Some researchers think that up to 15% of young school kids don’t have the language comprehension skills to cope fully with the demands of school (Hart & Fielding-Barnsley, 2009). Many of these kids struggle – some for their whole lives.

For most kids, home life plays a big role in helping to understand and use language (Morgan & Goldstein, 2004; Nation, 2005). So what can families and others do to help kids improve their understanding of language?

General advice is sometimes not enough

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when your child is struggling with language. Advice like “put down the devices and talk with your child more”, or “encourage your child to speak in full sentences”, or “read books with your child every day” can seem a bit general to be of practical help on a day-to-day basis – especially if you are doing all of these things and your child is still struggling.

Yes, children need to hear lots of language: quantity is important. But kids also need quality, real interactions with their parents, siblings, and others they care about, about topics of shared interest. For example, this is one reason evidence-based, shared reading practice can improve kids’ language skills.

Getting practical: tackling the mystery of language comprehension with a framework

Oral language comprehension – also called listening comprehension or receptive language – is deeply mysterious for the simple reason that we can’t know exactly what goes on inside someone else’s head. It can also seem very abstract to non-experts – language comprehension includes comprehension of language content (vocabulary and semantic knowledge), language forms (e.g. phonology, morphology, and syntax), and use (pragmatics).

So where to begin?

Well, it helps to have a plan. And good plans are based on tried and tested frameworks.

For language comprehension, one of the most influential frameworks was developed way back in the late 1970s by Dr Marion Blank, a developmental psychologist. Despite its vintage, we use Dr Blank’s model almost every day in our clinic to inform our approach to the assessment and treatment of children, teenagers and adults with language difficulties. And we’re not alone – many researchers have reported that Blank’s framework provides a good mechanism for child educators and others to enhance children’s learning (e.g. Elias et al., 2006; Hay et al., 2010). And lots of other speech pathologists use the framework, too.

I wish more parents, early educators and teachers knew about Blank’s wonderful work. (Hence this article!)

Blank’s Levels of Questioning

Dr Blank’s framework is based on the simple idea that young children’s early language and reasoning skills – while separate things – develop interactively to their mutual benefit. As a child’s understanding of words and the meanings of words improves, so does their ability to think and reason in words, which then further enhances their ability to understand and use words in more complex situations. In other words, stimulating language development can improve verbal reasoning, which, in turn can help more advanced language development: a virtuous cycle.

Dr Blank proposed that children learn language through social interaction, including through the way they listen to and speak with others while engaged in activities together. She thought that parents, early child educators, speech pathologists and others can improve preschoolers’ language and reasoning skills by changing the way they interact with kids, and, in particular, the way in which they ask kids questions, and respond to their answers.

The model is based on the idea that language exists on a “continuum of perceptual-language distance”. Kids first learn to understand and use language in very concrete ways based on what they see, hear and touch, etc.. As they develop, kids learn to use language to understand and express more abstract ideas (e.g. to make predictions, draw inferences, and to explain ideas and events that you can’t see, smell or touch).

Dr Blank proposed four levels of abstraction, from least to most abstract:

LevelLanguage complexityGoalExamples of activitiesExamples of questions or statements adults can use at the level [example items in square brackets]
1Directly supplied information
(Matching perception)
Children map language directly onto what they see, hear and touch. They use directly supplied information.Tasks where children match pictures, sounds, or sights, and label objects. Show me what you touched.
Show me what you heard.
Show me a [dog].
What's this called?
What did you touch?
What did you hear?
Can you find one like this?
Say this: [tree].
What is this?
2Classification (Selective analysis of perception)Children respond selectively to different aspects, attributes or features of the situation.Tasks where children comment on the colour, size, shape, function and other features of objects that they can see, hear or touch. What is she doing?
Find the one that is [big] and [green].
Tell me its [shape, colour, size].
How are these two different?
Finish this: [e.g. I like to...I want to....].
Where?
Who?
What things [e.g. swim, fly, run fast]?
Find the one that can [dig, jump, cut].
What is happening?
3Reorganisation (Reordering perception).

Language no longer mapped onto what they see.
Children look beyond what they see and rework the experience in accord with the language demands of the task. Tasks where children must summarise, predict, explain, or retell the information they have been presented with.Which one is not [an animal, tree, vegetable]?
Do this, then this...
Tell the story [e.g. about process like a bath being filled up, or a suitcase being packed].
What happened to all of these?
Tell me how [e.g. to fill a water pistol, or make a cake].
How are these the same [when they don't look the same, e.g. scissors and a knife, or a mug and a glass]?
What could she say?
How does he feel?
What else [grows, flies, sleeps]?
What will happen next?
What is a [car, hammer, frog]? (Answer to include attributes like function, location, category, colour, shape, etc.)
4Abstraction and inferences (Reasoning about perception)Child thinks about what may, might, could or would happen to materials, including why questions. Tasks where children must discern relationships among objects and events and explain the reasons for the relationships.What could we use [to fix, paint, climb]?
What could you do if [the house was on fire]?
Why can't we [fly, eat glass]?
What could he do [to dry himself]?
How can we tell [it's about to rain]?
What made it happen?
Why wouldn't [the boy sleep, the mouse come out]?
Why will [the girl go home, the firefighters come]?
Where will [the girl on the slide go, the ball go]?
What will happen if?

Note that many Level 3 and 4 tasks require children to make inferences – ideally skills we want kids to have or to be developing when they start school and start learning to read.

Using Blank’s framework to spot kids at risk

Blank’s Levels provide a quick way of identifying young preschoolers and school-age kids at risk. Most (although not all) kids start school with an ability to complete Level 1 tasks. But many kids struggle with Level 2, including many kids with developmental language disorders and kids who have had disadvantaged childhoods. For example, Blank’s studies show about 50%-65% of 5 year-old kids from well off households with educated parents can answer Level 3 questions – but only about 10% from disadvantaged backgrounds, including kids with average intelligence.

Many children with autism spectrum disorder or social language disorders have significant difficulties answering Level 3 and 4 questions.

How we use the Blank’s Levels in practice

When we assess a child’s language, we include Levels 1, 2, 3 and 4 Blank’s questions. This can be done with a formal assessment tool, or informally using a book and pre-prepared questions of different levels of abstraction. We keep a close eye on answers that are incomplete, vague, irrelevant and of course incorrect to determine where the child’s current skill-set sits in the context of Blank’s model. This, along with all the other assessment data we collect (e.g. through standardised testing and narrative/conversation samples, etc.), gives us a good idea of where to start language therapy, which we can refine as we get to know the child better.

When working to help children with language difficulties, we usually aim to target questions at the child’s current level for about 70% of the session, and at the next level for about 30% of the time. This helps the client build confidence and gain mastery at their current level while challenging them to develop skills at the next level.

Can you use Blank’s Levels with older children, teenagers and adults?

Absolutely.

Blank’s Levels are a useful framework for helping older children and others to develop their language skills in any school, vocational, or university subject, and for any functional work task. It can also provide a useful framework to help improving writing skills.

For example, if working with a Year 6 student on an assignment about natural disasters, you could work through the Levels, as follows:

Level 1 (looking at a map of natural disasters):
Show me the brown crosses (showing recent earthquakes)
Show me the blue circles (showing tsunamis)
Point to the red triangles (showing volcanoes)
Say: tectonic plate.

What is this? [the Pacific Ocean]

Level 2:
What do all the different colours [on the map] mean?
Where are most of the disasters located?
What things erupt?
What things flood?
Find one that can destroy buildings.

What does the Richter magnitude scale measure?

Level 3:
Tell my the story of the Mt Etna eruption of 1669.
How was the Japanese tsunami of 2011 different from the Indonesian tsunami of 2004?
Other than tsunamis, what else can causes major flooding events in populated areas?
When do experts think the next big earthquake will hit California?

What is a bushfire?

Level 4:
What could you do if you lived near Mt Agung in Bali and saw it erupt?
Why did Australian tourists have to cancel their flights when Mt Agung erupted?
Why are earthquakes inevitable?
Why should nuclear energy reactors not be built near coasts at risk of tsunamis?
How can we tell that bushfires are becoming more frequent in South Australia during El Nino years?

How can we reduce risks to human life caused by natural disasters?

Here’s another example, targeting even more abstract language levels. If working with a Year 12 student to improve her essay responses about The Long Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Elliot in Advanced English, you could analyse the poem, working through the levels, e.g.:

Level 1:
Identify the people and objects mentioned in the poem by sight, sound, and touch.

What do you see when you look at the poem [e.g. length, number of stanzas].

Level 2:
What happens in the poem?
Who is the poem about?
Describe the objects mentioned in the poem by attributes, including category, size, shape, texture, function, location, parts.
Compare the key objects by attribute. How do they differ?
Where is the poem set?

In terms of structure, how is the poem different to [the other poems being studied, e.g. a Shakespearean sonnet]?

Level 3:
Sequence the events of the poem – retell it in your own words.
Take on the role of the narrator and role play how you feel.
Retell the life story of T.S. Elliot.
What would you do if you were the main character?
Immediately after the events described in the poem, what do you think would happen next?
How is the poem the same as some of the poet’s other poems?

Tell me how the poem is structured.

Level 4:
Why did the author write the poem?
Why does the author use [specific imagery] and [specific language] in the poem; and what does it convey to you?
How do you know that the author isn’t optimistic about the effects of industrialisation on the human condition?
How can we tell the author is concerned about urban alienation?

Evaluate whether and, if so, to what extent, the poet succeeds in conveying the character’s anxieties about his life and future in the modern world.

What about late talkers and toddlers?

A note of caution here. For young kids and others who are still learning the basics of joint attention and turn-taking, and for kids who are not yet speaking in word combinations or short sentences, asking too many questions – especially in a row – can turn interactions into interrogations, and shut down conversations.

Consistent with Hanen training principles, with early language users and late talkers, we seek to balance questions with lots of comments to keep the conversation going. For example, instead of asking “What’s that?” repeatedly when looking at a book about animals, we might follow the child’s lead, see that she is looking at a tiger and say: “I see a stripy tiger!”, then wait for a response from the child, and then praise her response.

Clinical bottom line

Marion Blank’s framework is a very useful tool to spot and help people of all ages with language difficulties to understand and to use language. It can also help parents, educators, and others working with young people – including people with or at risk for communication disorders – to pitch their questions and statements in conversations at the levels most likely to help young people to develop their communication skills.

Related articles:

Principal sources:

Hay, I., & Fielding-Barnsley, R. (2012). Social Learning, Language and Literacy. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 37(1)24-29.

Westby, C. (2017). Marion Blank’s Levels of Language Abstraction. Word of Mouth 29:1, 12-15.

Blank, M., Rose, S.A., & Berlin, L.J. (1978) The language of learning: The preschool years. New York, NY: Grune & Stratton.

Image: https://tinyurl.com/ydbdvk56

Banter Speech & Language Banter Speech & Language
Banter Speech & Language is an independent firm of speech pathologists for adults and children. We help clients in our local area, including Concord, Concord West, North Strathfield, Rhodes, and Strathfield, and all other suburbs of Sydney.

Banter Speech & Language is owned and managed by David Kinnane, a Hanen- and LSVT LOUD-certified speech-language pathologist with post-graduate training in the PreLit early literacy preparation program by MultiLit, the Spalding Method for literacy, the Lidcombe and Camperdown Programs for stuttering, and Voicecraft for voice disorders. David is also a Certified PESL Instructor for accent modification.

David holds a Master of Speech Language Pathology from the University of Sydney, where he was a Dean’s Scholar. David is a Practising Member of Speech Pathology Australia and a Certified Practising Speech Pathologist (CPSP). David is a part-time Associate Lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney’s Graduate School of Health. David sits on Speech Pathology Australia’s Ethics Board and Professional Standards Advisory Committee.

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