Language Development

Expressive Language: Why Your Child Doesn’t Ask Why

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So you've managed to improve your child’s expressive language skills. They can converse with people outside of your family.

They understand that conversation is a back and forth process, with one person asking, while the other answers.

And yet, you find that your child’s speech is curiously flat. After careful consideration, you realize that they still don’t ask “why.” If you have other children, you can’t but help but be struck by the difference: on the one hand, a child as young as two will ask over and over again, “Why Mommy?” On the other hand, your language-delayed child seems to be content with things as they are.

You know she’s intelligent, so what gives?

The answer lies in your child’s inability to understand.

Understanding something is not an either/or situation.

Most of us think of understanding as either/or: either you understand something, or you don’t. In reality, being able to understand something is much more complex than that. Understanding is something that takes place on different levels, over a period of time. It changes constantly as we use what we already know about something in order to interpret and gain insights about something new.

Furthermore, your child’s ability to understand depends on what kind of material they’re being asked to understand (visual, auditory, etc.) how much they need to understand at once, and whether children are capable of self-evaluating their understanding.

Here are some common reasons that affect your child’s ability to understand:

Weak language development

Even though your child might seem to be better at speaking, there are numerous levels of language that your child needs to be good at in order to communicate effectively.

Many children’s language development looks a lot like a mine field in a third world country: some safe areas, with lots of areas that may or may not be okay. For example, your child might seem fine in everyday conversation, but his knowledge of words and their meanings could hamper how much he understands things at home and at school.

Another child might seem fine at home in all areas, but the special vocabulary that school requires might not be in his repertoire.

Your child needs to be proficient in language at the word, sentence, and paragraph level. They also need to have the ability to reflect on how language works, and be able to apply language in social situations.

Incomplete concept formation

A concept is basically a bunch of specific ideas that can be grouped together to form a general idea. For example, if I want to understand what a car is, I would have to take into account the specific features that make a car what it is – and not a helicopter, raft, or ice floe. Here’s an example of the beginnings of a concept map for a car:


Now of course there’s a lot more you could add to this concept map (and not being a car fanatic I’m sure you could correct me on a few points :), but you get the idea.

Being able to hold in mind a concept leaves you free to consider the bigger picture, instead of holding on to thousands of details. Some children, however, have trouble seeing the big picture, even though they have all the details. They can’t intuit a concept from the bits and pieces that they have.

Slow data processing

Ever tried to work on a computer that was functioning slowly for some reason? It may have been a good computer- even a newer model – but for reasons unknown seemed to take forever to process the most basic of things.

Some children, though intelligent, are a little like that. They need more time than most people, whether at home or at school, realize. Perhaps they think things through more thoroughly, or on a deeper level. Regardless of the reason, they’ll get there if you’ll just give them the time.

Unfortunately, with our fast-paced life, these children don’t often get the time they need in order to get to the finish line. They may appear bewildered and confused: they were still processing the first half of what you (or the teacher) said, but you’ve already sped along to the conclusion.

Small chunk size capacity

Some children can only process a certain amount of material at a time. While their friends and classmates are busy swallowing whole bucket loads of information, they’re daintily nibbling on a bowlful. As time goes on, children are expected to handle larger and larger amounts of information at a time, these children often fall behind.

 

Too creative, or too intent on playing by the rules

Being creative can be a boon in a lot of ways. Interpreting a picture, giving your opinion about why a character acted as they did, or composing a dramatic first-person story are all examples where creativity is especially valued.

Sometimes, however, children are expected to stick “to the facts, and nothing but the facts.” A child who is too much of a “top-down processor,” or who interprets information largely upon how they think or feel, might have trouble knowing when to elaborate, and when to play by the rules.

The opposite can also occur: children who are so black and white, so intent on staying between the lines, that they fail when they need to give their own original input. These children are called “bottom- down processors.” They do great on math tests, fill in the blank, or other clear cut situations, but fail miserably in situations that aren’t clear cut, require brainstorming, essays, or original stories.

These are just some of the reasons why your child has trouble asking why questions. I’ll admit, it’s a little complicated. But before you start hopping off to spend a lot of money on social stories books, reading comprehension series, or other materials, you need to pinpoint why your child is having the trouble they're having.

It’s a lot like taking an aspirin for a severe stomach ache: it might be indigestion, and it might not be. Wouldn’t you rather get to the bottom of things before you go under the knife?

 

Questions? Comments? I'd love to hear from you - share your thoughts below!

 

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3 Comments
  • Rachel Feb 2,2012 at 12:25 am

    Hi Rhelynn! Thanks for commenting. I have two other posts that go into more detail about how to teach your child to ask why questions:

    They are: 5 Tips on How to Help Your Child Answer Why and When Questions
    and Practical Tips on How to Teach Your Child to Ask Questions.

    Try out some of the tips, and let me know how things go.

  • rhelynn Jan 31,2012 at 6:35 am

    This post hits the nail right on the head. I’ve known for some time that my daughter’s inability to fathom the word ‘why?’ or how to use it was a real issue. Although, I’ve had others tell me ‘it will come – and you’ll be annoyed soon enough of it when it does.’ She is a very visual processor with a nearly photographic memory and a wide expressive capability when her own ‘personal sign language’ is included. To the outside observer, she is a kid with perfect hearing who makes odd gestures with a few unconnected words, then gets mad. I will be looking at more of your posts to try to help her now that we have had her formally evaluated.

  • […] In my post yesterday I gave you some background on why your child finds it so hard to ask questions. […]

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