Contextualized language and decontextualized language

Contextualized language and decontextualized language. What influence do the two language forms have on a child with language difficulty's learning, and why is it important to know the difference?

The conversations children are expected to take part in - classroom discourse - are much different from the conversations they may have at home.

Conversations at home are generally with familiar people in cosy surroundings in an environment they know well.

In essence, the language is contextualized. That is, a child learns language skills in a familiar place, doing well known activities. An example would be a young child helping mum do the dishes. The child learns about plates, cups, saucers and other kitchen items by being immersed in and talking with his/her parent about their environment.

The child uses the context of the kitchen to more freely commit any new words - about kitchen items - to memory.

In the school classroom, language is far more decontextualized. At home, conversation may focus on items or objects in the home, such as your bed, the blankets you sleep on, or the remote for the television.

In school, the conversational focus is considerably different. The focus of conversation is mostly directed by the class teacher and will often be about subjects that the student may have had no experience with.

At home, the mother might ask the child where his socks are. In school, the child may be asked where theParthenon is.

Children need to learn new language very quickly in the classroom. They're expected to keep up with the demands of the curriculum, and the demands accelerate as the child moves through the year levels.

Some teachers supply a wealth of contextual language support to their students when teaching new strategies or new words, but others don't. (Wallach, 2007)

School children often have to learn new concepts in the absence of contextual supports. For example, students may have to learn the names of capital cities around the world.

They may, at times, be expected to do this difficult task without the aid of maps of foreign countries, pictures of the cities, or any other media. The students have to rely totally on the verbal or written information presented by the class teacher.

Clinician's and teachers that have an understanding of the difficulties of decontextualized language can supply the necessary contextual language support and structure that students with language difficulty need.

As we have discussed, children with language disorder have considerable trouble transitioning from the comfortable contextualized language used at home, to the demands of decontextualized language, that dominates the school classroom.

The demands increase as the student moves through the grades to upper (middle school) primary. After a time, the contextual supports used in most classrooms tend to dwindle.

You can learn new ways of overcoming the problems of decontextualized language on the page about shared strategic reading.


DeKemel, K. P. (2003) Intervention in Language Arts: A Practical Guide for Speech-Language Pathologists. Butterworth - Heinemann.

Paul, R. (2001) Language Disoders form Infancy through Adolescence. Assessment and Intervention. Mosby

Wallach, G.P. (2008) Language Intervention for School-Age Students: Setting Goals for Academic Success. Mosby Elsevier

Content updated 8/11

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