Language Processing: Why Treating it FIRST Really Matters

Language Processing

I’ve treated hundreds of first and second graders with significant language delays. Probably hundreds more kindergarteners who began school at age 5, with a vocabulary of 50 words or less. I’ve discharged many of these students at their 3-year reevaluations.

As an elementary school-based SLP, my 18 years of experience has taught me ONE valuable lesson about language therapy. And here it is: You ABSOLUTELY MUST treat the way kids process language FIRST.

Yep. I said it. Forget pronouns. Forget the “sh” sound. Forget sentence structure and plurals. I toss every one of those goals out the window if a student lands in my chair and cannot tell me what I do with a pair of scissors. Why? Aren’t those other skills important for communication. Yes. Yes they are.

But, in my personal experience, you will never remediate language deficits until you target the disordered system that “files” and “organizes” how it’s stored.

You see, I liken the brain to a large black filing cabinet. That cabinet holds hundreds of file folders of information. When a child is identified as having a language disorder, that cabinet is a hot mess. Folders are messy, torn and filled with information that makes absolutely no sense. I’m quite certain most folders are smeared with remnants of pb&j.

In this file system, there is no rhyme nor reason to how previously learned knowledge was stored. Information about cute bunnies is in the same folder with monster trucks. Vegetables are found in the folder with Sponge Bob. Letters and numbers are probably filed in the same place with knowledge about snakes. guessed it. That lesson his teacher just taught him about kinds of weather? Yeah. That was filed in a new folder without a label because our poor buddy had no idea what to do with it. You see, he doesn’t remember any associated vocabulary for weather words. Well, he might. But he cannot remember what file he put them in when he learned about weather from his preschool teacher.

In my professional experience, targeting language processing FIRST does 2 important things:

  1. It cleans up the folders that existed before our friend sat down in your chair (lucky him!) AND.......

  2. It creates a NEW efficient storage system, so that when he learns NEW language in his classroom, he knows where to store it. Then, he knows how to retrieve it. For writing, defining, and retelling a story he has read.

After a few years of treating language processing FIRST, it keeps the language holes from growing. Old, inefficient storage patterns are deleted, and NEW language gets stored correctly. Overall language functioning significantly improves, and students are dismissed. Voilà.

So, where do I start? Well, I’m going to tell you this. If a child has multiple areas of need, you have got to prioritize. Again, forget the syntax and the articulation (unless the student is completely unintelligible). I’m not saying don’t treat it, just don’t make it the priority. Treat these relative weaknesses in the context of language processing.

Then, begin here (click for a FREE copy of this chart): (The Language Processing Hierarchy was developed by Gail Richard; "The Source for Processing Disorders" (2011 LinguiSystems). This visual was created based on her work).:

Language Processing Hierarchy

Start at the bottom and work your way up. Use different materials to target these areas from a hundred different angles. When you are confident your student has mastered one level, then move UP. It might take you an entire year to solidify categories and their members. That’s ok. Your student is better for it. Keep moving through the hierarchy.

When your student is in third grade, you will see that his file system is beginning to sparkle. He can recall information faster. He can define using relevant characteristics. He can use synonymous language to explain classroom vocabulary and write descriptive sentences. You will be really happy you didn’t waste a year working on plurals and “sh”. Because those issues most likely spontaneously remediated without intervention.

THIS student will make you cry. Why? Because he is getting ready to graduate from speech. And YES….you are going to feel VERY good about everything he has accomplished. You know you gave him an amazing foundation that he is ready to build on.

Way to go my colleague. Job well done!

Need materials for your Language Processing Toolbox? I have several NO PRINT materials to help get you started on your journey.

Not sure about the language processing skills of your youngest students? I have a SCREENING tool that can help!

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