Speaking for themselves: why I choose ambitious goals to help young children put words together

Many, if not most, children with expressive language disorders have problems arranging words and phrases to express themselves.  This can be very frustrating for both the children and their families.

Targeting the wrong grammatical goals can leave children with language disorders falling further behind their peers.  To reduce the gap, research tells us that we need to look beyond traditional grammatical goals and focus on more complex goals.

1. Common grammatical difficulties for children with language disorders

Common grammatical difficulties (also known as “syntactical difficulties”) for children with language disorders include problems:

  • getting words into the right order (e.g. “Me ball kick”);
  • with pronouns (e.g. with words like “I”, “you”, “he”, “she”, “him”, “her”, “they”, “us”, “mine” and “your”);
  • with plurals (e.g. “Mouses have pink footses”);
  • with verbs (tense and agreement) and adverbs (e.g. “She catch the ball” or “The boy he smashing the Lego yesterday”);
  • leaving out unstressed “function” words like “the”, “a” and “to” (“Want Batman”);
  • forming questions correctly (e.g. “does” and “wh” questions);
  • forming sentences with negatives in them like “no”, “not” or don’t”;
  • describing people, things or ideas, or actions in detail (e.g. saying “The man”, rather than “The thin man with the hammer” or “She walked”, rather than “She had gone for a quick walk”); and
  • using complex sentences (e.g. sentences containing words like “because”, “although”, “if” and “when”) and syntax.

(Eisenberg, 2013).

2. Traditional speech pathology grammar goals are not ambitious enough 

For many speech pathologists – partly because of our training and text books – grammar goals for young children start and end with what are known as “Brown’s 14 morphemes”*.

Back in the 1960s, clinical psychologist Roger Brown studied the grammatical development of three typically developing children.  From these studies, he identified 14 grammatical morphemes, which he found could be measured reliably:

  1. Present progressive -ing
  2. Prepositions in
  3. Preposition on
  4. Regular plural -s
  5. Regular possessive -s
  6. Articles (a, the, an)
  7. Regular third person -s
  8. Irregular third person (does, has, says)
  9. Regular past tense -ed
  10. Irregular past tense
  11. Contractible auxiliary “be”
  12. Uncontractible auxiliary “be”
  13. Contractible copula “be”
  14. Uncontractible copula “be”

(Brown, 1973).

Brown’s work was groundbreaking.  But he never argued that his 14 morphemes were the most important targets for children to master.  Nor did he argue that they presented special difficulty to children with language disorders.  Unfortunately, many speech pathologists and others to this day:

  • base their management plans for children with grammar problems on Brown’s 14 morphemes and don’t go further until the children are at school; and
  • think that there is no point targeting more complex grammatical goals until the child has mastered Brown’s “basics”,

(Kamhi, 2014).

3. Research tells us we should target more complex language goals, earlier

We now know that:

  • children don’t figure out simple sentences before moving to complex ones: once simple sentences emerge (e.g. 3-word utterances), children simultaneously figure out the details of simple sentences and complex syntax;
  • typically developing children begin to produce complex syntax when they are 2 years old, soon after they start combining words;
  • by 3 years of age, typical learners produce conjoined sentences and three kinds of complex sentences;
  • children with language disorders:
    • don’t tend to have difficulty learning some of Brown’s 14 morphemes, including “-ing”, plural /s/ and the prepositions “in” and “on”;
    • have significant difficulties learning grammatical morphemes that reflect tense and agreement (e.g. third person singular /s/, past tense /-ed/, the use of “do”, “does” and “did”, and different forms of the verb “to be” (e.g. is, are, am, was and were); and
  • compared with typically developing children, children with language disorders are:
    • often only start to use complex syntax between the ages of 3-4 years;
    • limited in their ability to combine verbs and complex sentence types; and
    • more likely to omit words (e.g. “to” in infinitives, and “who/that” in complex sentences), through at least until the age of 8 years. 

This means speech pathologists:

  • should focus on complex syntax in the pre-school years; and
  • should not wait for children to master Brown’s 14 morphemes or basic clause structure before targeting complex syntax.

Barako Arndt & Schuele (2013).

4. Why should we target complex syntax early?

In addition to trying to narrow the gap between language typical and delayed children, Barako Arndt and Schuele (2013) identify a couple of important reasons for working on complex syntax with pre-schoolers:

  • Complex syntax skills have a large impact on later academic success (Scott & Windsor, 2000).  We need complex grammar for oral and written expression, as well as conversational success in everyday activities, e.g. during playground games and sport.
  • From Kindergarten, children are expected to engage in classroom discussions, to answer higher-level questions, to summarise and explain complicated material, and to write using a variety of “genres” (e.g. stories, procedures, opinions/arguments) that need sophisticated language structures and vocabulary, including complex syntax.

5. So, what exactly do we mean by complex syntax?

This section is a bit technical, so feel free to skip it if you are suffering flashbacks to high school grammar!

Complex syntax doesn’t just mean complex sentences.  Barako Arndt & Schuele (2013) identify 12 kinds of complex grammar we should think about when setting goals for children:

Complex syntax typeExample
Coordinate conjunction clausesI went to K-Mart and bought a new Ninja Turtle.
Subordinate conjunction clausesI went to K-Mart because I needed a new Ninja Turtle.
Reduced infinitivesI wanna go home.
Let's clausesLet's go home; Let me have that.
Marked infinitivesHe wanted to go to K-Mart.
Unmarked infinitivesHe made Matthew leave.
WH-nonfinite complement clausesShe doesn't know where to go.
Full propositional complementsMum knew the boys would leave at 9:00.
WH-finite complement clausesI wondered where we were going on Saturday.
Relative clausesThe man who/that crashed the car is in hospital.
Nominal or headless relative clausesWhoever wants to go needs to get in the car.
Participle clausesShe looked for Mark wandering around the store.

Adapted from Barako Arndt & Schuele (2013)

In typically developing children, examples of all of these kinds of complex syntax are found in the speech of typically developing 4-5 year olds.

6. Where should we begin with complex syntax?

We need more research on this.  Some suggestions based on the research cited below include targeting:

  • conjoined sentences (e.g. sentences with two ideas joined by “but”, “and” or “or”);
  • complex sentences with early developing subordinate conjunctions, such as “because”, “when” and “if”;
  • early developing “infinitival complements” like “need”, “want”, “have”, “try” and “like”;
  • noun phrase elaboration (e.g. “The big, red, bouncy ball”, instead of “ball”); and
  • verb phrase elaboration (e.g. “He had been sleeping” or “She likes to walk quickly”, rather than “He was sleeping” or “She is walking”).

7. Clinical bottom line

Children need to understand and use complex language to cope at school and to participate fully in their preferred social activities, e.g. soccer or dancing.  For these reasons, speech pathologists and families shouldn’t wait for pre-school children to master the basics before targeting complex syntax.

Principal sources

Barako Arndt, K. & Schuele, C.M. (2013). Multiclausal Utterances Aren’t Just for Big Kids. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(2), 125-139.

Brown, R. (1973). A first language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Eisenberg, S.L. (2013). Grammar Intervention, Topics in Language Disorders, 33(2), 165-178.

Kahmi, A.G. (2014). Improving Clinical Practices for Children with Language Disorders. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 45, 92-103.

Schuele, C. Melanie (2013). Foreword: Beyond 14 Grammatical Morphemes Toward a Broader View of Grammatical Development, Topics in Language Disorders, 33(2), 118-124.


* Essentially, morphemes are units of language that can’t be broken down further meaningfully, e.g. inon-ing, ed, er.

Banter Speech & Language Banter Speech & Language
Banter Speech & Language is an independent firm of speech pathologists for adults and children. We help clients in our local area, including Concord, Rhodes, Strathfield and all other suburbs of Sydney’s Inner West.

Banter Speech & Language is owned and managed by David Kinnane, a Hanen- and LSVT LOUD-certified speech-language pathologist with post-graduate training in the Spalding Method for literacy, the Lidcombe and Camperdown Programs for stuttering, and Voicecraft for voice disorders. David is also a Certified PESL Instructor for accent modification.

David holds a Master of Speech Language Pathology from the University of Sydney, where he was a Dean’s Scholar. David is a Practising Member of Speech Pathology Australia and a Certified Practising Speech Pathologist (CPSP).


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