Throwback (2014): Less is NOT more when it comes to grammar treatment

Conversational Recast Therapy is an evidence-based treatment for grammatical intervention. The clinician creates a situation in which the targeted grammatical form is very likely to occur, whether spontaneously or elicited. Each time the child attempts to use the targeted form, the clinician repeats the child’s utterance using the correct grammatical form. Like this:

Child: “Puppy lick her.”

SLP: “The puppy licked her.”

But when selecting targets for conversational recast therapy, is it better to focus on a small subset of examples over and over, or use a variety of unique examples?

Now, researchers know that when teaching humans artificial or “fake” languages (think Elvish), they learn quicker when they are provided with individual language components in a variety of different verbal contexts (e.g., He runs. She falls. My pony jumps.) rather than a few of the same example repeated frequently (e.g., He runs. He runs. He runs.). They took this principle and applied it to language therapy for preschoolers with language disorder, to see if it would have the same effect. 

In this study, children heard their grammatical target (e.g. –ed) recast in either 12 unique verbs twice each or 24 unique verbs once each during each 30-minute session. The targets were a variety of grammatical forms (e.g. pronouns, auxiliary is, third person singular –s), based on the child’s individual needs. Just like the humans learning artificial languages, children with language impairment performed better in the high variability condition. When teaching new morphemes, we should provide a variety of different examples, rather than focusing on a small sample. Importantly, the target should be the thing that’s held consistent (e.g. past-tense –ed) while all the other words around it vary. Repeating input, even just once, provided no benefit.

Although this may seem like it would be confusing for young children, the researchers hypothesized that when there is high lexical variability, children focus on the aspects of the utterance that are the most stable. For instance, when teaching the pronoun she and providing a variety of different verbs, the child might focus most on the target she, and learn it more quickly. It follows that grammar int­ervention should contain more variety, not less!

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Guess what?! Dr. Plante chatted with us about this paper, and has a pointer for everyone:

“Here is an expert tip:

Clinicians sometimes worry about planning for high linguistic variability. A helpful tip is to look at the materials you plan to use (e.g., books, games, crafts, etc) and jot down 24 verbs (or nouns, depending on the morpheme) that could be elicited from the child using those materials. Cross them off as you elicit them during the session. This is quickly done and saves thinking about whether you have met the minimum of 24 unique exemplars by the end of the session.

Sincerely, Elena Plante”

(And now Dr. Plante is on our “my favorite scientist” list)

Plante, E., Ogilvie, T., Vance, R., Aguilar, J.M., Dailey, N.S., Meyers, C., … Burton, R. (2014). Variability in the language input to children enhances learning in a treatment context. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 23, 530–545.