Language Development and Critical Thinking Skills Go Hand in Hand

     In my line of work as a public school SLP, it is my job to identify and serve children who have speech and language needs. I serve so many children who are missing the ability to think critically and problem solve. Determining what skills are missing and how to fill in those gaps is my job-and do I ever love it!!

     Think about language development as the foundation of a house being built.  Each step is important and if it is not done correctly, the student's ability to problem solve will not be solid and strong. Language development is the house's foundation and critical thinking is the rest of the house!  In Child Development 101 classes, we learned how children develop language skills in a step-by-step approach, building on one another until the child begins to problem solve higher level problems.  
Pam Schiller wrote an amazing article entitled, Early Brain Development Research and Update, 2010 in which she makes the statement, "Experience wires the brain. Repetition strengthens the wiring."  We know this is true from hands on experience.  Another truth we as educators know is that generalization needs to happen across environments for new skills to "stick".  So, the moral of the story--teach it and teach it again!  If a child is struggling in these areas we need to:

  • Determine the student's prior knowledge of the topic.
  • Teach missing information using pictures first-if possible.
  • Details, details, details--I'm talking about; attributes, categories, functions, sensory information, etc.
  • Can they make predictions?
  • Ask "WH" questions-the too big areas here are, can they answer 'Why' and 'How' questions. Why does this happen? How did she feel? How do you know?
  • Find out if they understand opinions about given topics.
  • Can they compare and contrast using the concepts of same and different?
  • Can this student ask a peer relevant questions on this topic? (This shows application.)
  • Finally, the big one--Problem Solving.  Can this student identify, analyze, and solve a problem?
  • Critical Thinking Strategies This is a sample of one way I teach critical thinking.
      In the classroom, teachers are so intuitive, they usually recognize immediately which students are struggling and they are great at analyzing the "why" behind the struggle.  I hear comments like, "Mary can't answer 'Why' questions"  and "Johnny doesn't understand the math vocabulary to complete word problems." These are both examples that something may be missing in their language development skills that directly affect being able to think critically.   Usually, when teachers ask me about these students who may be at risk, I may pull the students and show them pictures and ask them questions to assess his or her current level.  If they are older, I may get them to listen to a reading passage or read a passage to me and then ask higher order (Bloom's level) questions to see where he or she may be struggling.  These strategies are very eye-opening at times for myself and the teachers.  It will often show teachers that they need to break down this skill to help this child.  Sometimes, providing intervention and scaffolding is as easy as providing materials to teachers to help them teach the entire classroom about finding the main idea, how to infer, or looking for details in a step-by-step way.  After I teach any skill I take tons of data on each child to monitor progress.  Data is essential because as I learned throughout undergrad and grad school, "If you didn't write it down (collect data), it never happened."  Comparing Mary and Johnny's data to themselves and not to each other makes more sense and more progress in the end!  I suggest you collect simple data maybe once a week when you teach (small group times are perfect) and you only need to collect 5-10 samples to get an easy percent to get that window of how your teaching is reaching them. 
     The student who continues to struggle may qualify for speech and language therapy.   If this occurs,  I come in and follow the law to begin paperwork to see this child in speech therapy.  Standardized testing is used to see any discrepancy as to where this child falls in comparison to his or her peers.  Informal assessments are also used to get a global picture of exactly what this child needs for assistance.  We work on vocabulary, basic concepts, semantics (word meaning), grammar, and even social skills.    If only part of the day focused on developing language skills, critical thinking skills would grow too and help to build those foundations strong!  :)

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