Levels of Abstraction
As the child grows so does the challenge of conveying abstract thoughts in daily communication. Marion Blank’s delineation of four levels amazingly tracks how young children, ages one to six, acquire the ability to use language to comprehend, consider, and talk beyond what they can directly perceive.
The sentences you are reading here convey abstract ideas. Whether you comprehend the meaning of that sentence or this one depends on my ability to write, your ability to read the words, and your continued interest in constructing some kind of meaning using what you have in your mind. We cannot see, touch, or taste what this introduction attempts to convey. We have words and punctuation here on a screen which remain meaningless without you having an interest in making sense of them.
At sometime in your life you learned to enjoy the pursuit of finding connections among representations you have acquired from experience. Others may not be interested in whatever is going on here and would rather do something that made sense.
People acquire an interest in this abstract connection game as they learn language in their early years of life. The essential foundation for facility with abstract ideas is formed in the window of early childhood from about age 1 to 6. As children learn language, they gradually come to understand how words convey thoughts beyond current experience and enjoy playing around in it.
By Third Grade almost all school content is not perceptually present. If a child isn’t engaged, it’s too late. It’s never fun when one doesn’t understand enough to participate. You probably know children who began to have trouble in school about then. For many school aged children abstractions are not interesting and for sure not very practical.
Words and Perception
Take the big, red phenomenon below, as an example.
It’s kind of hard to ignore, isn’t it? Apple. Pow.
Saying the word “apple” with a strong picture or a real apple in view is an example of Level I, the first 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, no matter what the language. 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.” Got it.
At the highest level we have this:
“You know, each seed will grow a different kind of apple.”
That statement relates to perception as long as both the apple and the seeds are present as the words are heard. The understanding created by the listener comes from making mental connections from their personal experience to what is present in some way. The ideas in the sentence are abstract: the subject, an apple tree, exists in imagination; the agent, the genes, are not visible; the reasons for genetic variability in apples is, well, off the charts. Yet at the time we hear the sentence we have a referent, something in current experience, to ground the cognitive work in a shared context.
Past experiences of varieties of apples, and possibly an understanding of seeds, give sense to the sentence. Since most of the comprehension work takes place in cognition rather than perception, Marion Blank labels this as reasoning about perception, Level IV, the highest level on this perception/abstraction scale. Generally, six-year-old children, who have had experiences with apple trees, varieties of apples, and growing seeds, as well as an acquired disposition to engage in thinking and talking about connections and relationships, may enjoy the pursuit of comprehension.
Abstractions advance beyond perception, of course, like this example:
It took 30 years for researchers to breed the “Honeycrisp” variety and propagate enough grafted cultivars of this popular apple. Since “Honeycrisp” trees were introduced in 1991, millions have been planted, producing excellent fruit that is enjoyed by consumers all over the U.S.
Sentences like these compose the content of texts and aptitude tests. They stand alone, without any perceptual referent, so Marion Blank called these verbal-verbal abstractions, in contrast with verbal-perceptual, which her scale addresses. We’re talking preschool here, where the essential foundation is acquired over years of playing the game of figuring out how language maps the current perceptual experience.
Levels of Abstraction
I present below a slide show to introduce early childhood educators to the Levels of Abstraction through examples rather than definitions. I remember months of difficulty trying to understand Level III, Reordering Perception; I think pictures convey the distinctions sufficiently.
You may not have encountered Marion Blank’s remarkable work, so a bit of an introduction may be useful to insert here. I have been intrigued with her analysis of adult-child interactions since I first read Teaching Learning in the Preschool in 1973. Most well known, I think, is the Preschool Language Assessment Instrument, which I used to explore competence with abstractions with many children. She and her colleagues presented their investigation results in The Language of Learning: the preschool years, Blank, Rose, and Berlin (1978). I was curious to see how these distinctions related to children in my preschools with a variety of language backgrounds and aptitudes.
As a researcher, she offered the levels as test items—”demands” I call them—that differentiated competence at the four levels. These were tutorial questions (why are these…?) or directions (point to…). The tester determined the child’s score with a classification system rating fully correct, adequate, and inadequate. To this date most of the literature on Levels of Abstraction has remained grounded in placing demands upon little children, not in creating an enabling environment.
Directions and tutorial questions create a power differential: the big person demands a response from the little person in a rather artificial situation. We have a boss and and underling. In any pushing situation like this the underling has only two choices: to comply or to not comply. That’s it; there is no way out. The former could be called acquiescence; the latter could be called rebellion, which can be either active rebellion (say anything to get out of it) or passive rebellion (say nothing and hope it goes away). I value neither. I don’t want to participate in fostering acquiescence or rebellion. I would much more enjoy seeing a child talk the truth: “You know the answer; why are you asking me?”
Marion Blank’s work has made a significant contribution to early education, but it has remained formatted for assessment. Besides making adults push at children, a problem with assessment is the fact that the assessor only learns something about the child when the child can do it—in this case, gives an adequate answer. With an inadequate answer the question-asker learns little or nothing about the child’s competence: they may be defiant, uncomfortable, scared, hungry, or anything. It’s impossible to tell the causes of non-performance. Nothing is learned about another person’s abilities from an instance of failure.
I don’t wish to encourage anyone to continue the natural tendency we seem to all have to push children to do things. If you have read other works at this site, you may have seen Enterprise Talk. The guides of Enterprise Talk offer a positive way to stay authentic and act with integrity, so a relationship of more equality can exist in which people enjoy life and learn. The guides disarm the negative effects of our natural power and privilege over children. The Enterprise Talk guide begins with a prohibition on demands and judgments: No directions. No questions. No praise.
In presenting these Levels of Abstraction, I eliminated the demands and restated the content as information. Statements place no demand; the child simply hears the language in the current perceptual context, which happens to be how humans (and probably elephants) learn language. As an educator rather than a researcher I care about language learning not language assessment.
Here you can see the Levels of Abstraction stated as information.
Making Distinctions on Four Levels
It’s almost magical how young children, between infancy and school age, construct connections from ordinary encounters with life and language no matter which language they are learning. Knowing the Levels of Abstraction helps adults be aware of the relation between abstract ideas and the child’s current perceptual experience. As parents and educators we are the expert speakers, and it behooves us to attend to the complexities in the child’s receptive competence during their most significant language learning years.
You can imagine, too, how varied cultures can be across the world. Some children have rich encounters with a varied, unique vocabulary, hear complexity in syntax and varied ways of representing things, and get to participate in conversations about experience, plans, and possibilities. In some cultures the language a child hears is limited to direct perception and seldom becomes abstract. “No. Don’t do that. That’s broccoli. Eat it. Get your shoes. We’re going.” (For an example, compare the Ricky and Paul conversations on the Topic Changes page.)
As educators and parents, we may be interested in the broader world of ideas and connections and want to maximize the language experiences for our children and possibly, like me, wish to alter circumstances for children world wide. The impact of all languages (including the other expressive languages, such as music, clay, paint, dance) can be life-changing; so much opens when we become masters of an expressive medium. Oral language, our main means of communication with other human beings acquired in the early years of life, opens or narrows opportunities and understanding over a lifetime.
Being proficient in reasoning about perception with a first or second language by age six is a key component of 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 settlers assume the Indians of North America had no intelligence or culture to value?” Some children find playing around with abstractions quite fascinating; others, who have not had much experience with it, prefer encounters that are more concrete and practical.
Schools get all children, but favor the abstract over the concrete. The structure of school is built upon the disposition to think abstractly, often to the detriment of those with practical language experiences who may often be from homes marginalized by society. We, in the USA, have even lost the practicalities of my favorite classes of all time, Home Economics and Shop, in favor of high stakes testing which values only the abstract.
It seems to me that early childhood educators and parents of young children might benefit from paying attention to these Levels of Abstraction in order to take advantage of daily experiences, such as a mundane trip to the store, as an opportunity to reason about perception.
Here’s a slide show for practice.
Commenting at Levels of Abstraction
Commenting is cool, so is reading great literature to children. Input matters. When done well, careful talk and great books can provide language in the zone of engagement appropriate to their capabilities.
First, here is a chart that relates commenting and describing to the four levels of abstraction, eliminating all demands. I find it helps to see the structure of the levels side by side.
For example, if I were to make a Generalization statement at Level IV about the apple seeds, I could say, “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.” (At Level III as long as containers are visible; if nothing is around and only the child’s mind has the ideas, it’s Level IV.)
List of Comments
Second, it also helps to have a way to generate statements creatively, so here examples of what one can say.
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:
—The bubble is floating higher and higher. It has blue edges. It popped in your hand!
Pointing out differences:
—These are Velcro straps and those are buckles. That one is darker. That’s navy and that’s royal blue.
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; then we read the instructions.
Citing the evidence for an observation:
—You can tell this is a backhoe, because it digs by pulling the bucket back toward the cab.
Describing a visible solution to a problem:
—Over there are pins or tape you could use for that.
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 easily 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:
—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 tape, which we don’t have today.
Pointing out similarities with something not visible:
—Kneading the play dough like that reminds me of when I make pasta.
Defining what an abstract idea means:
—A “courtesy” is something one says or does in kindness to everyone, no matter if you know them or not.
Each relates mentally represented experience to current perception.
Additions to the Environment
In some cultures the more abstract ways of talking to young children are daily experiences from infancy; it’s just how people relate. It is much more common for children to miss out. If you grow up without, you tend to continue that way of being. If you think facility in the abstraction game is important and a child’s home culture does not talk to their three- and four-year-old children at Levels III and IV, here are things you can do.
Vocabulary Inundation at Level II
The first place to start is at the foundation. I found remarkable benefit from making an effort to provide unique and uncommon vocabulary at Level II, Selective Analysis of Perception, pertaining to what a child was directly experiencing at that moment. For many things I encountered with my child in daily life, I didn’t have the full vocabulary. If a child was interested in talking about firefighter pictures, I had to learn all the words for fire fighter clothing and equipment. The same learning curve happened for all the words for types of heavy equipment (recently learned the word breaker for destroying concrete). It happened for the fruit and vegetables in the produce section and for urban traffic (I learned about stoplight timing, signal controls, and platoons). 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. I bought used copies of What’s What a copy for home and 6 copies for school. I worked at providing all the vocabulary I could for everything my children were interested in.
One great thing about being a college instructor was being able to make people practice what is good for children through course assignments. This uncommon vocabulary task, which you can try, too, was one that many people found revolutionary:
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, how casually naming the ferrule of a paint brush altered how children cleaned the base of the bristles. Play changes, too. I have seen a different dynamic when the vocabulary of unit blocks is provided: quad, double, unit, half unit, ramp, lintel, beam, cribbing, foundation, overlap, frame, strengthen, extend, surround, stable, balance, symmetry, interconnect, align, distribute, etc. The children gained words to talk to others about what they were doing to their friends, and it seemed to stimulate new ideas. Words influenced their designs. Words influenced problem solving. Words influenced relationships. Words enabled planning and possibilities, which are at Level III and Level IV.
Great Literature for Level III and Level IV
Great literature allows children to figure out Level III and Level IV connections from repeated readings. Treasured picture story books have lasting value often because they are constructed to enable children to understand abstract language. Redundancy and repeated readings connect ideas. Comprehension of the text is relating the pieces of the whole. That’s the purpose of re-reading books.
Dogger or David and Dog by Shirley Hughes is an example of the kind of book with lasting value that I am talking about. I found this image online, so I assume I can post it here as fair use. This image can give you an idea of how this book builds connections and reasons for things at Level III and Level IV. This is the book’s 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. The girl in the middle is Dave’s older sister, Bella, who has just won a huge teddy bear as a prize. You can see the text is at Level II, Selective Analysis of Perception: it describes only this image.
The connections with the events in the rest of the book, before and after this picture, give the image its full meaning. I think you can imagine the listener’s brain whirling around, connecting Bella’s bed crowded with stuffed animals, the experiences of Dave’s family searching, the fundraiser for the school, and the resolution that follows. Children construct their own understanding of what is so clearly depicted in Shirley Hughes’ illustrations throughout the book and can then talk about them, too, at Level IV, if they wish.
The sequence of images in an engaging story, masterfully crafted, enable the listener to construct the meaning of abstractions at Level III and IV, which is characteristic of great children’s literature. I believe this is a key reason why children who are read to a lot, especially books like this, are so interested in using language to convey abstract ideas. A lending library could help parents to make sure their children spent time with each Caldecott Medal book appropriate for the age of their child. It also might help pull children away from screens. An understanding of the Levels of Abstraction also might help educators evaluate the books they use and seek to provide the best ones for their children. Often the books I see in preschools and child care spaces are leftovers. Gotta get the gems.
My Personal Proof
In a state-run program for low income four-year-olds, I pre and post-tested six children in my class whom I was most curious about. I have the hard data. Between November and May, six months, these children made an average of 1.5 years growth in abstraction as measured on Marion Blank’s Preschool Language Assessment Instrument. My point is that growth in competence here can happen quite quickly when children are between two and four years old. Reading books is probably the most direct way. The other rich path is through Step Chart Activities, since the charts are abstract and the actions concrete.
Small Group Activities for Level III and Level IV
In the Small Group Activities section I present four kinds of opportunities for regular meetings with groups of 4 or 5 children where children naturally become engaged and gain courage to participate at these higher levels of abstraction. It is learning to play the game that many children don’t experience at home.
Picture Story Books presents a method of reading books to young children in small groups specifically to do this in a school, The Eliciting Method, which has been hugely successful for bringing the more silent children to the forefront of language participation—any language they wish to learn. I guarantee this method will out-perform any other book-reading system in the literature of early education academia.
Natural Progression Activities use silliness to challenge children to formulate what they already know about how to do things to almost shout at Level III Reordering of Perception.
Transformation Activities present a visual change from one state to the next, like what happens to bagels when they are toasted, along with routine tutorial questions at Level II (What is happening? What do you see?) and Level IV (What will happen? What will it look like?). When experienced once a week, children become more careful observers and predictors in all areas of their lives.
The Walkabout puts everything together at once in mini field trips, indoors or out, that in my experience children treat as their favorite day of the week.
Reflections From Students
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