as I would like to believe, but rather by my belief in the words’ correspondence to reality.


Perhaps the lesser-haired man was wanting to climb the mountain, but after hearing of it’s description, he changed his mind. Some obvious means exist of clearing this confusion, such as the asking for more detail, and the seeking out of other sources. There are other ways too, but they all share the quality of first realizing the risk of equating words with reality rather than belief.

Concepts could be thought of as being utilitarian by nature. They are also subject to a sort of natural selection. These concepts exist, and ultimately persist or fade, based upon how well they serve us. Democracy, as one example, is nothing more than an idea, melded together of other ideas, such as, that leaders should be chosen based upon the will of the people those leaders serve. This one concept, though, draws upon, and lends characteristics to a multitude of other beliefs and concepts. That people vote is only one of a vast number of these potential characteristics. As is how they vote, and who exactly gets to do so – and what is an election, and a campaign, and how does campaign finance reform play into this? And what are the characteristics of a dual party system versus a multi-party system? You could list examples of good democracies, and you could even list examples of bad monarchies which led to revolutions, which led to the good democracies. Why doesn’t everybody automatically advocate democracy? What is the role of the media? What is a hanging chad? Continue reading →

Explaining Language – Installment 1:4

A Rudimentary Description

Everything that physically exists is a part of reality. These are the things that we can see, touch, smell, think about, or talk about, as well as the things that remain hidden from our senses. There are things that physically exist regardless of whether or not any sentient being can sense them. The ink on this page and the arranged electrons on my computer screen exist in this reality.

What can then be considered (by minds) as a second realm of reality is a subset of the complete reality – that first reality. What exists within this second reality is real too, but only in brains. These are the physical manifestations of belief – neurons and neuronal connections, themselves comprised of brain matter. These are labeled with words such as thoughts, memories, feelings, perceptions, and attitudes. These are how our brains perceive everything in the first reality, order these perceptions, interject them with emotions, instincts, and categories so as to interpret the world primarily to predict the best future courses of action. Most animals have these beliefs because most animals have choices. Beliefs inform choices, the results of which cyclically shape belief.

The constituents of language, then, can be considered a third reality. All language exists in the first reality as ink on a paper, or electrons on a screen, or sound waves created by vocal cords. Crucially, though, all language also must exist in the second reality. All language depends upon prior belief, which itself depends upon prior reality.

three realities ovals

Conversely much of reality exists without belief, and much of belief exists without language, including all belief outside of people – i.e., animals.

Richard Rorty’s Influence

Richard Rorty, who passed away in 2007 at the age of 75, had a lot to say on philosophy, knowledge, and language, some of which I was happy to recently rediscover.
As philosophers so often are, he was known primarily for his dissection of the work of other philosophers; in this case his criticism of analytic philosophy, as exemplified in his 1979 book, “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.”
Rorty embraced the American pragmatism of Dewey, Peirce, and James in attacking the analytics’ persistent attempts to nail down an eternally exact description of truth and knowledge.  “Truth is not out there,” he said – at least a truth separate from our own beliefs and language.
Rorty wrote of the contingency of language; that truth is determined by human agreement using roughly equivalent language.  Truth can not exist independently of the human created vocabularies used to desribe it, and so truth is not possible in the world beyond the human mind.  Rorty believed that the world does not speak.  Only people do.
Because much of his work upset the dogmas of mainstream philosophy, and because of Rorty’s controversial divergenge into writing about politics, the importance of all his work seems to have been stifled from the main stream.  Which is a shame.

Daniel Everett and the Pirahã (Update)

I posted the following in 2008:

Although linguist Daniel Everett has been studying the Pirahã (pronounce pee-da-ha) Amazonian tribe, and their unique language since the 1970’s, his work remained relatively obscure until 2005, when an article he’d published on his website was then published in Cultural Anthropology.  According to Everett’s studies, the Pirahã’s language lacks many aspects of language that linguists argue are basic necessities of a universal grammar, such as color concepts, perfect tense, quantity concepts, and numbers over two.  Why?  According to Everett, their hunter-gatherer lifestyles have such little use for these concepts, that words to convey them simply don’t exist.  This research, which overtly repudiates the Chomskyian theory that has dominated the study of language for decades, has been called by Steven Pinker, “A bomb thrown into the party.”

The coverage of this study has greatly expanded recently, exemplified by this New Yorker article.  Language Log has some excellent links concerning the Piraha.

Daniel L Everett (right): Photograph: Martin Schoeller Martin Schoeller/PR from http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2012/mar/25/daniel-everett-human-language-piraha

Update:  The debate caused by Everett’s studies of the Pirahã , and the continuance of this debate is fascinating.  Those supporting universal grammar seem hung up on attacking Everett’s methodology, which are offered up as evidence that his conclusions are false.  Interestingly, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was practically discarded for years because of Benjamin Whorf’s misleading claims about the number of words Inuit Eskimos had for snow.  It should be noted that it has been far from proven that Everett’s methods actually were problematic.  Meanwhile, the consensus appears to be favoring the truth as lying somewhere between linguistic relativism, or what is sometimes called the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and claims that all of language is determined by structures born into our brains.

Everett’s quote from this story excellently sums up what I think is closest to the truth:  

“The lesson is that language is not something mysterious that is outside the bounds of natural selection, or just popped into being through some mutated gene. But that language is a human invention to solve a human problem. Other creatures can’t use it for the same reason they can’t use a shovel: it was invented by humans, for humans and its success is judged by humans.”

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