In a recent article in Language, Speech, Hearing in the Schools, Professor Alan Kamhi asked his readers, to answer the following true/false question:
“Appropriate language goals include increasing levels of mean length of utterance (MLU) and targeting Brown’s (1973) 14 grammatical morphemes.”
His answer was “false.”
We have seen and written countless Individual Education Plans (IEP) targeting these exact goals. “Student will increase MLU” or “ student will create sentences with present progressive “-ing" are common IEP goals. At SL3, we wanted to dive further into this issue. We asked ourselves:
What should clinicians be doing to improve grammar of young children?
In order to evaluate the grammatical skills of young children, Hadley (2014) recommends measuring:
- Verbs: Number of verbs in a student's repertoire
- Combinations of 2-3 word utterances (e.g. SVO, VO, SV)
- Sentence Structure: This includes:
- Overall Mean Length of Utterance (MLU): Average morphemes (meaningful units) per sentence. For example "he go-es" has three morphemes, as the ending -es carries meaning. "The dog is running" has 5 morphemes.
- Unique Subject Verb Combinations (USV): In order to qualify as a unique combination, there must be a different combination of an explicit noun or pronoun in the subject noun phrase position and a lexical verb (e.g. can, is, should, will). Lexical variations of subjects (e.g., dog/doggy) are treated as a single subject type. Lexical verbs with different inflected forms, either regular or irregular, are treated as a single verb type (e.g., go/going,get/got).
- Tense-Agreement Morphemes (T/A): Tense-Agreement morphemes are morphemes that make the subject-verb agree. Specifically, Kamhi states “children with language impairments do not have difficulty learning /–ing/, plural /s/, or the locatives in and on. They do have difficulty learning grammatical morphemes that reflect tense and agreement including third person singular /s/, past tense /–ed/, the auxiliary do forms (do, does, did), and both finite copula and auxiliary be forms (is,are,am,was,were).”
Once this information is gathered, we can compare a student's grammar to his or her peers. Here is a free compilation of research-based grammar expectations for young children.
Setting Measurable Goals
At SL3, we believe all goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely (SMART). In the school setting, the IEP stays in place for one school year. For young children, this often creates a challenge as their language needs change frequently over the course of the year.
How then do we write a SMART goal for a school setting?
At SL3, we will still often write a variation of this goal on an IEP:
"Student will increase MLU on 10 utterances to 3.0"
The rationale for this goal is that it is possible to measure this goal across many contexts. MLU is also easily graphable to show progress over the course of one year in an apple-apple comparison.
MLU is a way to demonstrate progress, but in itself increasing MLU is not the goal of therapy.
We recommend keeping one overall measurable goal like MLU for the year, but then targeting short term benchmarks that meet the student's needs as his language improves. For example, short term goals might include: “student will increase repertoire of lexical verbs to 20 in order to express every day needs (e.g. eat, go, walk, run, see)” or “student will formulate a sentence with tense-agreement using the copula “be” with present progressive tense on 4/5 trials (e.g. He IS running.”)
Therapy for Grammar
In therapy, we keep these principles in mind when targeting grammar:
In context learning: There is no research to support language drill with flash cards. If therapists love them, we recommend limiting drill to a “warm up” period in order to teach a specific grammar rule. A majority of therapy should consist of grammar lessons within the context of a language building activity or book. Learning does not occur unless it happens within the context of generalization.
Varied stimulation: Research (Kamhi, 2014) supports that embedding a variety of language models is more effective than just modelling one specific target.
Increasing vocabulary (often focusing on a specific part of speech depending on the needs of the child): “First build a diverse verb lexicon and then expand the diversity of sentence subjects. Importantly, intervention activities that focus on sentence diversity will simultaneously create more diverse opportunities for use of tense agreement morphemes across different verbs and grammatical subjects “(Kahmi, 2014).
Expansion of sentences by providing complete sentence models: Bedfore and Leonard (1995) demonstrated that small meaning words/morphemes help children learn new words. Therefore, speaking in grammatically correct sentences (e.g. Daddy likes this cookie. Yum!) is preferable to telegraphic speech (e.g. daddy cookie. Yum!) during therapy.
Grammatical targets extend beyond Brown’s 14 morphemes: By age 3, many children are producing compound sentences (e.g. and, but, so), complex sentences with causal conjunctions (e.g. because, since, so), and many relative clauses describing an object (e.g. I saw the boy THAT gave me the cookie., I want the doll THAT has blue hair) (Dissel, 2010). Clinicians should not wait for students to master basic clause structure and grammatical morphology before targeting more complex syntax.
At Speech Language Literacy Lab, we believe that the best clinical practice is based on research support. There is often a gap between research and practice, and one of our missions at SL3 is to fill this void.
We would love to collaborate and share best practice ideas with both researchers and clinicians.
Bedore, L. Leonard, L. (1995). “Prosodic and syntactic bootstrapping and their clinical implications: A tutorial.” American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 4, 66–72.
Gladfelter, Alison; Leonard, Laurence. “Alternative tense and agreement morpheme measures for assessing grammatical deficits during the preschool period.” J Speech Lang Hear Res. 2013 Apr;56(2):542-52. doi: 10.1044/1092-4388(2012/12-0100). Epub 2012 Aug 15.
Hadley, Pamela A. “Approaching Early Grammatical Intervention From a Sentence-Focused Framework.” Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, April 2014, Vol. 45, 110-116. doi:10.1044/2014_LSHSS-14-0017
Kamhi, Alan. “Improving Clinical Practices for Children With Language and Learning Disorders.” Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, April 2014, Vol. 45, 92-103. doi:10.1044/2014_LSHSS-13-0063