Guidance on Vocabulary, Syntax, Mechanics and More
To help school SLPs better support their students, Barbara Gutierrez, EdD, CCC-SLP, has shared the following resources about expressive language skill development. Dr. Gutierrez is a university professor, a speech-language pathologist and an education support manager at Cross Country Education. Here is information Dr. Gutierrez has compiled from Speech Therapy Talk Services and CSLS Therapy on vocabulary, syntax, mechanics and more.
Three main areas comprise expressive language: vocabulary, word mechanics and sentence mechanics. Vocabulary is the content that helps us express meaning. Word mechanics includes morphology of words and phonology of sounds. Sentence mechanics involves grammar, syntax and narrative structure.
Effective vocabulary skills allow students to:
- Categorize words
- Contrast and compare concepts
- Describe attributes (shape, size, color, feelings)
- Identify location
- Describe parts of a word/concept
Morphology is part of word mechanics and “refers to the structure of words, and how a person can add different structures to word roots such as prefixes, suffixes and affixes to change its meaning” (speechtherapytalk.com).
For example, a child:
- Adds “ing” to the word “run” to make the word “running”
- Adds “s” to the word “horse” to convey there are multiple “horses”
- Adds “ed” to a verb like “bike” to show it happened in the past – “biked”
Phonology “refers to the rules or organization of sounds in a language. Phonological processes are patterns of errors that children typically use to simplify language output as they learn to talk” (speechtherapytalk.com).
For example, in a process called cluster reduction, a child says “port” for “sport.” The child deletes a constant since articulating two consonants is challenging for young children. This is normal until four years of age. But if a child is still using cluster reduction after age four, it may be a sign of a phonological disorder. The child may need help organizing sounds.
Sentence mechanics includes syntax and grammar and refers to how we put words together to make sentences.
Syntax includes the following structures (morphology) at the sentence level (speechtherapytalk.com):
- Correct pronoun use (he/she)
- Personal and reflexive pronouns (him/her/himself/herself)
- Correct verb form (past, present, present progressive, future)
- Subject-verb agreement
- Conjunctions/complex sentences
Storytelling is a complex language task that slowly develops over time (speechtherapytalk.com). Being able to tell a story is crucial for communication skills such as:
- Relaying past events
- Sharing ideas/stories
- Academic success
- Reading comprehension
- Expressing feelings
The main components of a narrative include:
- Initiation event
- Character reaction
Children with Morphology and Syntactic Deficits
According to cslstherapy.com, “Children with morphology and syntactic deficits experience difficulty learning and using the rules that govern word formation (morphemes) and phrase/sentence formation (syntactic structures).”
“At the word level, these children may not correctly use plural forms or verb tenses. At the phrase or sentence level, children with syntactic deficits might use incorrect word order, leave out words, or use a limited number of complex sentences, such as those containing prepositional clauses” (cslstherapy.com).
“Children with disorders of motor speech control are likely to have concomitant difficulties with morphology related to impaired speech control. For example, a child with a motor speech disorder may not be able to produce /s/ and /z/ and therefore does not mark plural forms” (cslstherapy.com).
Presentation of Difficulties with Morphology and Syntax
Children with morphology and syntax challenges (cslstherapy.com):
- Demonstrate inconsistent or incorrect word order when speaking
- Use a limited number of grammatical markers (e.g., –ing, a, the, possessive ‘s, be verbs)
- Have difficulty understanding and using past, present and future verb tenses
- Show limited understanding and use of plural forms
- Struggle with story retell tasks
Morphology and Syntax Stages of Development
As for how morphology and syntax typically develop (cslstherapy.com):
By age 24 months…
- Consistent word order is in place
- Expressive language contains few grammatical markers, and speech is “telegraphic”
By age 30 months…
- -ing and plural /s/ begin emerging
- Use of negatives between subject and verb (e.g., Mommy no go) appears
- Rising intonation is used to indicate a question
By age 36 months…
- Overgeneralization of past-tense verb forms is in place (e.g., runned)
- Present tense auxiliaries have emerged (e.g., Daddy is eating, Bunny does hop)
By age 42 months…
- Auxiliary verbs are being ordered correctly in questions and negatives (e.g., What is he doing? versus What he is doing?)
- Grammatical markers have emerged, including possessive ‘s, articles a, the, and irregular past tense
By age 48 months…
- A variety of early complex sentence types emerge, including:
- Compound sentences (e.g. My shirt is blue and green)
- prepositional clauses in sentences (e.g. I put away the toys in the toy box)
- Simple infinitives (I want to draw)
By age four to five years…
- Later developing morphemes are acquired, including Be verbs, regular past, and third person /s/
By age five to seven years…
- Passive sentences are understood and used
We hope this refresher on expressive language is a welcome addition to your school SLP toolkit!
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