Pragmatic Language and the School-Age Child.

Pragmatic language:I remember an informal interview I once conducted with a 5 year old boy.

I asked this boy, 'what should you do when you feel sick?'

The most common response is usually 'tell Mummy' or 'get a doctor,' 'go to the hospital,' etc. This child's response was, 'get a bucket and a towel.'

A very practical child indeed!

The above example is a child's perfectly reasonable response to my question. He was using social language in a way that, though perhaps not expected, was an appropriate interpretation of my question about what to do when sick.

The boy's response is a good example of social language. Pragmatics involves the rules used for social language. That is, the essential language skills and social knowledge that enable us to understand a conversation partner's intended meaning, and to respond in an appropriate manner.

Language is mostly a social instrument and consists of a set of symbols and rules. Those symbols and rules are organised and arrayed by pragmatic language.

Some of the organising principles of pragmatic language include the rule of turn taking, knowing how to open a conversation, and how to end it.

Also, being able to establish and maintain a topic that is of interest to a conversational partner (the person you talk to) is an important skill.

Written below is an example of an interaction I recently had with a 10-year-old student with Asperger's syndrome, who has poor pragmatic language skills.

Clinician: (referring to a story book) 'Look at this girl here. Why do you think she's annoyed and what tells us she's annoyed?'

Student: 'She's angry like princess Leia when she got stuck in the Death Star. Luke rescued her and then they got away.'

Clinician: 'Oh Star Wars, yes? We can maybe talk about Star Wars later but for now let's concentrate on this book, and this girl. Look carefully at her face.'

Student looks closely at the picture, frowns, but says nothing.

Clinician: (prompts) 'Is the look on the girl's face an unhappy expres..?'

Student: (Interrupting) 'I don't want to talk about this book.' 'Did you know that Han Solo is my favourite?'

As we can see from the above example the student had difficulty responding to my requests and topic of conversation.

The student couldn't stay on task and had poor understanding of conversational rules such as turn taking.

He was interested only in talking about his favorite subject: Star Wars.

A child with pragmatic impairment has a poor grasp of social skills, so has problems understanding other people's communication needs. In other words, they have little interest in other peoples' topics of discussion, and are focused on their own interests and will talk about them at length.

To other children or adults, a child with pragmatic impairment may come across as being selfish and self-centred. But they're not. They simply have difficulty understanding social rules and conventions and so unintentionally 'step on peoples toes.'

An advanced pragmatic language area that we can expect older school-age children with typically developing language to be aware of, if perhaps not yet quite mastered is figurative language.

Figurative language is a form of pragmatic language that is used in an imaginative way, and that is not literal. Figurative language includes areas such as
idioms, similes, metaphor, and proverbs.


Owens, R.E. (1996) Language Development: An Introduction, Allyn & Bacon

Paul, R. (2006) Language Disoders form Infancy through Adolescence. Assessment and Intervention. Mosby

Content Last Modified 8/11

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