Proficient retrieval of stored information in our brains is key to effective, efficient language. Deficits in an individual’s ability to access semantic features of a word/item or a lack of rich semantic connections can present as word finding difficulties, a limited lexicon, or general language impairment. There’s a great overview of information about lexical storage and retrieval as well as additional resources (articles about research in this realm) in Marilyn Nippold’s book: Later Language Development: School-Age Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults Third Edition. The concept “dog” might elicit neural connections to a huge variety of cortical association areas for a given person: phonological processing centers of the brain (D-O-G), visual centers of the brain (what does a dog look like), auditory centers (woof), somatosensory centers (what does a dog feel like?), olfactory centers (how does a dog smell?), semantic categorical centers of the brain (what does a dog remind you of?) etc. Together, these connections constitute the semantic network for “dog.”
If you notice or suspect these semantic networking/lexical retrieval deficits in your client, here’s a great criterion-referenced task you can use that goes beyond the basic convergent vs. divergent subtests often found in norm-referenced standardized assessments (a group of my cohort-mates came up with this for a recent class presentation)!
What you will need:
- Laminated picture cards
- Data-taking sheet to easily allow you to keep track of what kind of data you’re after
Ready, set, GO:
- STEP 1: Present the client with 8 picture cards and say, “Sort these cards into 2 categories.” For example, you might present 5 cards that are all animals and 3 cards that are all types of vehicles. Depending on the developmental level of your client, you can make the categories more or less obvious. The goal is for the client to sort the various cards into these general, big categories.
- STEP 2: Ask the client, “Tell me which 2 categories you chose.” Here, you are looking for the client to tell you the 2 general/big categories they chose for the cards.
- STEP 3: Ask the client to explain how each card fits into the category. Your goal is to gather information about how they are linking concepts together: what are the semantic connections they’re using to understand and group language? Depending on how formal you want to make this activity, you can interject your own thoughts about the shared (or unique) semantic features of each card.
- STEP 4: Now introduce a new card that should easily fit into 1 of the 2 general/big categories (i.e. bring out a picture of a truck and ask which category it fits into). Do this a couple of times.
- STEP 5: This time, introduce a card that has some kind of semantic connection to one of the 2 general/big categories, but breaks the overt rule of the category (it’s NOT an animal or a vehicle). For example, assuming that all of the animals were farm animals, you could introduce a picture of a barn. This step will give you critical information about the client’s cognitive flexibility and the extent of their semantic networks!
- Run through this a few times, each time with different sets of cards that need to be grouped into categories. You can always increase task complexity by requiring more categories or making the pictured items less overtly connected. Another variation of the task is to simply hand the client a number of cards and tell them to sort them “any way they want.” Rather than prompt the number of categories you are looking for, this task method will allow you to gather in-depth information about how the client chunks and groups lexical items.
Things to look for:
- Does the client use overly simplistic sorting strategies, or can he/she employ more abstract techniques to sort the cards? For example, if all the cards you initially give the client are animals, do they have the rich semantic networks in place to allow them to recognize carnivores vs herbivores (assuming this is an appropriate academic skill)?
- Can the client easily demonstrate semantic flexibility? If you have been accepting sorting-responses based on animals versus vehicles, can the client switch gears and recognize that the animals could also fit into the “farm” category once the barn picture is introduced.
Hopefully you are able to integrate this criterion-referenced activity into your session the next time you are working with a client whose semantic networking abilities and lexical retrieval skills are in question!