We live in a sarcastic society. We also live in a society that uses clichés, innuendos, double entendre and other literary license. Even when it’s not in literature, these components have permeated our spoken language. But some kids need direct language, all the time.
If you do not struggle with language processing, you may not even notice that you are not using direct language with your kids. And, if they do not complete the task that you have asked of them, parents and teachers get frustrated.
Direct language is also called explicit language or literal language.
Explicit or Literal Language
If a child does not understand or process inference or dual meanings of phrases, they may take your speaking at direct value. In fact, the Big Bang Theory made an entire decade out of this–Sheldon Cooper taking things literally.
Examples of Indirect Language
Literary writers use indirect language and indirect characterization all the time. It enhances works of literature.
But, if a child is still working on processing this information it can be a hindrance.
Here is a sample scenario.
I walk into my family room, and the TV is really loud. I want my kids to turn it down, and I can choose one of the following phases.
- “Wow, that TV is really loud.”
- “You’re going to ruin your hearing with the TV turned up so much.”
- “I wish you would turn down the TV.”
- “Turn down the TV. Do not put it above number 35 on the remote.”
Out of those 4 phrases, only Option 4 is a direct instruction. And, even then, it was a multistep task, which not all kids can do. In which case, you would eliminate the second step or break it down into 2 separate instructions.
If you’re not aware of these issues, and you told your child any of the options 1-3, and it wasn’t followed through, you may get frustrated. But, in actuality, for literal language thinkers, you haven’t asked them to turn down the TV.
Direct Instruction Examples
There are so many examples of how parents and teachers do this with our kids. Another example is below.
- “Your room is really messy.” This is only a statement of opinion, if the child cannot infer that you want him/her to clean the room.
- “No wonder you can never find anything! This room is a disaster!” Again, you have not asked the child to do anything.
- “Your room stinks! It needs to be cleaned.” See the pattern?
Even using the phrase “clean your room” is vague and most likely involves multiple steps and executive functioning skills the child may not possess.
Speaking with Intent
As parents/teachers, we have to learn to be more intentional with our language. Our society uses idioms, frequently. In addition to giving kids only 1 step instructions if that is what they require, we must remember to remove idioms from our speaking, until the child has the skills to understand.
What is an idiom? An idiom is a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words
Here are some examples.
- Raining cats and dogs
- Get your ducks in a row
- Got up on the wrong side of the bed
- the elephant in the room
- bursting at the seams
- fat chance
- everything but the kitchen sink
- perfect storm
- think outside the box
I am the queen of clichés. I love them! But as adults, we have to be able to recognize when a cliché goes ” right over someone’s head.” (see what I did there?)
Literal Language vs Figurative Language
If a student is struggling in ELA, this can be one of the root issues or causes. Many authors use figurative language. Again using Sheldon Cooper as our example…is it a coincidence that he is drawn to math and science? Not at all!
Math and science tends to use more literal language, and ELA academics will contain more figurative language.
One difference between literal and figurative language is the level of processing it requires. What is the definition of literal language? Literal language is precise, and expresses exactly what the author or speaker means. Literal language does not use confusing words, clichés, metaphors or idioms. It does not require the reader to think beyond what is being said. Literal language expresses the point directly.
Figurative language requires interpretation on the part of the reader. This language tends to be more complex and is not very straightforward. Figurative language often uses symbolism, requiring the reader or listener to process and interpret beyond the words that are written. This type of language uses literary devices instead of relying on the actual meaning of words or phrases.
Many times our kids who are “literal thinkers” or who rely on direct language are perceived as flawed. This stigma needs to disappear.
Language processing disorders are common and are often comorbid with other learning disabilities. It is not a character flaw. It is a skill set that needs to be taught, practiced and developed.
Parents can work on this at home with the child’s receptive language. By focusing on what we are telling our kids and asking them to do, we can increase their success rates.
Another example. Let’s say you’re getting ready to leave for church, and your child is sitting on the couch watching TV. And, they do not have their shoes on.
- “We’re going to be really late for church.”
- “I hope I can find a parking space, we’re getting a late start.”
- “I hate being late for church.”
- “Why aren’t you ready to go yet?!”
In each of those 4 examples, the parent has not asked the child to get ready to leave for church, have they? It can be inferred, but it was not asked in direct language.
Using the Correct Direct Language
Even when we are using literal language, we might not be asking our child the task we want to ask. Let’s say it’s raining outside, so my child needs to either wear a raincoat or take an umbrella to the bus stop.
- “It’s raining cats and dogs!” That’s an idiom, which tells my child nothing if he cannot process it.
- “It is raining really hard outside.” That is direct language. However, it is a statement of fact. I have not asked my child to do anything.
- “It is pouring outside! I’d take my umbrella if I were you.” Statement of fact, followed by your own opinion. You still have not asked the child to do anything.
- “It is raining. Take your umbrella.” Some kids need this direct, explicit language that leaves no room for interpretation.
I hope this helps. I know that in our household, we have seen improvement in my son’s receptive language when we focus on what we are saying to him and what we are asking of him.