What’s the difference? Stage 1 vs. Stage 3 Single Words

single words stage 1 vs stage 3 Jun 12, 2024

Single words cause a lot of confusion when it comes to identifying a child’s language development style. Oftentimes children are misidentified as analytic language processors because they have a repertoire of many single words. This is because many people think that gestalts only consist of long scripts from media or communication partners but gestalts can be as short as a single word. Analytic language processors' first stage of language development is using single words as units of meaning to communicate. Whereas a gestalt language processor's first stage of language development is delayed echolalia, or the use of gestalts to communicate. Their basic units of language are intonationally defined strings of language that are tied to a meaningful experience. They pick up language that often holds a much larger meaning and typically a whole experience with it. However, even when we’ve identified a child as a gestalt language processor, single words still often cause confusion when trying to determine if they’re stage 1 or stage 3. Let’s talk about the difference between these stages. 

First, let’s review the stages of gestalt language development

Stage 1: Delayed Echolalia

Scripting whole gestalts, single word gestalts, and/or intonationally defined strings of language from people, media, or books.

Example: "There's a monster at the end of the book!"

Stage 2: Mix and Match Stage or “Trimming down” (Partial Gestalts)

Mitigating larger Stage 1 gestalts into smaller chunks and also mixing and matching parts/chunks of Stage 1 gestalts into semi-unique utterances.

Examples #1 (mixing of two partial gestalts): "There's a monster + under there" = There's a monster under there.

Example #2 (Trimming down): "There's a monster."

Stage 3: Single Words and Two-Word Combinations

Breaking the script down to one word unit and/or making a new noun combination.

Example: "monster", "scary monster", "monster red"

Stages 4-6: New Original Phrases or Sentences with Beginning Grammar, More Advanced and Complex Grammar

Putting word units together to make novel phrases or sentences. At Stage 4, children are using beginning grammar. At stages 5-6, children begin using advanced and complex grammar.

Examples: “The monster goed under” (Stage 4) “The monster can’t get out”

(Stage 5), “Shouldn’t he have come out from under the bed by now?” (Stage 6).

Stage 1 vs Stage 3 Single Words

When gestalt language processors are in Stage 1, the single words they acquire are not flexible and often are not referential. In stage 3, single words have been isolated out from previous gestalts and are now identified as single units of meaning that can be combined based on semantic relationships. They are referential and flexible. They begin to combine them with other isolated single words. We know the difference through collecting language samples and knowing the child’s language history. Some things to consider to help determine the difference include… 

  • A history of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) or analytic language treatment. These therapies and strategies often focus on increasing vocabulary and labeling. These strategies are not supportive for gestalt language processors in the early stages and often leave them with a repertoire of single word gestalts. For older gestalt language processors, they may acquire hundreds of single word gestalts from this. However, these single words are “stuck”. They cannot build upon or expand on them.  Just like a multi-word gestalt, a single-word gestalt is picked up as a chunk and holds a much larger meaning to the child. They do not recognize them as single units of meaning that can be combined/expanded on when they are in the early stages of gestalt language development. If this is the case, the single words you’re seeing may be stage 1 rather than stage 3. It’s important to get a good history of the child’s language and collaborate with parents and other professionals to help determine what may have been naturally picked up as a single word gestalt in ABA or traditional analytic language treatment. Remember, if something was directly taught, it would not be stage 1. It would remain unscored. More information on taught vs. natural language can be found HERE.
  • Is the child using the word across contexts? Are they able to combine the single word with other single words? If the child is able to combine the word with other isolated single words flexibly and/or is able to combine the single word with other single words or create self-generated phrases or sentences, it’s not a single word gestalt. It is likely a stage 3 single word. On the other hand, if the child is consistently using the single word in the same context and is unable to expand on the single word by combining it with other single words or creating phrases and sentences, it’s likely Stage 1.
  • Does the child point the object referentially? If the child is able to point to the object they’re referring to, it’s likely that the word is being recognized as a unit of meaning and is referential. Gestalt language processors often do not point until they’re in stage 3. This is because up until that point they’re not using language referentially. Note: Not all “pointing” is a physical point with an isolated finger. Some children will not be able to physically point.
  • Listen to the intonation. Does the child say the single word the same way, with the same intonation every time they use it? Gestalt language processors are intonation babies. They pick up language in the earlier stages because of the intonation. They repeat this language the same way it was originally heard using the intonation of the original speaker. If the single word has that intonation to it, it may be stage 1.
  • Some single word gestalts are not "taught" but naturally acquired from conversation. They are often exclamations like, "wow", "sorry", or "thanks", as well as, "yes", "no" and "stop". If the child is a gestalt language processor, they don’t recognize these single word exclamations as a single unit of meaning. Like we mentioned above, they might use these single words in the same context every time or use the same intonation (from the original speaker) every time they use these single word exclamations. 

Case Study Example: 

  • Child is 7 years old 
  • History of ABA and analytic language therapy approaches (e.g. focus on labeling for vocabulary building and expansion)
  • Parents report the child has many single words but they don’t hear them being combined
  • Parents report their language mainly consists of scripts from Bluey, songs and single words
  • You’re collecting a spontaneous language sample during child-led play 

*Child pulls out play food and starts labeling all of the items in the set during the session, here’s a short sample*
Child: Banana!
Adult: That’s yummy
Child: Apple
Adult: Mmmm
Child: Bread
Adult: yeah!
Child: Eggs
Child: Chicken

Based on the child’s language history, parent reports, and overall language you’ve seen, these single words the child is using to label the items are likely stage 1, even though they’re referential. They are not flexible and there is no evidence that they can be recombined with other single words. 

Want to learn more in-depth information about how to support gestalt language processors?

  1. There are many free podcasts, webinars and articles to get you started. A comprehensive list of resources can also be found on our website. We just released a new FREE masterclass on echolalia and child-led therapy that is perfect for anyone starting their learning journey or on the fence about purchasing our courses! 
  2. Consider taking the Meaningful Speech course to learn more about how your child or client processes language, how you can help support them from echolalia to self-generated (original flexible) language, child-led therapy, and neurodiversity-affirming practices. Looking for something shorter? We have a 1-hour introductory course perfect for extended family, daycare or school staff.
  3. Consider taking our AAC + Gestalt Language Processing course. It will teach you how to identify, evaluate and support gestalt language processors who use AAC or who you think might benefit from AAC.
  4. Look for a speech-language pathologist (SLP) who "gets it" and can help you in supporting your child's language development. Check out our registry for SLPs who understand gestalt language processing and child-led therapy.
  5. Are you a school-based or private practice clinician looking for intake forms for new clients/students or creative visual reminder posters for your space? Check out the Meaningful Speech Marketplace.
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