Throwback Pub (2014): Telegraphic or grammatically complete prompts—which is best?

“Dog sitting.”
“The dog is sitting.”

Which would you choose to use as a model in therapy for a language delayed toddler?

If you said the first sentence, you’re not alone. The common assumption among many pediatric SLPs and parents of young children is that short phrases with the grammar removed—aka: “telegraphic utterances”—are a better choice for young kids because they make it easier for them to understand and imitate. And, popular, research-based treatment programs like Enhanced Milieu Teaching (Hancock & Kaiser, 2006) include telegraphic prompts, so they have to be good, right?

But, here’s the problem: previous research has actually shown just the opposite (e.g., van Kleeck et al., 2010). And, in fact, some studies have shown that when young kids don’t hear grammatically complete models, they begin to assume that those telegraphic utterances are the rule (e.g., Leonard & Deevy, 2011), and then have trouble using them in spontaneous productions (e.g., Theakston, Lieven, & Tomasello, 2003).

So, what’s an SLP to do?

That’s where this study comes in. Because we know that hearing correct syntax and morphology is important, and particularly for young kids with language impairments, Bredin-Oja and Fey wanted to find out what happens when models for imitation are grammatically complete. Can young kids with expressive delays still imitate them? And, how does that compare to their ability to imitate telegraphic models?


Five 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds with expressive language delays participated in 14 play-based therapy sessions. Seven of the sessions involved grammatically complete prompts (“The boy is jumping”), and seven included telegraphic models (“Boy jumping”). Results show that all five of the kids responded just as reliably to grammatically complete prompts to imitate as they did to telegraphic. And, three* of the five kids included morphemes in their imitated utterances only following a grammatically correct model.

This small study has big implications when it comes to the models that we provide in therapy, and also how we teach parents to talk to their young kids. Put simply, the message has to be simplified, but not at the expense of accuracy when it comes to grammar. The authors provide some helpful suggestions for how clinicians and parents can achieve this at the end of this article.

*Two of the kids didn’t produce the morphological markers at all, regardless of whether they were presented in a telegraphic or a grammatically complete utterance. The authors hypothesized that they were probably just not developmentally ready to produce those language forms, and that makes a lot of sense and aligns with previous research (e.g., Fey & Loeb, 2002). 


Bredin-Oja, S. L. & Fey, M. (2014). Children’s responses to telegraphic and grammatically complete prompts to imitate. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 23, 15 – 26.