Information Carrying Words

The month of September has been a hectic month for me!  It's my first time beginning a school year as a Speech and Language Therapist working in schools and I've been doing nothing but reviewing and assessing and writing reports.
For some children, assessment has meant administering formal standardised assessments like the CELF-4, however with the younger children, with children who are more delayed, or  in addition to the formal assessment, I've done a lot of informal assessment as well.  As part of my informal assessment, I would determine how many 'Information Carrying Words' a child is understanding in a sentence. 

Since beginning work in the UK, I've heard a lot of Speech and Language terms that I had never heard of.  One of them is the concept of 'Information Carrying Words.'  Thanks to the help of Google, my colleagues, and especially Liz from Elklan, I have learned all about the concept and find it really useful.  

The term was originally used by Knowles and Masidlover (1978) and is the basis for the Derbyshire Language Scheme which is an intervention programme for children with delayed language. 

An Information Carrying Word (ICW) is a word that carries meaning.  The number of ICWs in a sentence is not what you might think at first.  It's not merely the number of words in the sentence, but instead is completely dependent upon the context or situation that the instruction is spoken.  

From the time that children are babies we give clues as we speak to help them to understand us.  This may involve us pointing to the object that we are speaking about, looking at the object, using gesture to emphasize what we are saying, and using routine language for routine situations.  It's great that we do this because it is what helps children to learn new vocabulary.  However, as a Speech and Language Therapist, if I am trying to determine whether a child understands certain vocabulary or concepts, I need to be really careful not to give them these clues so has to make sure that they are understanding the words that I am saying, not my body language or gestures. 

Below are examples of Instructions containing different numbers of ICWs. 

0 ICW:  The instruction ‘Give me a pencil’ while holding out your hand and sitting at a table with only a pencil on it has no key words. The student can figure out what is expected of him from the non-verbal clues that you are giving him/her – i.e. your intonation pattern, hand gesture and the fact that the pencil is the only object on the table. 

So in order for a word in a sentence to be considered an ICW, there must be an alternative choice for the child to select.  
1 ICW: By adding choices to the instruction such as a variety of school supplies on the table, the instruction ‘Give me the pencil’ now has 1 key word. The child needs to understand the word ‘pencil’ in order to correctly follow the instruction.  Key words in this stage tend to consist of nouns or verbs. Be careful not to give any clues such as gestures or eye gaze!
2 ICWs: In the same situation you, you could give an instruction with 2 key words.  ‘Give me the big pencil’ has 2 key words in it if there are big and small pencils and other big and small objects on the table.  The child now has to understand the word ‘big’ and the word ‘pencil’ in order to correctly follow the instruction.

3 ICWs: Now there must be a choice available on three parts of the sentence.  The underlined words in the following example mean that there is a choice available (e.g. a dolly and a teddy are on the table):  ‘Put the dolly under the table. 

4 ICWs : Examples include:  ‘Put the red car in front of the box.’; ‘Hop to the door and pickup the dolly.’;  ‘Give me the big banana and eat the apple.  All underlined words represent choices. 

Why does it matter?

The number of ICWs that a child can understand is a good indicator of where they are in their language development.  As language develops, children are able to understand more information in an instruction or sentence.  

When assessing what level a child is at, start at the level of 1 ICW and work your way up.  If the child is following all the instructions consistently and correctly then they need to move to a higher level.  If the child is making many mistakes, the instruction is too difficult and you may need to move to a lower level.  A good working level is where the child is getting most instructions right, but some wrong.  For example, the child may follow 3 out of 5 instructions correctly.  

You may notice that the child is able to follow instructions with colour concepts in them such as 'Give me the big red car' (3 ICWs) but not instructions with spatial concepts:  'Put the car on the table.'  This will let you know that you need to work on spatial concepts with the child. 

I have found that teachers and teaching assistants find the concept of Information Carrying Words really helpful and eye opening!  When a child doesn't follow instructions in class, they can often be labelled as 'disobedient' or 'un-attentive.'  Letting the teacher know that actually, the child is not yet capable of following complex instructions, really helps them to understand why certain behaviours may be occurring in class.  They can then think about the language that they are using and tailor their instructions to be more simple and at the level of their student.  

Click here for a printable handout

While writing reports this last month, I created the handout above.  When ICW levels have been informally assessed, I attach the handout to the back of the report so that the teacher or parent reading the report can really understand what I am talking about.  

If you like this hand-out or found this post interesting, please comment in the comments section at the bottom of this page!

I recently found some really useful YouTube videos made by 'The Great Western Hospital.' These videos explain how to help children understand instructions with one, two, and three ICWs.  They have really great demonstrations and activity ideas!  Watch the videos below: 

Helping your child understand language: One Information Carrying Word

Helping your child understand language: Two Information Carrying Words

Helping your child understand language: Three Information Carrying Words

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