A Guide to the Language Processing Hierarchy

The language processing hierarchy is a general overview of language acquisition skills that can serve as a guide for professionals.

Language Processing Disorder (LPD) is a neurological condition that affects how language is processed in the brain. It affects the ability to understand spoken language and/or clearly express oneself. Some main characteristics of LPD are difficulties with any aspect of language, such as speaking, listening, rhyming, reading, and writing.

A Note about the Language Processing Hierarchy

It is important to note that there is no strict hierarchy for addressing language therapy and there are no ages attached to these steps. It would be amazing if we did have a clear roadmap when it came to language therapy, but language is much too complex!

This hierarchy is a general rule of thumb and allows us to see the big picture and prioritize what to target. Don’t view the hierarchy as a skill to discretely work on before moving on to the next skill. For example, some children may have an easier time stating the differences compared to similarities. Another important note is that it is critical to work on these skills functionally and within context!

This infographic is available for free download.


Labeling items is how a child begins to communicate, understand, and use language. Labels are typically nouns and familiar, everyday items.


Functions describe the way we use objects. Using verbs as a means of describing is a precursor to more advanced semantic language, such as adjectives and categories.


Associations are relationships between words or ideas. Working on associations helps expand vocabulary and metalinguistic awareness, which is the ability to think about language beyond its literal meaning.


Types of categorization skills include labeling groups, providing examples of items in a group, sorting tasks, comparing and contrasting, and finding “what goes together” and “what doesn’t belong” in a group. Skills such as concepts, antonyms, and synonyms are the same level of cognitive demand as categorization. Read more about targeting categories.


Identifying similarities between items includes both comparing information and sorting concepts into categories. This helps expand language and comprehension, as well as make inferences.


The ability to find and describe differences. This aids in learning new vocabulary and making new connections.

Multiple Meanings

These are words spelled the same way and usually sound the same but have different meanings. Working on knowledge of multiple meanings improves vocabulary and reading comprehension.

Higher-level skills, in no particular order, include figurative language, analogies, humor, and inferences.

You may be interested in the Speech-Language Development Handouts which includes a section on the language processing hierarchy!

allison fors handouts

Do you have any insights into using the language processing hierarchy?

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