Monday, May 26, 2014

Stages of Language Development - Watching What We Teach

Back in the early 1980’s I studied language samples of children who has been identified as severely intellectually disabled.  They were children I worked with at the time in a state developmental center.  What I found will not surprise anyone in the field.  Language samples were populated mostly by nouns and some verbs, and utterances were brief.  I presented my findings at an ASHA convention as a question, “What are we teaching [them]?”  I may not have known a lot about core vocabulary back then, but I knew we were doing something wrong.  Yet here we are decades later and overwhelmingly, children with significant disabilities and complex communication needs are still taught primarily to label and request.

So, where should language development begin with children with language and communication disabilities?  Beginning, or emergent, communicators use single word utterances, if they use words at all.  And certainly labeling has its place in beginning language development.  However, nouns are not potent communicators.  Words that direct actions are much more useful and more often used - words like: more, stop, give, help.

As the child’s vocabulary grows to somewhere more than 50 words, two word combinations begin to appear; inconsistently at first.  Combining the first 25 core words accounts for most of these two-word combinations.  Much can be said using these 25 early core words just by combining them; including: what that, want that, that mine, stop that, don’t go, don’t do, all gone, go here, it on, etc.   Some 3 word combinations begin to be used soon.  Requesting and directing another’s actions are still at the top of the intents used, but negation and protest are also present.
As the child’s language begins to grow, more meaning is added to words using morphological markers; such as adding -s to nouns and -ing to verbs.  Grammar is still developing and phrases still sound “wrong.”  Tenses are beginning to develop, as well as the addition of some concepts to vocabulary.

I’m not going to go any further here, because if your child has gotten this far, then you know they are headed in the right direction, and need to keep adding vocabulary and syntactical skills to become effective communicators.  But if, instead, your child is stuck at the single word stage, make sure that the intervention they are receiving is truly providing adequate vocabulary to meet their communication needs.  Make sure the focus isn’t on nouns, or on labeling and requesting to the loss of other intents.  Make sure that core words are being introduced in multiple contexts, and that they are truly engaged in communicating.

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