Starting with the hard stuff: Complexity for morphology

We’ve talked about the complexity approach to speech and grammar treatment before. The idea is that if we work on the hard stuff, we can get easier skills that weren’t targeted directly. In speech treatment, this means working on later-developing sounds or clusters to get earlier-developing sounds or singletons. In grammar treatment, we might target a morpheme in a more difficult context to get the same morpheme in an easier one.

De Anda and colleagues wanted to know whether the complexity approach would help with copula and auxiliary BE* production.  They point out that auxiliaries might be harder than copulas because they also require the –ing verb ending. Also, copulas and auxiliaries are harder in question forms because you have to switch the word order (e.g., “Is the dog tired?” or “Is the dog running?”).

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The study included a single child, a 3-year-old boy with average overall language scores but difficulty with grammatical morpheme production. Researchers used scenes, puppets, and a prompting hierarchy to elicit singular and plural auxiliary questions (e.g., “Is the dog eating” or “Are the dogs eating?”—see the article Appendix for example scripts). Each treatment session included 30 trials, which took place during ten 20–45-minute sessions over 2.5 weeks. Probes and a language sample were repeated after the final treatment.

As treatment went on, the child needed fewer prompts to produce auxiliaries in questions. In probes after treatment, he had higher accuracy on copula BE in statements. (Language sample results were more mixed, though.) Of course, this is a single case study with a pre-post design, so, not the strongest evidence. However, the study did show that it was feasible to elicit auxiliary BE in questions even for a child who wasn’t yet attempting that structure. If you’re already working on auxiliary and copula BE with a child, it might be more efficient to target BE in questions first.


*Quick grammar reminder: forms of BE include am, is, are, was, and were. Copula BE is a linking verb, like in “The dog is tired.” Auxiliary BE is a helping verb, as in “The dog is running.”

De Anda, S., Blossom, M., & Abel, A. D. (2019) A complexity approach to treatment of tense and agreement deficits: A case study. Communication Disorders Quarterly. doi:10.1177/1525740118822477