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20Q: Grammar and Syntax for School-Age Learners

20Q: Grammar and Syntax for School-Age Learners
Monica Gordon Pershey, EdD, CCC-SLP
November 17, 2022

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From the Desk of Ann Kummer


Pediatric speech-language pathologists (SLPs) are typically very comfortable diagnosing and treating young children with expressive language disorders. However, (and speaking from personal experience), they tend to be less comfortable in assessing the higher-level, more complex grammatical and syntactic forms that are expected of older children. Fortunately, Dr. Monica Gordon-Pershey is an expert on this topic. In this article, she provides a guide for SLPs who manage older children with persistent expressive language difficulties.

By way of introduction, Monica Gordon-Pershey, Ed.D, CCC-SLP is a professor in the Communication Sciences and Disorders Department at Cleveland State University (CSU), Cleveland, OH. Since joining CSU in 1995, her teaching experience has included a variety of courses in communication sciences and disorders, with a specialization in graduate language disorders courses. Dr. Gordon-Pershey has authored numerous articles, chapters, and presentations on language and literacy and the pre-professional and professional development of speech-language pathologists and teachers. She is the author of Grammar and Syntax: Developing School-Age Children's Oral and Written Language Skills, Plural Publishing, 2022.

In this course, Dr. Gordon-Pershey discusses why it is so important for speech-language pathologists to be able to diagnose school-age children and adolescents who struggle with grammar and syntax. She provides information on procedures for assessment, and then gives practical suggestions for curriculum-based interventions.

Now…read on, learn, and enjoy!

Ann W. Kummer, PhD, CCC-SLP, FASHA, 2017 ASHA Honors
Contributing Editor 

Browse the complete collection of 20Q with Ann Kummer CEU articles at www.speechpathology.com/20Q

20Q: Grammar and Syntax for School-Age Learners

Learning Outcomes

After this course, readers will be able to: 

  • List the grammatical and syntactic skills that are achieved by school-age and adolescent learners.
  • Describe procedures for assessing the grammar and syntax of school-age and adolescent learners.
  • Identify at least three of the curricular academic, language, and literacy demands that may be difficult for school-age children and adolescents with difficulties with grammar and syntax to achieve.
  • Describe 2-3 curriculum-based, inclusive approaches for improving the grammar and syntax of school-age children and adolescents.
m gordon pershey
Monica Gordon-Pershey

1. What are the expectations for school-age children and adolescents for developing grammar and syntax?

Preschool children’s spontaneous use of grammar and syntax is an important aspect of acquiring language as a means for interpersonal communication. School-age and adolescent learners use grammar and syntax to communicate as well as to read, write, and learn academic material. Communication and learning become simultaneous demands on their language abilities. Using grammar and syntax is not only a spontaneous and communicative process; older learners must be able to examine the grammatical, morphological, and syntactic systems of their language and must learn how to consciously use these forms.

2. What language skills constitute mature grammar and syntax?

Most children master the basic requirements for language form by the end of the 4-year age range. Older speakers’ language would include grammatical elements such as inflectional and derivational morphemes affixed to words in sentences, along with words that allow for noun phrase expansions, such as indefinite pronouns and noun modifiers, and elements that allow for verb phrase expansions, such as using primary and secondary verbs and adverbs in sentences. Syntactically, a variety of clausal constructions would be used within longer sentences.

3. How can SLPs measure the grammatical and syntactic abilities of older children?

Measuring the contents of fairly complete syntactic repertoires is a complex process. Ideally, language samples would be compared to published information on grammatical and syntactic development. SLPs can use checklists of grammatical and syntactic forms for informal assessments and planning interventions, and computerized language analysis software is helpful.

4. Do school-age and adolescent learners who struggle with grammar and syntax have a history of early childhood language delay?

Not necessarily. Grammatical and syntactic difficulties in younger children’s oral language can result in struggles with academic progress. However, for other learners, grammatical and syntactic difficulties may not appear until they are faced with acquiring advanced oral language forms and meeting literacy demands in school. Their natural development of grammar may be adequate, but their linguistic awareness of how grammar and syntax are used orally and in writing can be an issue.

Some students may struggle with learning academic concepts, comprehending stories, and acquiring a fund of higher-level verbal information drawn from the texts they read and teachers’ verbal explanations. Sometimes, a weaker grammatical and syntactic language system is a basis for their difficulties.

The grammatical and syntactic language bases that underlie literacy and learning difficulties may be elusive and subtle, and SLPs may need to develop a repertoire of methods for identifying these needs.

5. What considerations enter into diagnosing school-age children and adolescents who struggle with grammar and syntax?

First, it’s important for SLPs to be familiar with the various higher-level, more complex grammatical and syntactic forms that older learners typically use, in order to recognize the deficits that would disrupt communication and learning.

The available developmental information on older learners’ grammar and syntax is not structured around the detailed, age-based normative expectations for linguistic form that SLPs use to diagnose early language performance. This difference is in part due to the fact that while many grammatical forms typically would have been acquired at an earlier age, older speakers use these forms to understand and use more complex sentences and to comprehend and impart more abstract and advanced ideas. Grammatical sophistication is used to convey the semantic content of the utterance and the pragmatic purposes of the speaker’s message. For instance, as Nippold (2007) and Nippold et al. (2009) noted, by age 5, most children produce grammatically well-formed sentences that contain subordinate clauses. Throughout the school-age years, learners express abstract ideas in longer sentences that contain multiple subordinate clauses, and which they comprehend when they hear or read these clausal formations. So, it is not just the speaker’s use of the grammatical or syntactic form that shows developmental competence. Assessment is not just a matter of documenting the performance of a developmental sequence of grammatical and syntactic targets; rather, it’s the analysis of the speaker’s functional and contextual comprehension and use of linguistic forms.

6. So, would it appear that language sampling is essential when assessing the grammar and syntax of school-age learners?

Yes. When analyzing language samples, SLPs would look for use of grammatical and syntactic constructions. Language sample analysis systems, either manual or computer-based, tend to rely on whether the speaker has demonstrated the use of a wide array of mature grammatical and syntactic forms. These systems allow SLPs to document and describe the forms’ presence, absence, accuracy, and/or error patterns, rather like taking an inventory of the language forms that a speaker produced. The speaker’s combined use of multiple grammatical elements within utterances is observed, as is the speaker’s production of novel and spontaneous constructions in a way that shows facility with language. This type of performance assessment differs from analyses of younger children’s syntax, where the attainment of a more specific set of developmental syntactic constructions is assessed and where there is extensive longitudinal developmental data.

7. What is the impact of weaknesses in grammar and syntax on achieving grade level standards for the academic content areas?

Language arts, with its focus on reading, writing, speaking, and listening, and its emphasis on the narrative and expository genres of language is apt to be a curricular area that is challenging. Science and social studies, each with an emphasis on expository language, may require intensive amounts of classroom listening and assigned reading. Students are often graded on how well their oral and written responses show comprehension of the material they read. Lesser syntactic capabilities can contribute to reduced comprehension of complex sentences and difficulties manipulating multipart sentences. Comprehension of syntax can be a factor in being able to evaluate information and make inferences. Weaker syntax can interfere with the cognitive abilities needed for information processing. Students may have difficulty remembering, thinking about, and repeating information that they have heard during instruction. Some students may have difficulty following spoken directions or keeping a sequence of steps in mind. When syntactic processing is not strong, it can contribute to difficulty organizing thoughts and remembering a series of points within an informational context. Students may not be able to effectively extract details from the verbal messages they have heard or read. Expressively, students’ language may seem disorganized. They may be unable to speak their thoughts succinctly. Their messages may lack detail, or they may not express concepts effectively.

8. What is the role of morphology in older children’s grammar and syntax?

The semantic language system interacts with the grammatical system to yield the use of language form. A speaker’s lexicon is commonly considered to be a semantic storehouse of words, which are referred to as lexical items. A lexicon consists of free morphemes (true words that have no affixation) and free morphemes that have bound morphemes (affixes) attached.

Lexical morphology is concerned with word formation rules. When semantic content is the focus of consideration, a lexicon serves the semantic purpose of imparting linguistic meaning. When the focus is on the grammatical system, lexical items are the elements of the form and structure of phrases and sentences. Grammatical morphology is concerned with how language users manipulate words and parts of words to produce phrases and sentences. The focus is on how these manipulations reveal a speaker’s knowledge of the rules of language form and on their ordered arrangement of free and bound morphemes within phrases and sentences to convey meaning.

9. What are some of the parameters of English syntax that school-age learners would be expected to use?

The parameters of English syntactic form and syntactic function can be explained by examination of grammatical categories. Production of the syntactic constructions within each of the grammatical categories necessitates that a speaker manipulate morphemes to attain syntactic word ordering. The grammatical categories of English provide sets of rules for combining words to form phrases, clauses, and sentences. Grammatical categories account for morphosyntax, because of the arrangement of morphemes that is inherent to the construction of words, and hence to the construction of phrases, clauses, and sentences.

Speakers enact the properties of the grammatical categories in order to encode meaning through the manipulation of syntax. In English, the seven grammatical categories are grammatical person, grammatical number, grammatical tense, grammatical aspect, grammatical mood, grammatical voice, and grammatical gender.

10. Do these grammatical categories explain why so many children have difficulty with the use of parts of speech, particularly verbs?

Yes. Sentences are constructed around verbs, and the grammatical categories have something to do with verb use, either directly or indirectly. The complexity and variety of verb forms may be challenging.

Grammatical person refers to the grammatical distinctions that correspond to the pronoun forms of first, second, and third person singular and plural. Verbs are conjugated to agree with grammatical person. Relatedly, grammatical number has to do with usage of plural nouns and conjugation of verbs. Verbs agree with singular or plural nouns and pronouns. Conjugation rules determine how verbs take on inflectional morphemes to form grammatical variants, such as person or tense. Verbs in a conjugated form are called finite forms. Verbs that are not conjugated or that remain unchanged during conjugation are called nonfinite forms. An infinitive is a verb form with no conjugation that is proceeded by “to,” as in “to look.”

An irregular verb’s conjugation in any tense deviates from regular conjugation. Irregular present tense verbs may show their irregularity in the third person. Irregular past tense verbs do not follow standard rules for using the bound morpheme “-ed” to mark the past tense. Instead, a past tense free morpheme is used, for example, “went,” “saw,” and “got.”

Grammatical tense refers to present, past, or future time. To produce tense, English uses verbals, which are the derived forms of verbs, where bound morphemes are attached (for example, “-ed” “-en,” and “-ing”) or where verb forms are altered (e.g., “see” and “saw”). The English tense structure involves the following tenses:

Present: simple present, present progressive, present perfect, present perfect continuous

Past: simple past, past progressive, past perfect, past perfect continuous

Future: simple future, future progressive, future perfect, future perfect continuous

Grammatical aspect has to do with the temporal point of view of the speaker. Verbs to express frequency, duration, continuation, or completion have grammatical aspect variations (e.g., “I went home,” “I used to go home,” “I was going home,” “I have gone home”). In English, present, past, and future are expressed by approximately 30 tense and aspect forms for using verbs and auxiliaries. In addition to grammatical aspect, verbs and verb phrases have lexical aspects to convey states and events. Lexical aspect accounts for verbs that are not action words or that may be idiomatic—for example, expressing understanding with “I got it.” It is necessary to use these constructions to achieve mature communicative competence. Discourse may be made possible or constrained by a speaker’s grammatical capabilities.

Grammatical mood allows speakers to express meanings related to attitudes, specifications, provisions, requirements, restrictions, desires, requests, states of mind, intentions, conditions, and the like. Modal auxiliary verbs include “can,” “must,” “ought,” “will,” and so forth. English has three moods, the indicative (declarative), the subjunctive (a grammatical construction used in a subordinate clause introduced by a subordinating conjunction or a relative pronoun), and the imperative. Mood may be determined by morphological and syntactic criteria or by semantic criteria. That is, a mood construction exists either because the construction uses the syntax and morphology of modality or because its semantic meaning expresses mood.

Grammatical voice is concerned with the arrangement of the words that represent the subject, action, and object in a phrase, clause, or sentence. Some verbs are followed by objects or complements, and others are not. Voice conveys whether the subject is committing an action or is receiving or benefiting from an action.

English grammar uses little grammatical gender and does not alter verbing based on gender.

11. Are there ways to measure the length of older speakers’ utterances?

Analysis of the length and complexity of syntactic constructions considers the production of T-units (Hunt, 1965). T-units measure each main clause (independent clause) and all of its subordinate and embedded clauses (dependent clauses). “T-unit” is an abbreviation for “minimal terminable unit,” which means that the unit is complete and terminated (as opposed to run-on and interminable). Owens (2004) reported an increase in words per T-unit from an average of about 7 in Grades 3-4 to about 11 in Grades 10-11. SLPs can use a sample of 50 to 100 utterances to calculate a mean length of T-unit (MLTU) to represent a speaker’s average performance. The Systematic Analysis of Language Transcripts (SALT) software (Miller & Chapman, 2003; Miller et al., 2011; Miller et al., 2016) analyzes samples by T-unit. T-unit assessments are useful for observing changes in performance over time.

Another measure of syntactic analysis is the C-unit (Loban, 1963), which is the abbreviation for a “communication unit” or a “minimal communication unit.” The C-unit is useful for analysis of informal spoken language because incomplete utterances are common in casual speech. Owens (2004) collapsed data from different studies to show that words per C-unit may increase from roughly three at age 4 to roughly 11 in Grades 10-12.

12. How do standardized tests of language development contribute to the assessment of the grammar and syntax of school-age learners?

The purpose of an older student’s language assessment is often to determine whether the student’s language is strong enough to support academic learning. Assessment of grammar and syntax takes place in the context of academic achievement. Tests of developmental language competence might not be the most effective tools for assessing academic language performance, in part because the tasks used for diagnostic testing may not closely resemble academic language tasks. Academic language performance is not specifically measured by tests intended to yield diagnostic norms; these are two different assessment considerations, both with unique value.

Many diagnostic tests have strong concurrent and predictive validity and can identify that students’ academic difficulties are related to the underlying psychometric construct of language abilities. Diagnostic test scores may substantiate that a language weakness is an underlying reason for why students are struggling in school. However, establishing the basis for academic struggles serves a different purpose than administering a curriculum-based assessment that will uncover the actual language skills that students are struggling with in academic settings. Students’ performance on standardized tests of language development and the standardized scores obtained may or may not be similar to how a student is performing academically. For each student, diagnostic data and academic performance data would be compared, and the data may reconcile or may not. The age norms that standardized tests afford would be compared to how well students meet grade-level curriculum requirements.

13. Isn’t it too late to remediate grammar and syntax difficulties after the preschool developmental period?

No! Ehren and Whitmire (2009) discussed the essential roles of SLPs in literacy instruction for students of all ages, with special emphasis on the importance of SLPs remaining involved in middle school and secondary education, where educational teams may not regard SLP services as necessary. Aging out of primary education does not automatically signal the end of students’ needs for SLP services. SLPs can add value when services emphasize the advanced cognitive-linguistic development necessary for school success and are instituted from a diagnostic-prescriptive approach.

14. Older students with grammatical and syntactic weaknesses may already be receiving services under another diagnostic label. What populations of students may have language needs that may impede their success in academics?

One diagnostic population likely to have difficulties with syntax is students with specific learning disabilities, notably language-based learning disabilities. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, 2020) reported that 14% of the students enrolled in U.S. schools in 2018 received special education services under IDEA; of these, 33% had specific learning disabilities and 19% had speech or language impairments. As stated by the NCES, closely paraphrasing IDEA (2004), “Specific learning disability is a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.”

15. What does specific learning disability have in common with language disorders?

Pennington et al. (2019) described both diagnostic labels as arising from neurodevelopmental disorders that have in common some genetic factors, brain mechanisms, and neuropsychological manifestations. Inherent are problems with the neural processes that control language and learning. Pennington et al. (2005) posited a multifactorial model of the etiology of behaviorally defined developmental disorders, as would occur in deficits in learning, language, executive function (Gordon-Pershey, 2018), and attention. Comorbidity is expected. Some students may be described as having a language-based learning disability.

16. What does cognitive science have to say about how older learners can improve their knowledge and use of grammar and syntax?

The brain, like a computer, performs serial processing (which means doing one thing and then another, in succession) and parallel processing (doing more than one thing at a time, or multitasking). Although parallel processing taxes the brain’s resources, being able to coordinate multiple physiological and cognitive tasks is essential. A notable example of parallel processing is that young children learn language as they learn how to play (Westby, 2000). Thus, the ability to parallel process is foundational to language growth. This line of reasoning would suggest that the brain is primed to learn grammar and syntax in the natural context of engaging in other cognitive and physical activities. Syntactic learning would be embedded, for example, in the enjoyment of poems, stories, and songs, and in creating messages to share with other people through recordings of spoken language or in written formats. Grammar and syntax drills would represent serial processing tasks, where elements of form are learned one at a time, which is a necessary step to call a learner’s attention to these elements and introduce new information at a manageable pace. But drill could be deemphasized when it is reasonable to allow the brain to engage in the parallel processing of language along with other activities. Parallel processing provides a credible rationale for contextualizing the learning of grammar and syntax within authentic, meaningful, and enjoyable language activities.

17. What considerations enter into treating school-age children and adolescents who struggle with grammar and syntax?

Speech-language interventions can focus on strategies for helping students learn the grammatical and syntactic competencies that will meaningfully enhance classroom learning. Services would address deficits in academic learning, completion of classroom assignments, and performance on achievement testing owing to difficulties with grammar and syntax. SLPs may engage in adapting mainstream curriculum and assignments, differentiating instruction to accommodate learners of varying levels of ability, and designing classroom accommodations and modifications, along with direct lessons on understanding and using language form.

18. Language improvement tasks need to be functional and contextual. How is pragmatic language competence foundational to grammatical and syntactic skills?

Sometimes SLPs interpret pragmatics as solely how well a person demonstrates social skills. Social behavior is just a small subset of pragmatic language. Pragmatic language entails far more than just conversational participation, politeness routines, and social courtesies. Pragmatics is the branch of linguistics that explores the use, purpose, and intention of spoken and written messages. Pragmatic language skill involves using language at length, in a coordinated fashion, with elaboration and complexity, in order to share experiences or events. Interaction takes place during face-to-face communication or in writing. Inherent to pragmatic language skills are sentence-level meaning making and processing abilities. Messages are shaped in part by their grammatical and syntactic components at the sentence level. Because mature speakers are adept at so many different communicative purposes, they require an array of more advanced syntactic forms to convey their messages.

Syntactic abilities have an impact on the pragmatics of oral and written language comprehension. Receptive pragmatic language processing is dependent upon understanding the purposes and intents of other speakers or writers. Pragmatic language ability influences how well listeners or readers follow along when they need to process an extended series of verbal messages, which means they are processing syntax at length, sentence by sentence. Older children and teens need to be able to understand lengthy messages that contain multiple syntactic forms per sentence. The length and complexity of these messages require simultaneous syntactic and pragmatic interpretations.

19. Why are students’ metalinguistic skills so important?

School learning necessitates going beyond the spontaneous use of language for communication to a metalinguistic awareness of how to use language to read with comprehension and express ideas in writing. Metalanguage is the language used to talk about language. Metalinguistic awareness is the ability to explore language itself—to consider language as an object for exploration and manipulation (Britton, 1984). Metalinguistic skills are needed for the conscious use of grammar and syntax. Assessment of metalinguistic competence would include evaluating a student’s awareness of how to use grammar and syntax. Interventions teach ways to consciously explore how language structures are used in oral and written language. Syntax and grammar are improved when learners engage their metalinguistic insights.

20. Some dialects of U.S. English influence variations in the use of grammar and syntax. What are some considerations for SLPs to keep in mind regarding speakers with language variations?

Young children acquire linguistic form by matching their linguistic constructions to the patterns and rules used by the speakers around them. Patterns and rules vary across linguistic communities. The linguistic community’s patterns become the speaker’s innate language.

To some people, the term “grammar” implies correctness of form. To linguists, “grammar” is a neutral term. The form of language that speakers use reflects the rules and patterns that have evolved in communities over time. “Descriptive grammar” refers to the patterns and rules that speakers use, without judging their correctness or appropriateness (Angell, 2009). In contrast, “prescriptive grammar” entails teaching a language’s standard rules and patterns.

To provide culturally and linguistically appropriate services, SLPs’ differential diagnosis of language impairment versus language difference includes determining how children’s language matches or differs from the language patterns that they hear spoken around them. The central diagnostic question is whether an examinee’s language demonstrates an insufficient representation of the community’s language system. Difficulties learning the forms common to their communities’ dialects would matter, rather than their variations from the standard grammatical and syntactic forms that they may or may not hear spoken around them. SLPs consider the linguistic standards of the child’s community or communication environment when determining goals, objectives, and interventions.

References and Recommended Readings

Angell, C. A. (2009). Language development and disorders: A case study approach. Jones and Bartlett.

Britton, J. N. (1984). Viewpoints: The distinction between participant and spectator role language in research and practice. Research in the Teaching of English, 18(3), 320–330.

Ehren, B. J., & Whitmire, K. (2009). Speech-language pathologists as primary contributors to Response to Intervention at the secondary level. Seminars in Speech and Language, 30(2), 90–104.

Gordon Pershey, M. (2018). Executive function, language, and literacy impairments. In J. Birsh & S. Carreker (Eds.), Multisensory teaching of basic language skills (4th ed., pp. 294–335). Brookes.

Hunt, K. (1965). Grammatical structures written at three grade levels (NCTE Research Report No. 3). National Council of Teachers of English.

Individuals With Disabilities Education Act of 2004, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. (2004). Retrieved January 21, 2021, from https://sites.ed.gov/idea/

Loban, W. (1963). The language of elementary school children. National Council of Teachers of English.

Miller, J. F., Andriacchi, K., & Nockerts, A. (Eds.). (2011). Assessing language production using SALT software: A clinician’s guide to language sample analysis. SALT Software LLC.

Miller, J. F., & Chapman, R. (2003). SALT: Systematic Analysis of Language Transcripts [Computer software]. University of Wisconsin–Madison, Waisman Center, Language Analysis Laboratory.

Miller, J. F., Iglesias, A., Andriacchi, K., & Nockerts, A. (2016). Systematic Analysis of Language Transcripts 16 (SALT 16). SALT Software, LLC.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2020). Children and youth with disabilities. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgg.asp

Nippold, M. A. (2007). Later language development: School-age children, adolescents, and young adults (3rd ed.). Pro-Ed.

Nippold, M. A., Mansfield, T. C., Billow, J. L., & Tomblin, J. B. (2009). Syntactic development in adolescents with a history of language impairments: A follow-up investigation. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 18, 241–251.

Owens, R. E., Jr. (2004). Language disorders: A functional approach to assessment and intervention (4th ed.). Pearson Education.

Pennington, B. P., McGrath, L. M., & Peterson, R. L. (2019). Diagnosing learning disorder: From science to practices (3rd ed.). Guilford.

Pennington, B. F., Willcutt, E., & Rhee, S. H. (2005). Analyzing comorbidity. Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 33, 263–304. 

Westby, C. E. (2000). A scale for assessing development of children’s play. In K. Gitlin-Weiner, A. Sandgund, & C. Schaefer (Eds.), Play diagnosis and assessment (pp. 15–57). Wiley.


Gordon-Pershey, M. (2022). 20Q: Grammar and Syntax for School-Age Learners. SpeechPathology.com. Article 20532. Available at www.speechpathology.com

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monica gordon pershey

Monica Gordon Pershey, EdD, CCC-SLP

Monica Gordon-Pershey, EdD, CCC-SLP, is a professor in the Communication Sciences and Disorders Department at Cleveland State University (CSU), Cleveland, OH. Since joining CSU in 1995, her teaching experience has included a variety of courses in communication sciences and disorders, with a specialization in graduate language disorders courses. Dr. Gordon-Pershey has authored numerous articles, chapters, and presentations on language and literacy and the pre-professional and professional development of speech-language pathologists and teachers.

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