How Giving Extra Time Can Help Children Process Language
Recently, I did some training to support speech, language and communication difficulties. When we discussed what people would take away from the session, several of them mentioned strategies, which are always recommended, but are so basic that it’s easy to overlook them. Sometimes we look for all-singing-and-dancing strategies, thinking that these will bring about dramatic changes. However, it is usually the basic, core speech and language therapy strategies that provide the most effective support.
One of these core strategies is giving a child time to process and respond to what you said.
The Communication Chain
Processing language to understand what has been said, and planning what to say and how to say it, are complex operations. For those of us lucky enough to have no difficulties understanding and/or using language, the process is automatic and easy. However, this is not the case for all of us! The mechanisms involved in communication are extremely complex; breakdown can occur at any level and can affect other stages in the communication chain.
The Receptive Side of The Communication Chain
Looking, hearing, interpreting
There are eight steps in the receptive side of this communication chain. At the beginning of the chain, the child needs to look to see that they are in a communicative situation. The next link is hearing and then interpreting non-verbal communication. Over 50% of communication is non-verbal, e.g. facial expression, body language, gesture, sign (McLachalan, H & Elks, L. Language Builders 2013. Elklan).
Moving up the chain, the child has to be able to listen and pay attention to what is being said/signed, and remember it in order to process the meaning and understand it. There are different levels of processing meaning – at word level, in sentences and in context, i.e. processing non-verbal and verbal information. Understanding the words alone is not enough to understand the meaning. For example, if it is very cold I might sarcastically say “It’s so hot in here! Why don’t you open the window?” If the child processes the words alone, they will think I am hot, and I want the window open, but actually I am being sarcastic and I mean the exact opposite.
What happens when there’s a breakdown in the chain
Children with autism spectrum disorder can have difficulties integrating non- verbal and verbal information in order to understand meaning. A child can have a breakdown in understanding at any level and can have breakdowns at more than one level. A breakdown anywhere in the chain will impact on all the other levels. For example, if I have difficulty remembering auditory information I could have difficulty understanding the words, sentences and the meaning, as I might not have retained the information accurately.
The Expressive Side of The Communication Chain
In this model, there are five stages on the expressive side of the chain, starting with having ideas and thinking of what to say. When a child experiences rigid thinking, or when they do not understand what the listener needs or wants to know, this can be very difficult. They have to find the right words and/or gestures and signs, put this into a sentence, say it, and watch to see if they need to change or adapt it in any way for the listener. For example, if I see from the facial expression of the person I am talking to that they are not interested, I will change the topic, or if I see they don’t understand I will try to explain or simplify what I am saying.
What does this look like if a child has difficulty processing language?
One of the children I see needs around 8 seconds to process what I say and to reply to me. Responses are automatic in typically developing children. When a child does not respond immediately, it is easy to think, for example:
- They are not listening
- They have not heard what you said
- They are not interested
- They don’t know the answer to a question
The reality is that they could simply need more time to process what you said and to plan their response.
How to use this strategy:
- When you give an instruction, keep it short, pause between parts of it so that the child can process what you said before you add more information.
- Give one, short instruction, e.g. “Write the sum in your book,” pause to give time to process it, add another part,g. “work out the answer using a number line,” pause again and then check it. For example, “So first you have to …..” leave a pause for the child to fill, e.g. “write the sum in my book.” “That’s right, and then work out ……” “The answer on a number line.”
- When you ask a question, give the child time to process it. Count silently in your head to work out a rough idea of how long it takes the child to answer so that you know how long it takes them to process language.
Several years ago, a secondary school teacher asked me to observe his class to give him advice on supporting pupils, many of whom had speech, language and communication difficulties. In the lesson, I observed that he:
- Used a lot of language.
- Did not use partner talking time (e.g. “Tell your partner what you think the answer is”)
- Did not use any visuals to support understanding, attention or memory
- Always asked open questions, e.g. ‘Why did he go home?”
The same small group of children put their hands up to answer questions and the others did not participate in his lessons. Less than half of the class were able to access his lessons, which he thought was because they were not interested, not listening, etc. and as a result, he was quick to tell them off.
What we did:
- Introduced thinking time. Pupils had to wait ten seconds before they could put their hands up to answer a question.
- Used partner talking time to help pupils:
- Check they understood instructions
- Answer questions
- Participate in oral tasks in the classroom
- Offered a choice of two possible answers if a child couldn’t answer an open question, so that they could feel success rather than failure. For example, “Why did he go home?” No response. “Did he go home because ……… or ……?” This enabled children to answer his questions.
These changes did not involve lots of planning or making resources. They are simple, easy-to-introduce strategies that made a big difference to many children. Although the teacher had read speech and language therapy reports on these children and their difficulties, I don’t think that this was sufficient to help him understand what could be difficult for them in the classroom and to provide him with a toolkit he could use to help them. Seeing the difference changed his practise. Seeing that more people put their hands up motivated him to adapt what he did to incorporate these strategies.
Giving a child time to process language is a strategy that can be used in any situation to provide important and effective support.