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Spring 2000 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)


By Dr. Wendy Drezek, Infant Teacher, San Antonio, Texas

Children normally learn language through their interactions with people and things in the world. They learn the give and take of communication. They learn that language gets them what they want. They learn what words mean by watching what is happening while adults talk. They get feedback from others through their facial expression, posture and proximity, as these make communication more or less effective. All this learning depends on vision.

When vision is poor, children get less information about the world. They get less feedback about the effect of their communication on others. They may be more passive and interact less with people and things on their own. Children with poor vision are less aware of distant objects, and request and refer to them less often. Adults try to help by doing more for the children so the children have less need to initiate communication. Meaning is less clear when the 80-90% of information that is visual is absent or unclear. So, children with visual impairment frequently have weak language.


In traditional ways of assessing early language, children are asked questions or required to identify objects or pictures. They don't have opportunities to generate their own responses. Their responses are prestructured by adults. These approaches may assess a child's ability to imitate responses or follow directions, but they don't access what the child can initiate to change the environment.

On the other hand, totally unstructured collections of language have a different limitation. For example, you can keep a running log of the child's utterances, and analyze it only for length, syntax and meaning. If you don't consider the appropriateness of the language to the situation, however, the child's ability may be overrated. Children with visual impairment frequently use long correct sentences without appropriate content. Repeated questions and echoed speech are examples of correct structure with inappropriate content. The problem of prestructuring can again occur if adults cue all the language.

Traditional assessment can be supplemented to address the children's ability to use their language systems without adult structure. To assess a child's ability to create language in a situation, a language log using specific guidelines is necessary. The observer and child must have shared the activity, for example frosting a cupcake, so the observer knows what the content should be. In this situation, two kinds of assessment are useful. First, the observer can booby trap some aspects of the activity so the child has to generate new language to get what is desired. (The observer might provide a frosting can which is sealed so the child has to request help to get to the frosting.) Then, after the activity, the observer and child talk about it, with the observer using "Tell me about the cupcake" as the only cue to assess what information the child can produce.


The problems with improving language are similar to those of assessment. Much of standard language programming relies on prestructured responses answering questions, labeling, imitating, pointing to selected pictures or symbols, or highly cued responses. While these can be useful parts of a program, the goal of any language program has to be a child who can initiate and create communication without adult structure.

The first step in any language program is to make sure there are things the child wants, so communication has a purpose. For many children, such desires are evident. For some children, wants may need to be fostered through appealing activities or especially interesting objects. Doing less for a child, and "not understanding" what the child wants unless the child communicates, encourage more requesting. To build meaning, children will need systematic exploration and activity which pairs language with hands on experience of the available world. Signs, pictures and objects can be invested with meaning by being paired repeatedly with action and many sensory experiences.

Natural consequences are used at the earliest stage of language acquisition to get more output and more specific language. A child can choose between a snack or a favorite toy or nothing. Gradually the child will learn to choose the symbol or use the word or sign for the desired end. Using "ba" which is used for ball, to try to get a cookie, results in a physical therapy activity on the ball. "Kuh" gets the cookie.

Booby-trapping, or building in problems that require language to solve them, is one way to encourage the child to produce language without cues. Responding to a repeated question by ignoring it, or to an echoed statement by responding to its meaning rather than its intention, are natural consequences which make that kind of communication less rewarding. If Bob, who wants a cookie, says, "What do you want Bob?" to get the cookie, and no one gives him a cookie since the question is addressed to himself, he will learn eventually that an echoed question is not a request. If the adult thinks, "I know he wants the cookie." and gives it to him, Bob is learning that an echoed question is an appropriate request. In general, any adult interpretation of inappropriate statements as appropriate will weaken the child's language.

It will strengthen language independence more to ask, "What do you want?" at free play, so the child has to use the internal system to form a response; than to play 20 Questions and give multiple choices. At the very early stages of language, however, choices are essential, and even inappropriate responses may need to be encouraged. For some children, consistent responses will need to be identified, developed and refined.

The language logs can also be analyzed for kinds of language use, weakness in the appropriateness of the language, and to assess the depth and overall strength of the child's language. Specific patterns can then be identified and addressed. For instance, if Suzy calls a broom a "sweep-it-up" and a watering can a "pour-it-out," it is clear that she has trouble relating the function of an object to its label. This can then be addressed in activities in which functions and labels are stressed.


Traditional language assessment and programming may produce an inflated evaluation of the child's ability to use language independently. It may be useful to include measures and activities to assess and encourage spontaneous appropriate language.

Editor's note: If you have questions, or would like more in-depth information about this unique approach to language development, Wendy can be reached by e-mail at .