Language Development Activity

An important language development skill that is strongly linked to cognition, is the ability to categorize. Categorization presents a broad subset of discrete skills that share the ability to recognize what is called "semantic features" (SF). SF are the attributes that define a concept or object. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget called these "schemata". For example, the SF of "bird" include wings, feathers, beak, animal, avian, flies, walks, eats, etc. At first a child may only represent a robin in his bird schemata and will not recognize, for example, that a chicken is also a bird. As children experience the world, they take in new information and expand their existing schemata—eventually adding chicken to the concept of bird.

Recognizing SF allows us to define and make sense of the world around us by understanding how things are the same and different and where they belong. As a child develops intellectually and linguistically, they form new categories and understand how "areas of grey" exist. This is a difficult ability for many children, especially children on the autism spectrum who often narrowly define their world. This many be why we see obsessive-complusive tendencies in children with autism. Disruptions to their cognitive parameters usually result in emotional melt-downs no matter what their age. Since the assimilation of new schemata is an ongoing process throughout our lifetimes, it is not unusual to experience behavioral issues with teens and young adults with autism or Asperger's due to rigid thinking.

A wonderful activity for young children makes use of a book entitled The Gift, by Pep Montserrat. Adding to its appeal is that the story integrates social thinking, foundational principles of intervention at Pompton Speech Plus.

The story begins as Mr. and Mrs. Goodparents ponder what to buy their son Mikie for his birthday. This is a terrific opportunity to brainstorm what someone they know might want for their birthday (not to talk about what they want!). When your child makes a "smart guess", ask them why they think the person might want the item. Be alert that your child is not naming items they want; if they can't come up with any ideas, provide clues like "dad really likes to read, what could we get him?" If ideas are not being generated, try replying "if we're not sure, how can we find out?" This will lead the child to ask dad a question and retain the information gained. When Mr. And Mrs. Goodparents ask Mikie, they are supplied with a string of clues rather than a direct answer. When Mikie proclaims he wants something "big", brainstorm things that are big with your child. Guess what the Goodparents came up with and compare answers—the Goodparents choice is revealed on a fold-out page with bold illustrations. At this point, ask your child if Dad's gift-choice is "big".

The Gift continues with a series of descriptive attributes such as sweet,warm, and long; as well as actions such as rocks and laughs. Each clue provides enormous opportunity to come up with ideas, the sillier the better! I will leave the story ending a surprise, but guarantee it to be one everyone will enjoy!

Daria O'Brien, MS CCC-SLP is the director of Pompton Speech Plus in Pompton Plains, New Jersey, a center focusing on communication and social skills groups for children with language-based learning difficulties. Visit for more information about Ms. O'Brien and her practice.

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