Processing the Multiple Levels of Language: Impact of Syntax, Semantics, Discourse, and Metacognition on Understanding

Language is at the core of most learning throughout the school years. The ability to process language is impacted by a student's receptive language functions.

Receptive language involves multiple levels, including word meanings (semantics), sentence word order (syntax), paragraph and passage organization (discourse), and language monitoring and reflection (metalinguistics). Students can exhibit breakdowns at one or more of these language levels.

For example, the literate language used in the classroom and text materials is typically much more complex than that used in daily social contexts or leisure reading. Students may have strong language abilities when they are having everyday conversations, but struggle when they need to understand more academic language.

Here are some strategies to help students process the multiple levels of language.

Helpful Hints

  • Enhance students' ability to process language by adjusting the rate at which material is presented, as well as the complexity and volume (or amount) of material. For example,
    • Slow speed of oral delivery, include pauses, and accentuate important points by using intonation and gestures.
    • Preview, repeat, and summarize important points at the end. Give advance warning when an important piece of information is about to be presented.
    • Provide visual representation of information that is delivered verbally. For example, draw diagrams, show time lines and flow charts on the board, or give them out as handouts to be referred to during class, provide picture representations of instructions, and provide written handouts of information presented orally.
    • Break down big chunks of information into more manageable pieces. For example, give multi-step directions one step at a time; split reading passages into sections.  
  • Use tape recorders to record lessons presented orally and class discussions. Create a cassette library of taped lessons and discussions for students to check out.  
  • Make it easier for students to respond appropriately to teacher feedback by guiding them in making corrections. For example, do two problems together, write the first sentence together, etc.  
  • Alternate highly verbal activities with nonverbal activities throughout the day.
  • Help students develop their semantic awareness (familiarity with the meanings of words and how words relate to each other). Incorporate synonym, antonym, and homonym activities into daily lessons, use word games such as crossword puzzles and Scrabble to build word familiarity, and play listening games where students identify mismatched meanings.  
  • Develop students' understanding of grammar and how word order affects meaning through the use of specific syntax related activities. Have students identify word patterns in science experiments and math problems that denote instructions or operations, compare the meaning of sentences that involve changes in word order, practice detecting errors or mixed up word orders in sentences that are presented orally.  
  • Promote students' ability to interpret language at the level of discourse (beyond the boundaries of sentences to paragraphs and passages). Teach students how to translate lessons and reading passages into outlines, concept maps, and/or diagrams.  
  • Encourage students to use specific strategies to organize, understand and remember what they hear and read. Give students direct instruction in using specific strategies with plenty of practice applying a strategy to different tasks. Students may need structured guidance for using strategies such as a checklist and may need reminders to use strategies when on their own, such as when at home.