Functional Strategies for Improving the Language Abilities of Your Adopted School-Age Child
While most internationally adopted children catch up to their peers in language development somewhat quickly, not all internationally adopted children demonstrate equal progress by the time they reach school age. Below are some suggestions on how parents can facilitate their school age child’s language skills and improve their language abilities via fun interactive games that the whole family can enjoy and benefit from. There are several language functions important for academic success. Typically this hierarchy develops from the most basic to the most complex, with the earliest stages beginning long before the child reaches school age. These functions include the ability to: seek information, inform, compare, order, classify, analyze, infer, justify/persuade, solve problems, synthesize, and evaluate. For some children those abilities come naturally while for others - a creative push in the right direction might just do the trick. Luckily, there are plenty of children’s games on the market that address the above skills in a fun and functional way, oftentimes without the child even realizing that they are doing work.
One of the earliest and important areas of language development is vocabulary knowledge. Good vocabulary skills are essential for communication of thoughts and ideas, interaction with peers, as well as meeting the demands of the classroom. As academic demands increase the importance of good vocabulary comes prominently into play. Vocabulary hierarchy ranges from a simple ability of labeling (providing a name for people, actions and objects) to the advanced descriptions (using attributes, functions, and learned concepts to depict an object/item in a cohesive manner). As children’s vocabulary increases from basic labeling to using sophisticated descriptions it goes through several other important stages outlined below:
Concept Knowledge – the ability to comprehend and identify qualitative (e.g., same–different, big– little, hot-cold), quantitative (e.g., few-many, more-less), temporal (e.g., before-after, next, first, last), or spatial (e.g., in-on, under-over) concepts
Associations – knowledge of how words are semantically related/linked (e.g., knowing why a spoon and a knife go together)
Categorization/Classification – the ability to identify items within a category (divergent naming) and provide labels for groups/classes of objects (convergent naming)
The following are just a few selected examples of available games (a more complete list will be provided at the end of this article) that should help facilitate the development of vocabulary language skills:
A to Z Jr- a game of early categorizations is recommended for players 5 - 10 years of age, but can be used with older children depending on their knowledge base. The object of the game is to cover all letters on your letter board by calling out words in specific categories before the timer runs out. This game can be used to increase word finding abilities in children with weak language skills as the categories range from simple (e.g., colors) to more complicated (e.,. animals with stripes). This game is great for several players of different age groups (e.g., older siblings), since children with weaker knowledge and language skills can answer simpler questions and learn the answers to the harder questions as other players get their turn.
Tribond Jr – is another great game which purpose is to determine how 3 seemingly random items are related to one another. Good for older children 7-12 years of age it’s also great for problem solving and reasoning as some of the answers are not so straight forward (e.g., what do the clock, orange and circle have in common? Psst…they are all round)
Password Jr-is a great game to develop the skills of description. In the game you guess passwords based on the one word clues. This game is designed to play with children ages 7 years and older as long as the parents help the non readers with the cards. It’s great for encouraging children to become both better at describing and at listening. Parents are encouraged to allow their kids to select the word they want to describe in order to boost their confidence in own abilities. Parents are also encouraged to provide visual cheat sheets (listing ways we can describe something such as: what does it do, where does it go, how can we use it etc) to the child as they will be much more likely to provide more complete descriptions of the target words given visual cues.
Blurt – a game for children 10 and up is a game that works on a simple premise. Blurt out as many answers as you can in order to guess what the word is. Blurt provides ready-made definitions that you read off to players so they could start guessing what the word is. Players and teams use squares on the board strategically to advance by competing in various definition challenges that increase language opportunities.
However, vocabulary knowledge alone does not determine academic success. There are other equally valuable language skills which are important as well. One of them is asking and answering questions. Being able to ask and answer questions is an integral part of academic success. Asking questions is one of the main ways that children obtain knowledge about the world beyond their immediate experience. Children who are unable to ask questions are at a disadvantage when it comes to following directions or understanding difficult concepts since they are unable to request repetition and clarification from speakers. Moreover, the inability to answer questions effectively is an indication that the child will not be understood well by others.
Being able to answer concrete and abstract questions is another necessary requirement for success in school. Games such as Guess Who (age 6+), Guess Where (age 6+), and Mystery Garden (age 4+) are great for encouraging students to ask relevant questions in order to be the first to win the game. They are also terrific for encouraging reasoning skills. Questions have to be thought through carefully in order to be the first one to win the game. Another important ability in the language learning hierarchy is story telling. Being able to tell good stories is a difficult task for many children, even those without language impairment. Consequently, one way of learning to become a good story teller is through the usage of visual cues such as picture cards, or games.
When children are very young speech therapists often work on improving their story telling abilities using props such as a variety of toys or puppets. As they get older they transition to picture cards or wordless story books with the final step being spontaneously produced stories with no visual support. One of such games is Fib or Not (ages 10+). The game encourages the players to fool other players by either telling an outlandish true story or a truly believable made up story. For the players who are listening to the story, the objective is to correctly guess if the story teller is fibbing or being truthful. Players advance by fooling the other players or by guessing correctly.
As children grow older, they are required to do more and more tasks that focus on their verbal reasoning and problem solving abilities. If your child’s problem solving skills are on the weaker side consider using events from storybooks that illustrate problems. Talk aloud about the problem and offer a list of choices if your child is having difficulties figuring out the answers. Have your child talk through the process of how they arrived to their conclusions and offer suggestions and guidance along the way. The two popular games that work on improving verbal reasoning and problem solving abilities are: 30 Second Mysteries (ages 8-12) and 20 Questions for Kids (ages 7+). In 30 Second Mysteries kids need to use critical thinking and deductive reasoning in order to solve mysteriously sounding cases of everyday events. Each clue read aloud reveals more about the mystery and the trick is to solve it given the fewest number of clues in order to gain the most points. In 20 Questions for Kids, a classic guessing game of people, places, and things, children need to generate original questions in order to obtain information. Here again, each clue read aloud reveals more about the secret identity and the trick is to solve it given the fewest number of clues.
A good way of implementing the above games in action is during family fun night. Select a game that focuses on one or more elements that you feel your child needs to work on and then involve your entire family in a game playing activity so the child does not feel that they are being isolated for “work”. For children who are younger or with weaker vocabularies, modify the rules to help to simplify the demands of the game, or play in a team so that the child doesn’t feel overwhelmed. Feel free to provide your own cues and prompts in order to achieve maximum success with all gaming activities.
Now that we have gone over the game description and selection process in some detail, please keep in mind that you can always learn more about children’s games by simply going to a popular internet websites such as Amazon and reading product descriptions in order to figure out whether specific game is right fit for your child. As always, parents are advised to consult with related professionals (speech and language therapists, psychologists, etc) if they have any serious concerns regarding their child’s communication skills. Early detection and treatment are critical to the process of successful speech and language development not just in early childhood but also during school age, adolescence, and even early adulthood. Best of luck and have fun playing!
List of Selected Games:
20 Questions for Kids
30 Second Mysteries
A to Z Jr.
Fib or Not
Tatyana Elleseff MA CCC-SLP is a bilingual speech language pathologist with a private practice in Somerset, NJ and multiple hospital and agency affiliations in Central New Jersey. She is a New York University graduate with Bilingual Certification from Columbia University. Additionally she holds dual licensure from the states of New York and New Jersey as well as a Certificate of Clinical Competence from ASHA (American Speech Language and Hearing Association). She specializes in providing a variety of comprehensive speech and language services to bilingual pediatric clients including internationally adopted children from various countries around the world. For more information about her services or to schedule a consultation call 917-916-7487 or visit her website: www.smartspeechtherapy.com