Understanding Language Comprehension

As a speech and language therapist, I often have children referred to me because their language is late to develop. Whilst those who know the child may feel that the main issue is lack of spoken words and may say he/she ‘understands everything’, it often becomes apparent during assessment that things are not what they seem. Children are great little detectives! In day to day life, they are constantly scanning their environment for clues that will help them understand. It is possible for a child to understand an instruction like ‘Go and put your coat and shoes on then wait by the front door’ without understanding a single, solitary word! But how? The answer is ‘Situational Understanding‘.

What is Situational Understanding?

From a very early age, we start to make links between things that happen around and to us, starting with cause and effect. Babies quickly learn that crying (cause) usually results in comfort of some kind (effect – often food or cuddles). As we grow and learn, we start to associate related things and we use this information to make sense of the world. Often, before children can speak much at all, they will do things like go to the table when you open the fridge or the cupboard where the snacks are. This is situational understanding – the child has learned that when you open the fridge or cupboard, the next thing that usually happens is that they get a snack at the table. The child does not need to understand any words to react appropriately, they are using the information from the situation to understand. Situational understanding is an essential skill that we all use throughout our lives. Ever been to a party which features folk dancing you’re not familiar with? Usually we watch what other people do and copy – we use what we see in the situation to understand what to do. That is what situational understanding means.

Let’s think now about our instruction ‘Go and put your coat and shoes on then wait by the door’. Your child will most likely have noticed that when you put your coat on and get the buggy ready, the things that follow are that you put their coat and shoes on then go out through the door. If you deliver the instruction while you are standing in the hall with your coat on and getting the buggy sorted out, your child doesn’t need to process any of the words you have said, they can follow it simply by using their knowledge of the situation they see.

To assess and work on true understanding of language, you need to consider how many words in the sentence the child HAS to understand in order to follow it, these are usually called either Information Carrying Words (ICWs) or Key Words. That means taking into account the environment, the situational information available and the choice of related objects on offer. It sounds mind-bending, but once you get into the swing of it, it’s fine!

What is an Information Carrying Word or ICW?

Quite simply, it’s a word (or short phrase) that gives you the information you need to follow an instruction without any situational clues. Let’s take the instruction ‘Go and put your coat and shoes on then wait by the front door’ and alter the situation to make some of the words carry essential information, i.e. turn them into Information Carrying Words.

First of all, the instruction needs to be given BEFORE you, yourself start getting ready and while you are away from the door. Secondly, words that have a grammar function don’t count when it comes to information carrying words! So we can get rid of a few words straight off: ‘Go and put your coat and shoes on then wait by the front door‘. Now we have 4 candidates to become ICWs! In the examples below, I’ve highlighted the ICWs in red and the things the adult does to support understanding of the additional words in blue.

1 ICW – ‘Go and put your coat (give the child the coat) and shoes on then wait by the front door (point to the door)‘. Here the child has to understand the phrase ‘shoes on‘ to follow the instruction. The situational prompt of being given the coat should be enough to prompt putting it on and pointing at the front door will prompt the child to go there. We’re going to assume that waiting is what the child usually does at the door, so there’s no new information in that word either.

2ICWs – ‘Go and put your coat and shoes on then wait by the front door (point to the door)‘. Here the child needs to understand both ‘coat‘ and ‘shoes on‘ but the point gives a clue as to where to go.

3 ICWs – ‘Go and put your coat and shoes on then wait by the front door‘. This time, you haven’t pointed to the front door so, not only does the child need to understand which items to get but also ‘front door‘ (as opposed to back door) so that they go to the right place.

I hope this isn’t too confusing! The easiest way I find of sorting out how many ICWs I’m giving a child is to think ‘is there a choice for each word in this instruction?’.

Here are some toys that I might use to work on developing understanding Information Carrying Words

Here are some toys that I might use to work on developing understanding Information Carrying Words

If I give the child the items in the picture plus the instruction ‘make Igglepiggle jump on the bed‘, I can be confident that it is a 3 ICW instruction because of the following choices:

  1. Igglepiggle or Upsydaisy
  2. Jump or any other action
  3. Bed, table or chair

Your speech and language therapist will help you to ascertain how many ICWs your child can understand at a time and will help you see if there are any patterns within each level of understanding. For example, a child may understand 2 ICW instructions made up of a person plus an object (eg ‘Give Igglepiggle the chair’) but not ones made up of a person plus an action (eg ‘Make Upsydaisy sleep‘). Usually speech and language therapists will work in 4 levels with ICWs – 1, 2, 3, and 4 ICWs in a single instruction. Beyond 4ICWs, things start to get more complex!

Bridging Between Levels

Once your child consistently understands a variety of instructions at the level you are working on, your SLT will advise you on how to ‘bridge’ to the next level. That usually involves using real objects, visual aids like pictures, sign language and/or pointing to give your child a clue about the extra ICW you have added. For example, if you are wanting to help your child get from 2ICWs to 3 using the materials in the picture, you might do the following to support understanding of ‘make Igglepiggle jump on the bed’:

  • Give the child Igglepiggle first
  • Sign ‘jump’ as you say it
  • Give the child the symbol for ‘jump’ as you say it
  • Point to the bed

The choice of materials is still there because you’d use all of the objects to maintain the choice for each ICW but you are making it a little easier by helping the child with one of the choices.

I hope that this article goes some way towards demystifying the concept of Information Carrying Words or ICWs ! Please leave me any comments or questions and I will do my best to answer them!

What’s the difference between expressive & receptive language?

  • Expressive language is the ability to use vocabulary and to put words together into sentences to express yourself. It covers vocabulary, use of grammar and reasons for communication (asking for things, making comments, getting attention…)
  • Receptive language (or comprehension) is about understanding what is said to you. In typical development, understanding always develops ahead of expressive language. For example, a child who understands 3 key words in a sentence may only speak in single words.