Description of Expressive Language at Each Key Word Level

12 - 24 months

1 word level

First words generally appear around 12 months of age and are commonly:

  • labels for important people, animals and toys in the pupil’s life e.g. mummy, pet’s name, teddy.
  • words to express wants and needs e.g. no, again, more.
  • familiar objects e.g. cup, book
  • social words e.g. hello, bye bye, thank you, please.
  • things of particular interest e.g. trains
  • symbolic words e.g. choo choo, moo moo

Short phrases such as ‘all gone’, ‘sit down’, ‘get up’ are learnt as one unit and are therefore classed as being at one word level rather than two word level.

20 - 30 months

2 word level

When a pupil has around 50 words, they begin to join words together e.g. ‘Daddy gone’, ‘want drink’, ‘Mummy car’. These could have several meanings e.g. ‘This is mummy’s car’, ‘Mummy has gone in the car’, or ‘Let’s go in the car, mummy’.

At this stage, the pupil begins to use a few action words e.g. cry, sit, etc. He tries to talk about events using a mixture of jargon and words. He will ask for help e.g. ‘wash hands’ and begin to ask questions.

28 - 36 months

3 word level

At around three years of age, the pupil will begin to join three words together and possibly four e.g. ‘Daddy gone work’. ‘Mummy go shop’. Gradually the pupil will begin to use a wider variety of words as his understanding of the world around him grows e.g. descriptions using size (big/little); positions (in/on/under); colours (red/blue/yellow/green); properties (wet/dirty); emotions (happy/sad) etc.

Word Level Activities

See activities in Appendix 4. It is important to check the pupil’s understanding and ensure this is consistent before moving on to work on expressive communication.

Early concepts

Once pupils have developed a firm understanding of early language, they can be encouraged to use the words to describe colour, size, position etc. Below are some suggestions.

To develop expressive use of language when working on concepts, encourage the pupils to copy the modelled language and give opportunities to use the language spontaneously in daily activities through play and real life situations. This is important whether communication is verbal or via non-verbal means. See section on “Means, Reasons and Opportunities”.

Vocabulary development

Learning vocabulary is an ongoing, lifelong process. Each new word has to be effectively processed, stored and then retrieved when needed. Many pupils have difficulty with the ‘semantic’ aspects of language. Semantics involves our understanding of words (receptive vocabulary), our choice of words when speaking(expressive vocabulary), and the way we use words to get across what we really mean. Any or all of these areas may need support.

When learning vocabulary some pupils may:

  • learn words through chunking, rather than experiential relationships e.g. “Kick the ball” used for the word “ball”. Vocabulary is bound by the context in which is it learnt and is cued by routine and prompts.
  • find concepts (position, colour, number, size, shape, time) difficult to learn because they are not absolute referents but describe relationships between objects and events e.g. Red car. Red-faced. Red-letter day. Funny walk. Funny idea. In the air. In your bag. In a minute.) So concepts have
    multiple meanings.
  • find relational terms confusing because the meaning changes depending on whether one’s perspective is that of speaker or listener. Examples are: I/you; this/that; here/there; come/go; behind/in front. The phrase “I need you to go behind there” would be particularly difficult to understand because there are fiverelational terms within just seven words!
  • have problems generalising because of difficulty with flexible thinking and also because of the visual learning style of many pupils. What is learnt is bound to the context in which it was learnt, rather than being ideas linked, so, for example, a pupil may only understand the word ‘cup’ to mean his own special Thomas beaker.

** Those with autism may have specific difficulties with the semantic aspects of language. Verbally-able pupils with social communication needs may develop an extensive, in-depth vocabulary for their special interest or obsession but be at a loss for topics that do not interest them or for everyday words e.g. those describing time or feelings.

A disproportionate number of object labels (nouns e.g. dog, TV, face) may be used because these are the most concrete and static. Examples include: labelling (naming) objects or pictures to self, reciting lists, repeating others’ words, saying a word over and over but without actually communicating to anyone.

** Similarly those with autism may be echolalic. Echolalia is imitation of others’ speech. The pupil’s ‘echo’ may be immediately after hearing someone or may be delayed by minutes, hours, days or even longer. So what the pupil says may or may not relate to the context. The echo may be one word (e.g. Stop!) or a phrase (e.g. Would you like a drink?) or a recalled chunk, for example, on hearing ‘Hello!’ the pupil may reply: “Hello Thomas! said the engine driver.” Echoed words are often clearer than the pupil’s own speech. The most common reasons for echolalia are difficulty understanding what is said and difficulty producing own language. Their issues comprehending the situation/language may also lead to pupils with autism asking repetitive questions, so that they can be reassured by the
familiar or repetitive answer.

They may also experience misunderstandings due to their literal understanding/use of words. Polite requests are genuinely mistaken for questions or choices e.g. “Can you pick up your pencil!” Yes! “Would you like to sit here.” No! There is difficulty appreciating literature and humour. Implied meanings (e.g. hints, jokes, sarcasm) are usually missed or taken literally. Sayings are particularly perplexing and sometimes frightening because the language is taken literally (e.g. Hop it! You’re full of beans today! You’ll have to pull your socks up! He laughed his head off!). Similes (comparing 2 different things) and riddles (more literal than jokes) are often easier to understand.

** Strategies that may help

  • Use visual means to support the pupil’s understanding, for example, signing, objects, real-life activities, photos, DVDs, pictures, symbols, diagrams, written words.
  • Say what you mean and mean what you say! Speak plainly, avoiding sarcasm, implied meanings and sayings.
  • Keep directions simple and make time specific e.g. “First lunch then swimming” rather than “We’re going swimming later.”
  • When teaching concepts, work on one concept at a time and avoid comparisons. For example, when teaching the colour ‘red’, refer to objects as either red’ or ‘not red’. Teach the meaning of ‘red’ by exploring lots of different objects that are red or ‘not red’. Do the same for size concepts e.g. ‘big/not big’ or small/not small’. When each concept is secure, then begin to make comparisons e.g. red v blue or big v small.
  • Identify key vocabulary in each curriculum area. Pupils will need to hear a new word numerous times in order to log, store, retrieve and use the word meaningfully. Therefore it may be necessary to prioritise the words you want them to remember e.g. essential and desirable. Concentrate on targeting essential vocabulary in as many different contexts as possible.
  • Vocabulary rehearsal - check out the pupil’s knowledge of key vocabulary before that topic is introduced in lessons. Teach unfamiliar concepts and words ahead of the lesson. Make a topic or subject based vocabulary dictionary. Make a book with product logos, labels, photos, pictures, symbols and/or words with their semantic (meaning) links and phonological (sound) links; this will give the pupil many hooks to hang the word on.

Visual ways to teach vocabulary include

  1. Multi-sensory learning, using all the senses to explore the sight/sound/touch/smell/ taste of a concept, so building up a mental picture of its meaning.
  2. Object or picture schedules, sand-timers, calendars and clocks to make the sequence of events and time visual.
  3. Vocabulary mapping e.g. Topic webs/Spidergrams/Word-maps, (see Appendix 5).
  4. Multiple meaning activities, using objects or pictures (e.g. ‘glasses’: for seeing or for drinking?).
  5. Barrier games (guess the name of an object from its description).
  6. Sorting and categorising activities using objects or pictures e.g. same/different, things that go together, odd one out, Venn diagrams.
  7. Mind-maps, using pictures and colour-coding.
  • Include targets for generalisation of vocabulary as well as for learning the actual words. For example a pupil may need to be taught that the word cup refers to different cups, not just his own particular beaker. Or that an instruction (e.g. put on your coat) means the same in different situations - in the classroom,on the playground, in the taxi, at home, at grandma’s.
  • Word-games.
  • Humour is an important friendship skill. For pupils at this stage of development, use illustrations to teach the meaning of riddles, jokes and sayings. There are several commercial resource books available. Or the pupils may enjoy illustrating the literal and non-literal (true) meanings themselves.
    Be sure to cover ‘in-jokes’ and expressions used by peers.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat! 50 to 200 times for new words.

** This is used throughout the document and refers to puplis with autism

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Last updated: 28 October 2015

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