Using Language to Support Classroom Learning #TeachingPrimaryCFM


L. Williams holds a Masters Degree in Speech-Language Pathology, and is currently completing work towards a PhD. For the last 7 years she has provided speech therapy to children in private clinics, public schools, and research settings. Her background includes training in applied behavioral analysis (ABA), and she specializes in supporting children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) who are minimally verbal.

I appreciated the post by Lyndsey Jarman, and highly recommend that all primary teachers refer to it as an excellent resource for their classroom.  My goal with this post is to provide additional ideas for teachers to consider, specifically with respect to their use of developmentally appropriate language.

Expert vs. Novice

As adults, we often take for granted how much we know.  In my very early twenties, I was called to teach the CTR 4 class.  One of the lessons focused on missionary work, and each child had a turn to talk about people in their family who had served missions.  I had a beautiful map on the wall to point out the locations where everyone served.  I thought it was going really well. They’re learning! They’re participating! Finally, one of the boys raised his hand and asked, “Is the blue stuff water?”  It was the first time I really understood that we have to teach children EVERYTHING, including that water is the blue stuff on the map. Having a visual is good. Having a visual that children understand is better.

In the context of working with very young children and children with special needs, they are very much in the process of building their foundational cognitive, linguistic, and social skills. As teachers, it is helpful if we take the time to consider what we know vs. what our students know. The Primary manuals have done a decent job at breaking down ideas, concepts, and vocabulary in a way that makes them accessible to most ages.  With the new “Come Follow Me” curriculum, much of that burden now rests with the teachers.  Bearing that in mind, I would like to walk you through an exercise to help you explicitly think about differences between novice and expert learners, and how you can use that knowledge to help meet kids where they are.

Semantic Networks

In the field of linguistics, the term “semantics” refers to the meaning of words and language.  In order to acquire new vocabulary, children must learn both the arbitrary verbal symbol plus the meaning associated with the word. Simple right?  Consider the very common word, “dog.”  There is nothing inherently dog-like about the sounds “duh” “ah” and “guh”, yet these three sounds when put together represent an astonishing array of animals. For example, when learning “dog,” children must learn that both their family Dachshund and the neighbor’s Great Dane are dogs. Think about that. Now consider how you might define “dog” to be sufficiently inclusive of all the varieties of dogs (including wolves, coyotes, and foxes), yet exclude “cat”? What do you know about a dog vs. what do you know about a cat? This is the task of young learners with EVERY new word.  The “meaning” of a word is the accumulation of all the knowledge and experience they have with that word—or in other words, their semantic network.

In helping children to build their semantic network, speech-language pathologists typically focus on several different areas, including: Functions, Associations, Categories, Similarities/Differences, Attributes, and Multiple Meanings.

  1. Functions: what does the item/object/concept do? What is its purpose? Using the example of dog, children learn that a dog barks, pants, plays catch, bites, growls, digs, etc. (Note that not all of these functions are viewed as positive things—sometimes learning can be painful and frightening).
  2. Associations: What “goes with” the word/concept? Things that “go with” dog might include bone, doghouse, ball, treats, etc.
  3. Categories: To what category does the word belong? Dogs are animals, mammals, canines, pets, wild animals, domesticated animals, etc.
  4. Similarities/Differences: How are words the same? How are they different? How are Dachshunds and Great Danes the same? How are they different? How are dogs and cats the same? How are they different? It’s interesting that with early learners and children with special needs, it can be extremely challenging to talk about how two items differ.  What exactly makes something different? (Hint: see attributes below)
  5. Attributes: What are the attributes of the word/concept? This is where you list all the adjectives (describing words) you can think of.  Color, shape, size, parts, texture, temperature, qualities, emotions, quantity, etc.  Dogs are many colors (black, brown, tan, white, yellow, red, etc.) They are big, medium, or small. They have teeth, tails, ears, four legs, claws, noses, eyes, fur, etc. Their fur can be soft or coarse, long, short or nearly non-existent. Dogs can be playful, shy, aggressive, etc. Dogs can make you feel happy or scared. Sometimes there is just one dog, sometimes dogs go together in packs, and so on.
  6. Multiple Meanings: can “dog” mean something besides the animal? Consider “dog-leg,” “dogged,” “to dog,” etc. Additionally, we may have many words for “dog” that children are expected to learn (e.g., puppy, hound, mongrel, mutt, etc.).

So “dog” is pretty simple concept right? It’s an easy, straightforward word.

Again, realize how much you know as the expert vs. what children might know as novices.  And that’s with a pretty tangible word like “dog.”

Now consider words like prayer, love, testimony, Holy Ghost, prophet, mission, baptism, pioneer, reverent. What do you know about those words? What are children likely to know and what experiences have they had to help build their semantic network? Ask them. Children are very willing to share what they know.  Use phrases like, “Tell me about [word]” or “What do you know about [word]?”

It’s always worth your time to stop and define a word or concept. For example, like many of you, I learned the song, “When Joseph Went to Bethlehem” as a little kid in Primary. One Sunday I came home and asked my mom, “What’s a gochee?” Of course she had no idea what I was talking about, so I repeated the words, “He carried bread and gochees in a little linen sack.” In my mind I envisioned “gochee” as some sort of berry or fruit, and therefore, “gochees” were multiples of said fruit. As an expert learner, you realize that the word is not “gochee” but “goat cheese”. However, as a novice five-year old in 1980s Idaho, goat cheese was fairly exotic. I doubt I’d ever had it before learning the song, much less considered that cheese could come from any animal except a cow—and at five, I may not have even known that cheese came from a cow (it comes from the store, right?).

Consider the language you’re using and the words you’re teaching. Break it down into ideas and concepts children can understand using functions, associations, categories, and so on. What is the function of prayer? (e.g., talk to Heavenly Father) What goes with prayer? (e.g., folding arms, being reverent) How is prayer similar to talking to your mom and dad? How is it different? What are the attributes? (e.g., how does it make you feel? Adjectives that describe prayer?).

Be thoughtful of your students’ backgrounds and life experiences.  The stories in the New Testament largely take place in the Middle East and Mediterranean over 2000 years ago, and are far removed from the day-to-day experiences of many kids. There may be children who have little in common with any of those events or places.  For example, if you’re a child growing up in an urban environment, what experience do you have with farming, shepherding, or fishing?  If you live inland, what experiences do you have with the sea?

In parting, I would like to emphasize that the goal is not for you to “dumb-down” or over-simplify your language.  In fact, research shows that if you want children to learn vocabulary, you must use it with them. Don’t shy away from the big words and complicated concepts.  Just be prepared to define and explain in ways that they can understand and relate to.

[This was one of a series of #TeachingPrimaryCFM posts intended to help provide tools for Primary teachers. You can read more about the project here, and if you have experience and training teaching Primary-aged children, and would be interested in sharing that knowledge, feel free to volunteer here!]


  1. It is not just children who need to be taught everything. After three years of faithfully attending church and trying diligently to apply all I learned, I discovered that my Word of Wisdom observance was lacking. No one had ever explained that ice tea was off limits because it was tea.
    Imagine my surprise when I repeated the story to a friend who had been attending church for 10 years prior to accepting the invitation for baptism. I expected him to laugh with me. Instead, he said, “You mean we can’t drink ice tea?”
    Then my home teacher, also a convert of many years, told me how surprised he was to be told he should not be drinking wine coolers.
    Hots drinks! Please explain carefully.

  2. I mean, wine coolers are gross, so that should be enough reason to not to drink them.

  3. Thank you for this! It’s really helpful to think about how kids develop language as we try to teach them complex topics.

  4. Terry, I drink Iced tea, green tea, and herbal tea and don’t consider any of it against the WoW. Some of this is more personal interpretation than language. I’ve also been offered all of the above by various members of my ward so I’m not all that unusual.

    Back to the thread, this is wonderful. I am loving this series and taking notes. The challenge is that my class has such a range of learning levels. How to teach all of them, simultaneously, in 20 minutes is my current challenge.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    This is such a helpful series, thank you for sharing your expertise.

  6. Kristin V Brown says:

    Insightful. A great resource. I will investigate the other website as well. I would use these fundamental principles when teaching the youth. It is important as a teacher to know each students understanding of the basic words we use within the church of Jesus Christ. So many times we make the mistake of assuming they understand. Check for understanding- something I would add to the list.

  7. This is really helpful! I’m a Primary teacher. My ward asked me and my husband to teach a senior primary class and then a junior primary class every week. The struggle is real. And help here at BCC is life!

    So I have a question: How do you ask a question, while engaging every single six-year-old student in the class? I remember the take away last week, that if only one child is answering a question, only that child is participating. The other children are tuning out.

    So much of Gospel learning is structured around questions. But if only one kid can answer the question at one time because developmentally the others can’t follow the conversation vicariously… What does a teacher do?

  8. Re Tx,
    Perhaps how we teach does not matter if we cannot even agree on what we teach, such as Word of Wisdom.

  9. Just a quick interjection: these posts are specifically not about the content of the teaching; they’re intended to help teachers with the preparation for class and the teaching during class. Discussion of the Word of Wisdom, while absolutely permissible, doesn’t belong on comments to this post.

  10. This is really helpful – and honestly not just for Primary ages. I’ve run into definition issues in YW as well. I think we mistakenly believe that because they know (as in recognize) the word because it’s been heard so many times that they magically understand the meaning.

    Once upon a time I was teaching Sunbeams. The sharing time lesson was on the temple and the presidency member was talking about her family being sealed and how wonderful it was and so forth. One of my students raised her hand and asked “were you really sealed in the Temple?” The presidency member said “yes” and my student then asked “well, how did you get out?” Thought I would die trying to suppress my laughter! The presidency member simply gave her a funny look and moved on but it was a very legitimate question. Sealing had never been defined, she just started talking about it like everyone knew what it was.

  11. Sam Brunson, I think you are missing the point about the Word of Wisdom stories. They are there to comment on the fact that is not just children who misunderstand the language and content of our gospel teaching. We need to be clear in what we teach children and adults. It is not a matter just of choosing age appropriate language. It is a question of being sure what we are teaching is understood correctly. And if someone can attend church every week for years and lack fundamental understanding about wine coolers and the WOW, then our teaching is failing. And may I add, I think people should be allowed to comment in ways that are meaningful to them, not in ways that just resonate with you.

  12. This is a great post, but I have to agree with some of the comments. This needs to be taught to teachers of children, teenagers and adults. Adults new to the Church are just as likely to misunderstand our meaning.
    As an example, a young man I knew once expressed shock when he heard we had a picture of God and Christ appearing to Joseph Smith in the First Vision. I told him that yes we had such a picture in our visitor center. “Like a photograph?” he said. “No, like a painting,” I replied, finally understanding the reason for his shock.

  13. Re Tx,
    I did not realize there was any difference of opinion about tea and the WOW until your post. I was taught that any tea from the tea plant, whether served hot or cold, was not allowed. Herbal teas, not coming from the tea plant, were fine. I will stick with my understanding, but thank you for leading me to research this on the internet. There are different interpretations of this, although not, I believe, about wine coolers, except perhaps among teenagers, who would like to define everything as acceptable. I did enjoy reading a recent survey showing Utah Mormons differ from other US Mormons on how they feel about WOW observance.
    And I agree with you Carlie. Is how we teach as important if we cannot agree on what we teach? Perhaps another post.

  14. nobody, really says:

    When I’ve been teaching teens or children, I’ve found it is very helpful to tell “stories” about how I learned something. For example, when teaching about testimony regarding living prophets, I’ll talk about how I used to be a teenager with a bad attitude when a friend of mine invited me to go to General Conference with her. I’ll describe standing in line at the Tabernacle and how my friend had this foolproof system for scoring seats for the afternoon session every Saturday. I sat there up in the balcony when I saw what I can only describe as a shock wave running through the crowd from the front to the back of the room, and how I thought to myself “what the heck is that?” when it hit me. My focus immediately went to the front where the first presidency was coming in to take their seats. Children are great at picking up vocabulary and meaning from stories – I’ll define some larger terms with a synonym (Tabernacle – this big building just for holding meetings where they can fit about 3000 people, like a really big chapel). I’ve also learned that kids really like to hear a story more than once. It’s a lot of fun to tell a parable, then tell it again and make up some stuff, and have the kids identify what different. Tell about Jesus with the loaves and fishes, then tell it again with burgers and fries, and let the kids tell you how they didn’t have burgers and fries in the Bible.

  15. When I look back on my struggles to understand the gospel as a new member, I have to laugh. Fasting, Word of Wisdom, keeping the Sabbath day holy. How much I got wrong based on my understanding of the words and ideas as presented to me as a teenager. It is not simply that the words are unfamiliar; the ways we practiced these doctrines were so foreign. When you are trying to incorporate these practices into your life alone, it takes years to even realize you have misunderstood. No wonder the Jews built so many rules around the commandments. At least they could then know they were doing things correctly.
    President Packer was right when he said how important it was for teachers to make sure they were not misunderstood.
    Good post. Excellent examples in the comments. Poor child. How frightening the concept of sealing must have seemed, trapped in a closed building with no way out!

  16. Bro. Jones says:

    Amy: think of ways that you can ask a question that invite a group response. Even better if you can incorporate movement. Example: “Everybody stand up. If you have a pet at home, move to the left side of the room. [pause for movement] If that pet is a dog, jump up and down!” Or even just stand up for yes/sit down for no. Of course, be mindful of anyone with mobility limitations.

  17. Left Field says:

    I remember attending a stake conference when I was about six years old. My mother, perhaps hoping I would pay more attention, informed me that the voice we were hearing was one of the twelve apostles. I was astounded at that information, thinking that she was talking about one of the original apostles. I had assumed those guys were all dead. I think I eventually decided that I must have somehow misunderstood, but I was still quite confused. It was only years later that I remembered, and realized that she was talking about a visiting authority from Salt Lake.

    Years ago, when I was a stake missionary, one of my common responsibilities was going with the FT missionaries to teach the new member lessons. We were teaching a recently baptized single sister. One of the elders started going on and on about how the new member should “find someone to take her to the temple.” I’m not real fond of that expression for a number of reasons, but at least I knew what he was talking about. I could tell the moment he said it that she had no clue. On its face, the expression sounds like you’re looking for a ride. But he just kept repeating the phrase while she became more and more bewildered. She had no idea why the missionary seemed to think that finding transportation to the temple was one of the most important things she could do in her life. Finally, I interjected and explained what he was talking about.

  18. Ann Porter says:

    I read an essay in Dialogue years ago about the challenges of translating church materials from English. It stated that they had a terrible time getting Hmong(?) young people to go to the temple, because “Baptisms for the Dead” in the youth manuals translated to “washing the corpses.”

  19. Jack Hughes says:

    When I was very young, I had a primary teacher who was fond of the phrase “put on your thinking caps…”. I immediately lost focus every time she said that, as I was eagerly waiting to be given a fancy new hat with mystical brain-enhancing powers. I was further confused and disappointed when I never actually received said hat. The purpose of the lesson was completely lost.

    I was well into my teens before I understood that “priesthood keys” were metaphorical. Nobody had bothered to explain it to me. For a long time I reasoned that only the bishop could unlock the building on Sunday morning, and he did so with his priesthood keys.

    Never assume that kids can think abstractly or with nuance. Come to think of it, I’m not sure if most adult members can, either.

  20. I learned as a child that in the early days, missionaries were sent out without purse or script. But in modern times they went to the Language Training Mission where they were given scripts (ie discussions) to memorize.

    My mother in law, as a child, refused to eat cherries, delicious as they looked. The Hymn “Dearest Children, God is Near You” taught very specifically that “cherries hurt you” and she was no fool.

    Perhaps the point is that we need to take the time to ask open-ended questions and then listen to the answers, even when the answer doesn’t sound like it’s going to be the ‘right one.’ How else can we find out what people think?

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