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Considerations for Diagnosing Students Who Struggle with Grammar and Syntax

Monica Gordon Pershey, EdD, CCC-SLP

January 15, 2023

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Question

What considerations should be made when diagnosing school-age children and adolescents who struggle with grammar and syntax?

Answer

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.


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