Levels of Abstraction

Levels of Abstraction

Levels I, II, III, and IV describe the acquisition of abstract language and thinking.

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 think and talk about the world beyond what 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. If you are reading this, somehow you learned to make connections among the representations in your mind. Others may not be interested at all and would rather be doing something that made sense.

By about Third Grade almost all curriculum content is not perceptually present. You probably know children who begin to have trouble in school about then, because the content is abstract. The essential foundation for facility with abstraction is formed in the window of early childhood from about age 2 to 6. As children learn language, they gradually come to understand how words can convey ideas beyond current experience.

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



It’s kind of hard to ignore, isn’t it? 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, 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.” POW! Got it.

“You know, each seed will grow a different kind of apple.”

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 new apple tree doesn’t exist yet, the genes can’t be seen, and the idea of genetic variability is quite advanced. The listener brings the experience of many different kinds of apples that can be connected with the seed picture to make some sense of it. This is reasoning about perception. Saying the words,“You know, each seed will grow a different kind of apple.” with this picture in view is an example of Level IV the highest level of perception/abstraction on Marion Blank’s scale. 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, “It took 30 years for researchers to breed the Honeycrisp variety and propagate enough grafted cultivars of this most 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.” are in the curriculum and usually the content of aptitude tests. Missing any perceptual referent, Marion Blank called these higher levels of abstraction verbal-verbal not verbal-perceptualwhich her scale addresses. We’re talking preschool here, where the essential foundation is acquired over years of experiences with how language maps the current perceptual experience.

Levels of Abstraction

I built a slide show to introduce early childhood educators to the Levels of Abstraction through examples rather than definitions. I remember my difficulty trying to understand Level III, Reordering Perception, so I think it best to avoid dependence on abstractions.

You may have read Marion Blank’s remarkable work. I have been intrigued since 1973. Most widespread, I think, is the Preschool Language Assessment Instrument (PLAI), which I used on many children to relate my personal knowledge of children to the results of her research in The Language of Learning, Blank, Rose, and Berlin (1978). She defined the levels as test items that differentiated competence at the four levels. These were questions or directions (point to…). The tester determined the child’s score by whether they could perform adequately. The questions, of course, the tester knows the answer to. These are a type of question called Tutorial Questions. Teachers often use them. Socrates did, too.

Tutorial Questions automatically create a power differential: the adult demands a response to which the child is supposed to perform something. Anytime an adult makes a demand of a child, they can either comply or not comply. The former is acquiescence; the latter is rebellion. Neither of those actions is something I value. I would value a child saying, “You know the answer. Why ask me?”

More importantly, the question-asker learns something about the child when the child gives a correct answer. With an inadequate answer the question-asker actually knows nothing about the child’s competence. They may be defiant, uncomfortable, scared, hungry, or anything. It’s impossible to tell.

I don’t want to push power onto children or imply that anyone should. If you have read other stuff at this site, you may have encountered Enterprise Talk. The guides of Enterprise Talk offer a way to stay authentic and act with integrity by disarming 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 eliminate the demands and reformulate each as a simple statement. Statements place no demand; the child simply hears the language in the current perceptual context, which happens to be how humans (and probably whales) learn language. As an educator rather than a researcher I care about language learning not language assessment.

The slides present the Levels of Abstraction stated as information.

 Awareness of the Levels

A study of 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. 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. You can imagine, too, how varied the cultures can be across the world. Some children have rich encounters with the quantity of unique vocabulary, hear complexity in syntax, and participate in conversations about 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 own children and, like me, help 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 a medium. Oral language, our main means of communication with other human beings, opens or narrows opportunities and understanding for 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. A trip to the store is an opportunity to reason about perception.

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 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 or less willing to be pushed around. They are justified in getting anxious or annoyed. Failing to answer questions is one of many lessons in being stupid.

Although I found it interesting to follow the guides when exploring abstraction, I don’t want to encourage anyone to use demanding talk. Most people see how asking tutorial questions works pretty fine with the skillful children who like playing that game. Not every child does. Tutorial demands unfortunately fit with our cultural tendency to boss around young children: one feels teachy, and it is natural to treat children the way we have been treated. The PLAI is assessment; it’s not intended to be education. Instead of judging children as inadequate, I can honor their right to remain silent.

Commenting, however, is cool, so is reading great literature to children. Input matters. When done well, careful talk and great books can provide language the right match in the zone of engagement appropriate to their capabilities.

Chart of Comments

I put together a chart that relates language commenting and describing to the four levels of abstraction, eliminating all demands.


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

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.

I assume you get the idea. In some cultures the more abstract ways of talking to young children are daily experiences from infancy. Imagine if that were not the case. If you think it important and a child’s home culture does not talk to their three- and four-year-old children at Levels III and IV, what could you do?

Vocabulary Inundation at Level II

I found it a challenge 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 1 copy for home and 6 copies for school. I tried to provide 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 do things through course assignments. This task was one that many people were affected by: 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 what they are doing to their friends and invent new ideas. Words influence their designs. Words influence problem solving. Words influence relationships. Words also enable thoughts and connections 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

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