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. We all 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.”  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 context.

Levels of Abstraction

I built a slide show to introduce people to the Levels of Abstraction in as simple a way as possible. I remember my difficulty trying to understand Level III, Reordering Perception, so I think it best to avoid dependence on abstract language.

You may have read about Marion Blank’s work elsewhere or have read her books. I bought several copies of the Preschool Language Assessment Instrument so my students could try the tasks on the children they worked with and relate their results to the data in her book about the test. The Levels are defined by questions the adult knows the answer to but oddly asks anyway. These are called Tutorial questions. Anytime an adult demands something from a child, child can either comply or not comply. The former is acquiescence; the latter is rebellion. Neither is a value I wish to teach. (see Values page). With an inadequate answer one knows nothing about the child’s competence. They may be defiant, uncomfortable, scared, hungry, or anything. It’s impossible to tell.

If you have read other pages at this site, you may have encountered Enterprise Talk . It’s on the menu. 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 three essential caveats: No directions. No questions. No praise. Following my own guide in presenting the Levels of Abstraction, I eliminated the questions.

What you see in my presentation of Dr. Marion Blank’s Levels of Abstraction are statements phrased as information rather than questions or directions. Statements place no demand; the child simply hears the language in the child’s current context, which happens to be how humans (and dogs) learn languages. As an educator rather than a researcher I care about language learning not language assessment.

Here are the Levels of Abstraction stated as information.

 Awareness of the Levels

A study of the Levels of Abstraction helps one 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. Between infancy and common school age the amazing brain of a human child grows ever more capable. It’s almost magical how children construct connections from ordinary encounters with life and language, which, as you can imagine, can vary in different cultures across the world. Some children have rich encounters with the quantity of different words, the complexity of syntax, and the degree language maps what they encounter. In some cultures the language a child hears remains connected to direct perception and seldom becomes abstract. “No, don’t do that. That’s broccoli. Eat it.” (For an example, compare the Ricky and Paul conversations on the Topic Changes page.)

As educators and parents, we may be interested in maximizing language experiences for our own children and helping other children world wide. The impact of languages (including the other expressive languages, such as music, clay, paint, dance) can be life-changing. Oral language, our means of contact with other human beings, opens or narrows opportunities and understanding for a lifetime.

Being proficient in reasoning with a first or second language by age six is a key component 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 have not had much experience with it, prefer encounters that are more concrete and practical.

Schools get all children, but favor abstract encounters. The structure of school is built upon the disposition to think abstractly, often to the detriment of those with more concrete language experiences who are often from homes marginalized by society. We, in the USA, have even lost Home Economics and Shop in favor of high stakes testing which is entirely abstract. 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 anxious or annoyed. Failing to answer a question is a lesson in being stupid. I did that same pushy thing, too, because that seemed to be the norm, until I explored it more and stopped. Instead of judging children as inadequate, I can honor their right to remain silent.

Although I found it interesting when exploring abstraction, I don’t want to encourage anyone to use demanding talk. Enterprise Talk prohibits directions and questions for good reason. Power from privilege is a blunt force. Most people see how asking tutorial questions works pretty fine with the skillful children who like playing that game. Not everyone does. Tutorial demands unfortunately fit with our cultural tendency to boss around young children. It is a natural habit to continue forward the way we have been treated. The PLAI is assessment; it’s not intended to be education.

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 or 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 statement about a 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.” (At Level III as long as choices are visible. If not, it is at 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:
—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 daily experiences from infancy. If you think progress in abstractions is significant to success and a child’s home culture does not talk to their three- and four-year-old children at higher levels of abstraction, then what can you do?

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 as course assignments: 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 and think about what they are doing. 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 listener’s brain whirling around, connecting events, constructing an understanding of what is so clearly depicted by Shirley Hughes’ illustration.

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 borrow the great literature. Often the books I see in preschools and child care spaces are leftovers. Gotta get the gems.

In a state-run program for low income four-year-olds, I pre and post-tested children in my class. Between November and May, six months, my children made an average of 1.5 years growth in abstraction as measured on Marion Blank’s Preschool Language Assessment Instrument. It’s easy to advance language competence when children are between two and four years old. Reading books is the most direct way.

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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