The basis for language comprehension

An important part of the process of growing up is the development of adequate communication skills. This includes the ability to receive information and ideas through listening and reading, and the ability to send or express information or ideas through speaking and writing. The person who succeeds in life is able to send and receive information by using both words and numbers competently.

Many people acquire a great deal of information about words and numbers, but they can’t adequately use this information. They might know all the individual words spoken by an employer but not understand well enough to do what he or she is asking. They might be able to read all the words in a book, but the words seem to go in one ear and out the other. They might know that one number is larger than another, but not understand how much an item will cost if you take off 25%.

When persons have had ample opportunity to acquire information about words and numbers but they do not comprehend them, they and those around them often become quite frustrated. Why does an individual who appears normal in intelligence just not “get it” much of the time? Are they just not paying attention? Are they lazy and/or self-centered? Is it Attention Deficit Disorder? Are they just “air-headed” or immature?

Imagery: The sensory connection to language

What are words and numbers, anyway? They are symbols or “representations” we use to describe what we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. For example, the word “window” has meaning to us because we have seen windows, touched windows, and heard a window open or close. We have come to accept the word “window” as a representation of something we have experienced with our senses. We also can generalize our thinking about a window from the concrete experience we have had with it to using that word more abstractly to describe an idea such as “window of opportunity” or “window dressing.” Abstract terms like “freedom” or “justice” cause us to connect to the sensory information involved when we observed or experienced freedom and justice or even their opposites of restriction and injustice. Somehow, by a perhaps complicated chain of connections, our ability to get meaning from even the most abstract language is tied to concrete sensory experiences. This connection is what makes language useable. It is what we mean when we say we “comprehend.”

This connection between words and our prior sensory experiences generally is described as “visualization” or “mental imagery.” Individuals who comprehend language easily often report that they “see” in the mind’s eye anything described by language. Rather than seeing only part of what is being described by the words they read or hear, they see the whole idea (or “gestalt”) of a sentence or paragraph. All of the details necessary for understanding the concept are easily recalled. They also find it easy to change what they visualize back into either written or oral language that causes others to “see” what they mean.

The role of mental imagery has been noted throughout history. Aristotle, in 300 B.C., wrote that “it is impossible even to think without a mental picture.” Albert Einstein reported that he worked out his ideas in “more or less clear images.” Piaget, a pioneer in the field of cognitive psychology, viewed mental imagery as the starting point of a personal system of symbolism necessary for understanding or “concretizing” the abstract thought involved in verbal and mathematical language.

In the 1930s, John Dewey, an influential American educator, wrote that “the image is the great instrument of instruction. What a child gets out of any subject presented to him is simply the images which he himself forms with regard to it.” Dewey recommended that educators apply their energy toward training and activating the student’s power to form vivid, definite, and dynamic images of the various subject areas studied in school.

Effective treatment to develop language comprehension

The ability to connect language to images in the mind (visual/verbal integration) seems so basic that it is often assumed that everyone does it. However, significant improvement in language comprehension occurs when mental imagery is stimulated, suggesting that forming and using imagery is not automatic for many people. A carefully sequenced program called Visualizing and Verbalizing for Language Comprehension and Thinking®* by Nanci Bell provides a helpful framework for stimulating the ability to “see with the mind’s eye.” (Applied Learning Processes is NOT Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes nor is it affiliated with, certified, endorsed, licensed, monitored or sponsored by Lindamood-Bell, Nanci Bell, Phyllis Lindamood or Pat Lindamood.  Lindamood-Bell – an international organization creating and implementing unique instructional methods and programs for quality intervention to advance language and literacy skills – in no way endorses or monitors the services provided by Applied Learning Processes.)

People who experience difficulty with written and/or oral language processing can learn to use mental images to get to what they already know and apply that information to what they need to understand. As persons gain skill in the process of visualizing and then verbalizing about what they see, they begin to independently match conscious images to the concepts (gestalt) expressed by a group of words.

The skilled questioning of a professional trained in this process can cause the individual to notice where his or her images do not match the words so that needed adjustments in images (and understanding) can be made. When images can be clearly verbalized, higher order tasks such as generalizing, making inferences, or drawing conclusions become possible. The power of imagery enables a person to “see what you mean” and respond by communicating about “the way I see things.”

This means that the student who couldn’t understand without spending hours reading and re-reading can now independently read and organize a study system for an entire chapter. He can take notes from a lecture because he can pick out the central ideas being expressed. The worker who frequently misinterpreted or forgot the instructions she was given is now able to perform reliably and independently in the workplace. People who once thought they would never be able to do college level work or reach a new level of career performance have found a new prognosis for the future.

Indications of weakness in visual/verbal processing

It is often not easy to determine if people are generating images that lead them to “get the big picture” contained in the language they encounter. Diagnostic evaluation which analyzes both written and oral language performance can be helpful in determining the appropriateness of treatment for visual/verbal integration weakness. However, people who are experiencing comprehension difficulty tend to display some common symptoms that are noticeable in everyday tasks:

  • What is read or what is said seems to “go in one ear and out the other.”
  • Needing instructions or information to be repeated several times.
  • Asking the same question over and over.
  • Frequently needing to reread in order to understand.
  • Tendency to recount details at length without seeming to get to the main point.
  • Scattered, disorganized conversation and written communications.
  • Missing fairly obvious cause-effect connections.
  • Missing subtleties—not “reading between the lines.”
  • Overly concrete thinking.
  • Difficulty following directions—frequently getting lost when trying to find a new place.
  • Weak sense of humor.
  • Studying for hours and still doing poorly in school.
  • Appearing to be an underachiever who just needs to try harder.
  • Short attention span or difficulty staying on task.
  • Personal disorganization.
  • Poor social skills.

Cindy Allen

Our only regret is that we didn’t discover Applied Learning Processes sooner. Advancing six grade levels after ten weeks of work has increased our daughter’s self esteem, given us peace of mind, and ‘leveled the playing field’ for her to be successful in the classroom.

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