Understanding Language


Understanding language and strategies to develop and support a child’s understanding to enable them to access their learning environment.

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(Also known as Receptive language or Comprehension of language)
Understanding language means being able to extract the meaning of the word or words heard and interpret them within the context of their environment, including understanding visual and nonverbal cues also, e.g. Mum says ‘Put on your shoes’ while she has her coat on and the car keys in her hand or in class, when the teacher says, ‘Get your lunch and line up’ while pointing to where the lunches are.

Therefore, understanding language is a complicated process where the child must:

  • listen and attend to the words
  • remember the words
  • understand the individual words
  • take the meaning of the phrase or sentence and grammar, e.g., verb tense, plurals, pronouns,
  • infer the implied meaning of the words, that is understand what is meant rather than the actual meaning of the words, e.g. ‘I have butterflies in my tummy’ or ‘pull your socks up’
  • understand and interpret nonverbal aspects of communication such as tone or voice, gestures, facial expressions, posture, etc.
  • learn to read and understand written language

In the learning environment, children are expected to follow instructions given by the Teacher and understand the routine of the environment. This can be difficult for many children and especially for children with Autism with associated language difficulties.

Understanding language is the access route to learning, therefore such difficulties will impact on a child’s ability to understand the language of the setting, follow instructions, both single instructions and sequences, communicate and interact with peers and teachers, behave appropriately, engage and complete tasks, ask and answer questions and learn new vocabulary.

The activities and strategies listed below are for use with children who:

  • Cannot focus their attention
  • Do not appear to be listening to the teacher 
  • Cannot follow instructions
  • Difficulty following rules and routines
  • Need lots of repetition
  • Need instruction broken into small steps
  • Need to be shown as well as told
  • Copy or imitate what is said or asked
  • Look ‘blank’ when asked a question
  • Cannot answer questions appropriately
  • Cannot follow a sequence or understand a story
  • Cannot retell a story
  • Cannot understand the main idea in a piece of text
  • Do not understand implied or inferred meaning simple, fun jokes and games
  • Cannot communicate and interact with peers appropriately
  • Cannot follow the rules of a game
  • Have difficulty in the playground

Prior to working on activities and strategies to enable a child to understand language work through the following:


  1. Observe the child and see what they are doing in the learning environment.
  2. Complete the Teacher checklist for the child.
  3. Have the child’s attention and focus before you start.
  4. Positioning: Always position yourself so you are face to face with the child and get down to their level, especially for younger children.  Children with attention difficulties may not be aware the teacher is speaking, especially if they cannot see their face. 
  5. Use verbal and or physical prompts: e.g., the child’s name, touch child’s arm or shoulder to gain their attention.

Allow the child to lead you to the activities that they enjoy, and this will enable you to determine what motivates the child: While observing the child in the learning environment, take note of the activities the child plays with when given free access to many items.  The things the child selects most frequently or spends the longest amount of time with are most likely to be the most motivating and reinforcing. Use these motivating and highly preferred tasks or activities to get the child’s attention and motivate them to complete the learning task.

Strategies and Approaches to developing Understanding language

  • Use the child’s motivators to support their understanding, e.g., when trying to explain a concept such as big, use toys and activities the child likes, e.g. trains, bubbles.
  • Use visuals based on the child’s language level to support the key concepts in the language, e.g., simple gestures, objects, pictures.
  • Give the child time to process the instruction. Wait for the child’s response, count to ten in your head! Children with language difficulties take time to process and understand the information given and take time to formulate a response. 
  • Break down instructions into manageable chunks for the child,
    • one step instruction, e.g., get your lunch box
    • two step instructions, get your lunch box and line up
  • Ask the child to repeat the instruction to check for understanding.
  • Use first—then visual supports to help the child to understand and carry out the instruction.
  • Encourage the child to ask for help with they do not understand.
  • Use playtime to build language skills, e.g., having a picnic with teddy and dolly.
  • Use familiar routines to teach new vocabulary and language, e.g., use lining up to reinforce concepts such as first, last, in front, behind.

Fun Comprehension Activities

0 – 3 YEARS

  • Name and point to everything for your child so that he becomes familiar with object names etc.
  • Ask where is Dad? Where are your shoes?  if your child is not looking towards the person or object names, then point specifically to the object or person and name.
  • When playing with farm animals ask where’s the cow, or sheep. etc.
  • Always combine simple gestures with your words to help your child to understand
  • Use a pretend post-box, containing d common objects to encourage your child to name and comprehend
  • Develop a simple scrapbook together and simple books
  • Sing nursery rhymes and action songs together
  • Look at simple, fun books together

3 – 5 Years

  • Encourage your child to help in the house e.g., put the cup on the table or put your shoes under the bed. As your child succeeds increase the complexity of the instruction
  • Hide n Seek games
  • Simple version of ‘Simon says’.
  • Simple version of ‘Follow the leader’
  • Again, developing a scrapbook and reading books together is so important

5 – 7 Years

  • Encourage your child to carry out more complex instructions e.g., put the cup on the table, put your coat behind the chair and put your shoes in the bag.
  • Play games such as Simon-says or Follow the leader
  • Place six objects on a tray and ask your child to find the cup, the spoon, and the ball. Continue to increase the complexity of the instruction when your child is achieving success.
  • Read books together — ask questions regularly to ensure that your child understands the text.

More Specific approaches to developing understanding

Concepts are words which describe something, e.g., size, shape, colour, texture, they also describe the place or location of objects, e.g., on, under, between, and they can refer to time, e.g., first, last, yesterday.  Concepts can be difficult for children with language difficulties as they are abstract ideas and need to be understood in context.  For example, the concept of ‘big’ varies depending on the context, e.g., a boy is big compared to a baby but small compared to a man.

Begin teaching easier concepts such as big before the concepts of ‘bigger or biggest’

Teach one concept at a time, e.g., ‘big’ as teaching concepts as opposites, e.g., ‘big and small’ is more difficult for children with language difficulties. Instead compare the objects as ‘big and not big’.

Use real situations where the child can experience the concept, e.g., ‘the child is big, the doll is not big’.

Use real objects to build the child’s understanding of the concept before moving to pictures.

Information carrying words/key words
To understand the meaning of a phrase or sentence, a child needs to understand the word/s which carry the meaning, e.g. If a teacher says, ‘put on your shoes’, while standing by the door waiting to leave, the child must understand the word ‘shoes’ within the routine of leaving the classroom. 

The greater number of information carrying words, the more difficult the phrase or sentence is to understand.  

Knowing how many information carrying words the child understands in an instruction enables the teacher to use language at the child’s level of understanding

Below are examples of key words:

Key words/information carrying words


Materials needed

No key words

Put on your coat

All the children are putting on their coats to go outside, child is following visual clues and understanding routine and context

1 key word

Give me the cup,

cup, plate, and spoon

2 key words

Give me the blue crayon

3 coloured crayons and markers

3 key words

Put the blue brick under the table  

3 coloured bricks and a table, box, and chair

4 key words

Give the spoon to dolly and the plate to monkey 

Dolly, teddy, monkey

spoons, plates, and cups



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