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Semantic Language

Semantic Language


Semantic language skills refer to an understanding and appropriate use of meaning in single words, phrases, sentences and even longer units. Semantic language skills include the ability to: understand and state labels, recognize and name categorical labels, understand and use descriptive words (including adjectives and smaller parts of whole items), comprehend and state functions, and recognize words by their definition and define words.


Also included within semantic language skills is knowledge of vocabulary concepts such as synonyms and antonyms. Semantic language at a higher level also includes an understanding of semantic ambiguities in, for example, multiple meaning words and figurative language.  Strong semantic language skills are crucial for developing an understanding of the world and an ability to express oneself clearly and meaningfully. 


Some children demonstrate broad-based semantic difficulties while others show weakness in more specific areas, such as understanding categorization or providing word definitions.  In other cases, children have acquired a large vocabulary but have word finding difficulties and are unable to express words of which they have knowledge. It is similar to having a word on the tip of your tongue but being unable to retrieve/find the word on demand/when needed in conversation. The child with such difficulties may over-use the word stuff or thing. The child may also try to express a spontaneous idea and end up talking around in circles, unable to get the specific idea out.


It is not unusual for children who present with motor speech difficulties such as apraxia to also have concomitant problems with semantic organization of their language and syntax. Specific word finding difficulties (naming difficulties or making odd word choices) may be observed. Language at the phrase and sentence level is also often disorganized in children with disorders of motor speech control (see Syntax for more). Word order may be jumbled, or there are obvious difficulties following the rules of grammar/using correct grammatical forms in their expressive output.


I thoroughly evaluate semantic language skills in our children having difficulties with word retrieval and/or sharing ideas verbally in order to understand each child’s language strengths and challenges. I carefully plan activities individualized to the needs of each child.  For children with concomitant disorders of motor speech control, target words and phrases are developed to both improve motor speech control and build semantic language skills.


What might semantic language problems look like in a child?

  • Have difficulty following verbal directions

  • Use a limited number of words to express himself

  • Experience difficulty asking and answering questions

  • Struggle to understand the relationship between words, such as words in the same category and synonyms

  • Find it hard to understand sentences containing figurative language

  • Struggle to follow along and participate in conversations

  • Overuse the words stuff and thing because specific names are difficult to retrieve

  • Use non-specific referents in conversation (it, that rather than specific item)

  • Have difficulty getting a point across during conversation, often talking around in circles

  • Find it hard to share spontaneous ideas in interactions with others


How should my child’s semantic language skills develop?


By age twelve months, your child should:

  • Demonstrate understanding of 3-50 words


By age eighteen months, your child should:

  • Have an expressive vocabulary size of 50-100 words


By age twenty-four months, your child should:

  • Have an expressive vocabulary size of 200-300 words

  • Demonstrate understanding of single words for out-of-sight objects

  • Understand two-word relations such as: action-object, agent-object, action-object


By age thirty months, your child should:

  • Understand and use question forms what, who, where


By age thirty-six months, your child should:

  • Use and understand why questions

  • Understand and use spatial terms such as in, on, under


By age forty-eight months, your child should:

  • Use and understand when and how questions

  • Understand basic shape words

  • Understand and use basic size words

  • Use conjunctions and, because


Paul, R (2001). Language Disorders from Infancy through Adolescence: Assessment and Intervention 2nd Edition. St. Louis, Missouri: Mosby, Inc

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