Language comprehension is one of the aspects of my job I find explaining to others the most. I find that anyone who hears my title associates what I do with articulation disorders primarily, followed by working people with limited verbal output, and then working on pragmatic/social language. Language comprehension is relatively straightforward in its definition, but is a large umbrella for what it can entail. It is the understanding of the rules of language in order to effectively participate and express oneself in said language. Where does this breakdown occur? This varies, but most of my students have difficulty with comprehending abstract concepts, like inferencing, predicting, reading body language and social cues, and reasoning. This is my personal breakdown of language comprehension:
- Hearing versus Comprehending
These are two different things. The student did hear everything you said, but they didn’t execute the direction appropriately. Where was the breakdown? For this, consider the following: how was the material presented? Was it new information? Is it a new skill? Most students find new material challenging regardless of comprehension skills. If a student is struggling with comprehending new material, consider breaking it down into smaller pieces, or checking for understanding. The question “What did you think it meant?” will tell you what the student understood, and often provides a great starting point for supporting the student appropriately.
- The “why” struggle
Abstract concepts and reasoning are by far the most challenging for my language comprehension students. Give them a why question, and I get “because that’s what it says.” On the days that isn’t the response, I get “because that’s what happened.” Why is abstract concept. It requires thinking beyond what’s already been seen or discussed, and often with unfamiliar topics. Some of my more rigid students have figured out that “why” questions should be followed with a “because” reply–listen to what comes after the magical word, “because.” Frequently, it is not a reason or an opinion, but a what-doing response disguised as a why response. “How” is very similar in response, which leads into my next point….
- Use your words
Ask the student to use their own words to tell you what you said, what they think they’re supposed to do, or to explain. This allows you to understand their thought process as well as better probe for information they have versus information they need to focus on. The more you understand each other, the better you can accommodate and structure the student’s ability to succeed in the classroom. This is also a great strategy to use when checking for understanding in any subject.
- What’s the main idea?
This is where things get tricky. You’ve just asked them to retell what they understand. In many cases, this includes detailed play-by-plays of everything said and understood. If I’m working on retelling with a student, I ask them to tell me the three most important parts of the assignment, and work from there. From here, I can provide choices, such as “Is that what the whole story was about, or is that just something that happened?” “Oh, you liked that part, but it’s not the point of the story? I liked that part too! That’s what we call a key detail.” From here, I provide examples of main idea and key details, followed by scenarios where the student has to identify whether I’m discussing a detail or the main idea. Have more than one student with you? Let them be the leaders and quiz each other. This gives them ownership over the skill, and will lead to better generalization practices.
- Get the picture
In my speech room, I am all about the visuals. I do not present any information unless it is presented with a picture or object, since my students are all visual learners. This also helps to make the abstract idea more concrete. I can ask you to describe a basketball, or I can bring a basketball into the room and say “Tell me everything you know about this thing.” The same task gets accomplished (describing) but I’ve changed the method of delivery. Working on written language? Graphic organizers are your friend. I like the “Somebody-Wanted-But-So-Then” model for my students. For opinion pieces, I like the hamburger model. For retelling, I always have the source material for the student to refer back to, be it a story, picture, or informational text.
These are just a few strategies that work for my students. Let me know in comments if these work for your students, along with any I may have missed. I challenge you to focus on your own comprehension strategies–do you understand better when you take notes, doodle, associate words with pictures or mnemonics? Everyone’s learning style is different, so we all utilize different strategies within our repertoire.
Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP