This month we have been thinking about ‘key words’.
These are sometimes called ‘information carrying words’ or ICWs. The concept was devised by Knowles and Masidlover (1978) and underpins the Derbyshire Language Scheme – an intervention programme often used by speech and language therapists to support children with delayed language.
As speech and language therapists we are often talking about ‘key words’ when it comes to assessing a child’s understanding of language – but what do we actually mean? And why do we work on them?
In simple terms a key word is a word that carries meaning within a sentence, most often in the form of an instruction. Many of the words that we use within a sentence are redundant. This is particularly true of the highly predictable world of a small child. For example, if everyone is going outside for playtime and the teacher holds up a child’s coat and says, “Put your coats on”, the child does not need to understand any of the words because they can see what is needed from the context. So, in this example, there are no key words as the meaning of the sentence is implied by the context and visual clues – all of the information the child needed to understand was available for them in the environment.
Of course instructions are not always given like this. Very often, particularly within a classroom setting, there will be other distractions, noises and more importantly choices or differences between tasks that a child is asked to do. The time of day, activity and context will all impact upon what is required of the child when following instructions given to them.
In order for a word to be ‘key’ it requires an element of choice e.g. with the following objects set up
When giving the instruction ‘put dolly on the chair’ there are 2 key words – dolly and chair
This is because the child would have to understand these words in order to accurately follow the instruction. They have a choice between picking the dolly or the teddy for the first key word and between the chair or the table for the second key word.
So at what point should children be developing these skills? As a general rule children are typically able to understand the following:
2 key words at 2 years
3 key words at 3 years
4 key words at 4 years
It’s important to be aware of the level at which we should pitch our instructions and what to expect of children of different ages and levels. It’s also important to bear in mind the situation in which you’re giving them and the concepts that may be involved e.g. using before, after, behind etc. as these may be things that the child does not yet understand.
So why work on them? Instructions are an ever present and integral part of a child’s life – particularly at school. Working on them allows us to support children in accessing the language of the classroom and to improve their understanding of the language we use – even if they don’t always want to follow them!
Look out for an upcoming blog focusing on instructions and concepts in more detail in the Autumn term!
Speech and Language Therapist