In our previous article, we read the story of Barry, a boy who overcame spoken language difficulties as a young child and then encountered challenges again when trying to acquire written language skills. Written expression is intertwined with spoken language and involves multiple layers of skills. Previously, we explored the areas of encoding (spelling) and syntax (sentence structure). We now turn to the areas of semantics, discourse, and pragmatics.
The term semantics is used to indicate the meaning of words. The semantics system deals with vocabulary and word choice. When a student is putting together a sentence or composing an essay, she relies on her understanding of semantics to choose which words to use. Word choice plays a huge role in determining the quality of written expression. To illustrate, consider the following two sentences:
• Although the play was bad, Adrianne stayed in her seat and watched like a good watcher.
• Although the performance was dreadful, Adrianne remained in her scratchy auditorium chair and watched like a dutiful audience member.
These sentences utilize similar syntax (sentence type and word order), but the second version paints a much more complete, colorful picture than the first due to its richer word choice. Student who are lacking in their spoken vocabulary will likely also struggle to enrich their written language with interesting word choice. As with other areas of writing, a sentence with basic semantics might be acceptable in the younger grades, but by late elementary school, students are expected to use expanded vocabulary in their writing. Additionally, as students grow, they begin to use semantics to express not only literal ideas but also to compose inferential language.
HOW TO HELP: Vocabulary-building activities are important for students struggling with semantics in their writing. Students can take a sentence and be challenged to find synonyms for several words in the sentence that will enhance the quality of the writing. One approach for students who overuse the same words is to create a “taboo” list of terms they are not allowed to use more than once in their writing, along with a helpful list of replacement words to use instead. (Common culprits are “like,” “good,” and “said.”)
Discourse and Pragmatics
Discourse refers to the type or medium of written expression, and pragmatics refers to the social context of language. Writing takes on a different tone depending on the discourse. For example, a narrative (story) will take one form, but expository writing (factual) will sound very different. To be successful in writing, students must understand what type of discourse they are expected to use and must be able to tailor their writing accordingly. Students who struggle with this may tend to write in the same way that they speak, while academic writing is generally supposed to take on a more formal tone. Even certain phrases that a student might use in one type of writing may not be appropriate for other types of discourse. For example, a student can write the phrase “stuff like that” in an informal email, but such a phrase would be unfit for a formal essay. This ties into pragmatics as well, because a writer must be aware of his audience and the social implications of his written language. For instance, a student should be aware of the negative message he is communicating when he uses informal abbreviations in writing that is intended for a teacher to read.
HOW TO HELP: Give students examples of narrative and expository texts, or formal and informal passages, and have them identify the type of discourse and the intended audience. As a practice activity, have students take a piece written as a narrative and turn it into an expository text, or vice versa. For instance, students might read a historical account of an event (expository), and might then be asked to write a theoretical diary entry by a person who experienced that event (narrative).
Written expression is a complex process that interweaves many layers of language. By examining each area, we can determine where a student might be struggling with writing and address it most effectively.
Anna Fredman, M.S., CCC-SLP
Certified Speech Language Pathologist
Anna Fredman is a licensed, certified Speech Language Pathologist. She received her Master of Science in speech language pathology from the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA and previously worked at the Monarch Center for Autism. She currently sees school-aged children and has also worked with toddlers through students 21 years old. Anna has specialized in therapy for individuals on the autism spectrum, with a special interest in high-functioning students focusing on social pragmatics and young children learning basic communication and social skills. She also addresses reading, expressive language skills, written expression, and articulation with her students.