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Speech in the Schools

Terminology and the Power of Plain Language

Published April 3, 2015 12:22 AM by Teresa Roberts
Speech language pathologists use an impressive amount of technical terminology, also known as jargon. This is to be expected within any professional discipline, however, clinicians are regularly required to code-switch between high-level terminology and plain language.

Back in my early days, I was presenting to a teacher and a young child’s family on the results of standardized testing, which indicated a mild language delay. I thoroughly explained the child’s performance, and areas of strengths and challenges. After I had finished speaking, the kindergarten teacher turned to me and responded with, “I have no idea what you just said.” Apparently my comprehensive explanation was not accessible to her and the family, which meant that I had made a critical mistake by not using friendly and understandable language. 

Transferring complex concepts into plain language is a skill. Using shorter and more familiar words allows everyone to understand what we are saying, and does not diminish the value of our knowledge. We can seamlessly combine terminology with plain language descriptions to use every information exchange as a learning opportunity. 

Every time you hear yourself uttering a word that you think would be unfamiliar to the general public (someone at the grocery store, your grandmother, a neighbor, etc.), add a short description of its meaning. The technical term for this technique is an appositive, the addition of a subsequent noun phrase that defines or identifies the noun, and it is frequently used in textbooks to teach new vocabulary. We can call it adding a mini-definition. Since our primary goal is for people to understand us, we can put the emphasis on the appositive (the definition), instead of on the technical term. You can even expand with a quick example:

Language, the ways that we share ideas with each other, …
Semantics, what words mean and how they relate to each other, …
Syntax, how we put words together to make sentences, … 
Morphology, word parts, and how we add little pieces to change words, like happy/unhappy, … 
Pragmatics, the ways that we talk to each other in different social situations, like in the classroom, or at the playground, …
Articulation, how we make the individual sounds that form words, like c-a-t, …
Voice, our daily speaking voice and how our voice sounds, … 
Fluency, how fast or slow, and how smoothly we talk, and when we stutter or repeat ourselves, …
Hearing, how our ears work to hear sounds, … 

A simple description has the ability to establish the topic so that listeners will have a general idea. It will not encompass all of the important aspects of a given concept, but it allows for a shared understanding of foundational knowledge before more information is added. Collaboration and partnerships with clients, families, colleagues, staff, community partners, and more, rely on mutual understanding. We can combine technical and plain language to unite everyone.

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Thank you for the wonderful article.  I printed it to share with my colleagues.  I too often feel I have to "dumb down" my knowledge but I love how you shared ideas for incorporating SLP knowledge and parent-friendly language together.

Katharine Elsbree April 9, 2015 3:00 PM

Given that the status of the classroom too often resembles that of the playground, the pragmatics analogy is, sadly, somewhat dated.

Nick Fielden, Nick Fielden Copywriter April 4, 2015 12:49 AM

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About this Blog

    Speech in the Schools
    Occupation: School-based speech-language pathologists
    Setting: Traditional and specialized K-12 classrooms
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