Levels of Abstraction

Levels of Abstraction

Levels I, II, III, and IV shine a light into the cave of language learning.

The children have current perceptual experiences — their world. The world of the educator includes facility with language, for not only for the children’s experiences but also of connections with a wider world. Where the twain meet, Marion Blank offered us a scale of abstraction.[/lede]

Perception and Language

As the child grows so does the degree of abstraction in language and communication. Marion Blank’s delineation of four levels amazingly tracks how young children, ages one to six, acquire the ability to use language to learn more about the world than they can directly perceive.

The sentences in this paragraph are my attempt to convey abstract ideas. Whether that sentence or this one is comprehendible or not depends on my ability to write and your ability to understand the meaning using the representations you already have in your mind. Neither of us can see, touch or taste what this paragraph attempts to convey. All we have are typed words and punctuation on a computer screen. We can’t photograph what these words mean. Somehow some of us have learned to make sense of it. Others may not make sense of it and would rather be doing something else, because it’s too abstract. The essential foundation for facility with abstraction is formed in the window of early childhood. As children learn language, they gradually come to understand how words can convey ideas beyond a perceivable phenomenon.

Take the big, red phenomenon below, as an example.



A perceivable phenomenon right in your face.  Saying the word “apple” with a strong picture or the real apple in view is an example of Level I, the lowest level of perception/abstraction. The image grabs one’s attention and the single word — also strongly dominant — directly cooresponds. アップル, manzana, aporo, táo, apulosi, and تفاحة paired with the strong image work just the same. The word matches perception. Generally, this would be comprehendible to children around one year old. If they happened to be eating applesauce with a big apple in sight at the same time, so much the better. “Apple.” POW! Got it.

“You know, apples don’t grow true from seed.”

apple seeds

That statement relates to perception a little bit, since both the apple and its seeds are visible in pictures as the words are heard. This time the language conveys an idea very much more abstract. The ideas can’t be seen; the genes are too small and the eventual tree is in a predicted future nobody can see. The ideas lie in the listener’s brain. To comprehend, a person would be reasoning about perception. Saying the words, “You know, apples don’t grow true from seed.” with these pictures in view is an example of Level IV the highest level of perception/abstraction. Generally, this would be comprehendible by six year old children who had had experiences with apple trees, varieties of apples, and growing plants from seeds.

Abstraction can continue even higher, of course. Later, in high school, statements such as, “All new trees will be hybrids of the pollenizer.”  are in the curriculum. Missing any perceptual referent, Marion Blank called these higher levels of abstraction verbal-verbal not verbal-perceptual, which her scale addresses. We’re talking preschool here, where the essential foundation is acquired for playing the games of reasoning within the perceptual context.

Levels of Abstraction

I built a slide show to introduce people to the Levels of Abstraction and get away from paragraphs like that last one.


 Awareness of the Levels

Levels of Abstraction is an opportunity for early educators to be aware of the relation between abstract ideas and the child’s direct experience. As parents and educators we are the talkers, and it behooves us to attend to the child’s receptive competence as we go about our lives with children during their most significant language learning years. Between infancy and common school age the amazing brain of a human child grows ever more capable. It’s a magic, constructed from ordinary encounters with life and language, which, as you can imagine, vary quite a bit. Some children have rich encounters with both the quantity of different words, syntax used, and the levels of abstraction the language presents. Other children have more limited experiences. It comes with a culture. In some cultures the language a child hears remains tied to direct perception. (For an example, compare the Ricky and Paul conversations on the Topic Changes page.)

As educators and parents, we may be interested in maximizing opportunities and experiences for our own children and all children world wide. The impact of languages — including all languages, music, art, dance, etc. — is huge, but verbal is most huge. Being proficient in reasoning with a first or second language by age six is an essential prerequisite for success in school after age nine. In Third Grade, across the world, the content of instruction becomes verbal-verbal. At that point onward academic knowledge comes in texts, lectures, maps, and images with a focus on relating one abstraction with another, as in Why did Native American cultures change over time? Some children find playing around with abstractions quite interesting; others, who aren’t successful doing that, want to do something more concrete and practical. The entire structure of school is built upon the disposition to think abstractly. (We, in the USA, have even lost Home Economics and Shop, and I loved my shop classes!) It seems to me that early childhood educators and parents of young children might benefit from paying attention to these Levels of Abstraction.

Here’s a slide show for practice.


Commenting at Levels of Abstraction

After years of playing around with this, I converted the tutorial demand framework of the levels in Marion Blank’s Scale of Abstraction for Preschool Discourse which the PLAI-2 assesses, to comments that place no demands on the child. In the Preschool Language Assessment Instrument (PLAI) the learner is responding to directions (point to…) or questions (What else would work?). The administrator of the test is demanding a response from the child to score for quality. As with all of that pushy stuff, the children who I most care about are less adept. They often get sad. Failing a demand is a lesson in being stupid. I did the pushy thing, too, until I thought I understood and stopped. Children have a right to remain silent.

Although I found it interesting when exploring abstraction, I don’t want to encourage educators to use demanding talk. Enterprise Talk prohibits directions and questions for good reason. Power used by those with privilege is a blunt force. It was obvious how asking tutorial questions of children works pretty fine with the skillful ones who grew up playing that game. Not everyone comes with that background. We have a cultural tendency of adults being pushy with young children, because that is how they were treated. Studying demands seems to me a bit off the path of enabling children to optimize their lives.

Commenting is cool, so is reading great children’s literature to children. Input. Input. When done well, careful talk and great books can provide language input matched to the the context, the child’s immediate interest, and age.

Chart of Comments

I put together a chart that relates language input to levels of abstraction, eliminating demands.


The same inUsing Generalization at Level IV I could say about those seeds, “Those apple seeds are like watermelon seeds, but rounder.”

Using Possibilities at Level III I could say, “I want something to put these seeds in to save them for tomorrow.” (choices available)

List of Comments

Matching Perception — Level I

Describing the strongest aspect of perception:
All gone.  Truck.  Here’s some milk.
Labeling a strong event that was just experienced:
Fall down. Oh, big one!  Bell.  Barky dog. 
Narrating an action as the child is doing it:
Jumping!  You dropped it.  Splash.
The language is especially simple and brief.

Selective Analysis of Perception — Level II

Describing events and details:
—That bubble is floating higher and higher.  It has blue edges. That’s navy and that’s royal blue.
Pointing out differences:
—These are Velcro straps and those are buckles. That one is darker.  
Describing the common use for items:
—The cap keeps the pen moist. This boot jack helps people remove big boots.
Narrating what others are doing:
—She is climbing the ladder. Mark just returned the scissors to the rack.
Vocabulary and syntax become increasingly elaborate.

Reordering Perception — Level III

Describing sequences or steps of a procedure:
—First we open the box; then we take out the parts; the we read the instructions.
Citing the evidence for an observation:
—You can tell this is a backhoe, because it drags the bucket back toward the cab.  
Describing a visible solution to a problem:
—You could use the pins or the tape over there.
Pointing out what is the same about objects:
—Her tower and your castle both have three levels.
Defining what a concrete object is:
—A marker is a pen that draws wide lines or fills an area with color.
Offering dialogue or pretend dialogue:
—This man says, “No way am I going to eat that!”
Pointing out what is not:
—Bikes, bats, and balls are not being used today.
Each refers to something present but requires one to consider it in a language-mediated way.

Reasoning About Perception — Level IV

Predicting what will happen:
—The water will flow under the carpet and soak the carpet pad.
Providing reasons for the way things are:
—Light switches are near doors, so people can turn on the lights as they enter the room.
Offering solutions to a problem that are not visible:
—Another way to build that would be with sticks and twine.
Pointing out similarities with something not visible:
—Rolling that play dough like that reminds me of when I make pasta.
Defining what an abstract idea means:
—A “courtesy” is something one does in kindness to everyone, no matter who they are.
Each relates mentally represented experience to current perception.

I assume you get the idea. In some cultures these more abstract ways of talking to young children are unremarkable. If this is indeed a significant assist to academic work and a child’s home culture does not practice this in their talking to their three- and four-year-old children, then what? Well, like Google Earth, educators can zoom in on two big ideas:

Vocabulary Inundation at Level II

I find it fun to provide all the vocabulary I can at Level II, Selective Analysis of Perception. I had to learn all the words for fire fighter clothing and equipment, all the words for every type of heavy equipment, all the words for the fruit and vegetables in the produce section, etc. I bought used copies of What’s What for home and 6 used copies for school. I tried to provide all the vocabulary I could for everything my children saw out the window of the car. Most of the time, I simply asked people who worked in occupations my children were interested in what the names of things were and the verbs used for the actions.

One great thing about being a college instructor was being able to make people do things. They even paid me. Pick one activity or one activity area in your classroom and develop a vocabulary card for it, listing the correct name for every item, the parts of key materials, and the uncommon verbs that pertain to what the actions are. Laminate and post.

I have seen, for example, the difference it makes to casually identify the ferrule of a paint brush and see children take better care in cleaning them. I have seen the difference it makes to add the vocabulary of unit blocks to block play: quad, double, unit, half unit, ramp, lintel, beam, cribbing, foundation, overlap, frame, strengthen, extend, surround, stable, balance, symmetry, interconnect, align, distribute, etc. The children become more likely to communicate ideas with each other. Words influence their designs. Words influence problem solving. Words enable thinking.

Great Literature for Level III and Level IV

Great literature allows children to figure out Level III and Level IV from repeated readings. The lasting picture story books are constructed to enable children to understand more abstract language. Redundancy and repeated readings connect ideas. Comprehension is relating all the pieces. That’s the purpose of re-reading books.

I wish I could show how this works right here, but I can’t because of copyright issues. Dogger or David and Dog by Shirley Hughes is an example of the kind of book I am talking about. I found this image online, so I assume I can post it here as fair use. This image hints at the Levels of Abstraction this book builds before and after this climax page. The girl on the left has Dave’s Dogger she bought fair and square at a fundraiser days after Dave had lost it. I think you can imagine the the reader’s brain whirling around.

Each page has text that is Level II, but the sequence of images and the story are masterfully crafted for the children to construct the meaning of higher level abstractions at Level III and IV. This is a key reason why the children who are read to a lot, especially the great literature, do so well. A good recommendation would be for parents to make sure their children spent time with each Caldecott Medal book appropriate for the age of their child. That selection of books might help pull children away from screens and help teachers buy or check out the great literature. Often the books I see in preschools and child care spaces are leftovers. Gems. Gotta get gems.


Enhancing complex commenting takes me out of my comfort zone, but, oddly, that mental challenge makes me want to get to know the kids better. I want to do more in-depth observation and have more consistent communication. The more I know the more I can get the books, songs, props, or whatever that interests them. I know about five of the children’s passionate interests, but there’s twenty-eight children in my class. I have to seriously step up and find out who these people are, then I can research the words and find the great books that fit. I have a whole new respect for children’s book authors who get it right. — Gloria Melendez

Jonathan was building with blocks. He put a small figure dressed as a chef, which he called Captain, on the shelf and began building around him. He told me the shelf was an island and the carpet was the water. I used this quiet time to try to add more unusual vocabulary: ramp, for the long block that sloped down from the shelves to the carpet; cylindrical, describing the block he picked up; columns, which supported an arch over the ramp; elevate, which he did when Captain couldn’t fit under the arch; dock, where he said the boats come; prow, for the triangular block I put at the front of the boat we were building; symmetrical, for the structure after he put quads on either side of the ramp, and asymmetrical, for the parts of the structure that didn’t display symmetry. This attempt has pushed me to type up and laminate a list of uncommon vocabulary for the block area, so that I can more fluently talk about the different structures the children create and the ways they build them. I also have to work on commenting with more Level III and Level IV making connections between present objects and circumstances not present. — Patrick Durbin

Now I really understand the importance of vocabulary enrichment. It gave me another gift to offer the children. The joy on a child’s face when a new word is learned is precious. — Nancy Awamura

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