Tag Archives: expressive language skills

Language Development

Expressive Language: Why Your Child Doesn’t Ask Why

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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Language Development

3 Reasons Why Your Child Has Weak Expressive Language Skills

help your child speak betterDoes your preschooler have difficulty describing to you what went on during her day?

Does she have trouble naming objects, substituting other words like “thingie” or “that round thing with cream inside,” instead of the real word? Does she seem to describe things in the wrong order, telling you what happened last, instead of first?

There are several reasons why your child has trouble expressing themselves. Here are a few of the most important ones:

Children who have expressive language weaknesses are usually very strong visually.

Visual thinkers often have trouble with sequencing, since they are associative thinkers. If you imagine the tag cloud on a blog, then you have a good idea of how a visual thinker processes information. Ideas are not necessarily connected to each other in a linear fashion, one idea following the other in an orderly fashion.

Instead, children may jump from one topic to another, seemingly in a random order. You might see this when your child discusses something with you. She may begin talking about the new dog her best friend has, move on to swimming class, and then end up animatedly discussing the trip you took last summer.

To auditory thinkers her thinking seems disorganized and flighty, since it doesn’t follow a logical, sequential order. For your daughter, however, there was a logical order. The dog is of a breed that is good at swimming – hence swimming class came to mind. Swimming made her think of water, which reminded her of the waterfall the family saw on the trip last summer.

Your child’s visual and auditory systems don’t work well together.

In order to process language effectively, your child’s auditory and visual system need to work together most of the time. Children who have trouble expressing themselves are sometimes so strong visually that their visual system shuts down their auditory system.

On the extreme end, for example with autistic children, the visual system is so strong that the auditory system appears not to work at all. Concerned parents might initially wonder if their child is deaf, but eventually notice that their child can hear sounds when they choose (are able) to.

Other children on the spectrum, for instance, children with ADHD or moderate language disorders, seem to have great difficulty paying attention. These children don’t always respond when their names are called, have trouble following directions, or have difficulty understanding what they read or hear.

A strong visual system can actually be a wonderful benefit; many famous inventors and thinkers were visual geniuses. But in order to benefit your child has to learn how to help both systems to work together.

A weak memory makes it hard for your child to remember what he hears.

One of the most difficult factors that affect how your child processes language is their ability to remember what they hear. Since there are different types of memory, different children can be affected in different ways.

For some children, what they hear seems to go in one ear and out the other. Others can practice a math fact, letter name, or history question over and over again – only to find out in the morning that it was if they had never learned the material.

Still others may perplex parents and teachers, seemingly possessed with stellar memories. These kids can remember the teeniest bit of information, whether it was 3 days ago or 3 years ago. However when you ask them to remember a particular fact, it’s as if the system has short-circuited, and they are unable to give the right answer.

All of the above can have a serious impact on children’s language skills. Fortunately, you can help your child to improve these skills. Hands on learning games that focus on these skills can make a huge difference in helping your child express themselves more effectively.



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Listening games

How to Improve Your Preschooler’s Listening Skills with Antoinette Portis’ book Not a Box – Hands on Learning Games

One of my favorite ways of improving my children’s learning skills is through books. Books are great for exposing your child to topics they wouldn’t have otherwise thought about, which is especially important for kids with language delays, who tend to be very weak in the kind of knowledge that other kids pick up just from their environment.

Books are also great for improving your child’s critical thinking skills, and there’s now research that shows wordless picture books are great for improving your child’s expressive language skills.

Still, I’m always cooking up new ways to use books, and today I have a new hands on learning activity that’s a good sequencing activity, and that helps improve your preschooler’s listening skills.


For this game, you’ll need a copy of Antoinette Portis’ book Not in a Box. I enjoyed the simplicity of this book, which makes the pictures clear and easy to understand for younger bunch, since some of them do have language delays. In the book, a rabbit finds a box, and manages to turn the box into a race car, a mountain, a burning building, and a robot before the story ends.

Every time he makes something creative from his box, he is asked “Why are you sitting in/standing on that box?” Your child will work on her listening skills by following along and sequencing the various items that the rabbit created.

How to play the game:

1. Read the story once through to your children, pointing to the pictures and naming the various objects that the rabbit created. Make sure your child repeats after you the names of each object, and points to the picture. Doing this encourages your child to use her visual system to support her weak auditory skills.

2. Go back to the beginning of the story, and name the first 2 objects that the rabbit created. Have your child repeat the names after you.

3. Then close the book, and ask your child to see if he can remember the names of those 2 items. If your child has trouble, you can give him a hint by saying part of the word out loud, letting your child fill in the blanks.

4. Continue going through the book this way, asking your child to remember one new item at a time, until she memorizes all of the items.

TIP: You can make this game easier by xeroxing the pictures, cutting them out, and letting your child sequence the pictures instead of having to verbally tell you what the items were.

You can make this game harder by having your child name the items forwards and backwards.

More fun stuff: You can extend this activity by helping your child create their own “Not a Box” story. Simply find a decent-sized box, take pictures of your child “creating,” and print them out on regular printer paper. You can ask your child to tell you the text as you write it down.


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