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Considerations for Diagnosing Students Who Struggle with Grammar and Syntax

Monica Gordon Pershey, EdD, CCC-SLP

January 15, 2023



What considerations should be made when 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.  Therefore, anguage sampling is essential when assessing the grammar and syntax of school-age learners. 

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.

This Ask the Expert is an excerpt from the course, 20Q: Grammar and Syntax for School-Age Learners, authored by Monica Gordon Pershey, EdD CCC-SLP.

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.

Related Courses

20Q: Grammar and Syntax for School-Age Learners
Presented by Monica Gordon Pershey, EdD, CCC-SLP


Monica Gordon Pershey, EdD, CCC-SLP
Course: #10324Level: Intermediate1 Hour
  'This knowledge will help me in providing the proper therapies to children from different backgrounds'   Read Reviews
This course discusses why it is important for SLPs to diagnose and intervene to help school-age children and adolescents who struggle with grammar and syntax. Information on the development of grammar and syntax, procedures for assessment, academic challenges for students with grammar/syntax impairments, and curriculum-based interventions are provided.

20Q: English Learners and Developmental Language Disorder - ​Strategies to Develop Academic Vocabulary Skills
Presented by Celeste Roseberry-McKibbin, PhD, CCC-SLP, F-ASHA


Celeste Roseberry-McKibbin, PhD, CCC-SLP, F-ASHA
Course: #10266Level: Intermediate1 Hour
  'Lots of good information'   Read Reviews
This course discusses Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) in English Learners (EL). Specific, research-based strategies are provided for developing academic vocabulary skills and phonological awareness skills in this group of students.

20Q: Providing Supportive Intervention for Trauma-Exposed Students with Communication Disorders
Presented by Celeste Roseberry-McKibbin, PhD, CCC-SLP, F-ASHA


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The definition of childhood trauma, the experiences that constitute trauma in a student’s life, and the concept of trauma-informed intervention are described in this course. Practical, hands-on suggestions are provided for strategies that support students with communication disorders who have experienced trauma, and activities to improve their social and executive function skills.

20Q: Dynamics of School-Based Speech and Language Therapy Variables
Presented by Kelly Farquharson, PhD, CCC-SLP, Anne Reed, MS, CCC-SLP


Kelly Farquharson, PhD, CCC-SLPAnne Reed, MS, CCC-SLP
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This course reviews dynamics of speech and language therapy variables such as session frequency, intervention intensity, and dosage, and how these are impacted by different service delivery models. It discusses how therapy outcomes are related to therapy quality, IEP goals, and SLP-level variables such as job satisfaction and caseload size.

20Q: A Continuum Approach for Sorting Out Processing Disorders
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There is a good deal of confusion among audiologists and speech-language pathologists when a diagnosis of “processing disorder” is introduced. This course presents a continuum model to differentiate processing disorders into acoustic, phonemic, or linguistic aspects so that assessment and treatment can become more focused and effective. The roles of audiologists and SLPs in relation to processing disorders are described, and compensatory strategies for differing aspects of processing are presented.

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