Friday, August 14, 2015

Monitoring the Development of Sentences

On the August 6th blog, I ended the post with the following questions:

Should we approach monitoring of progress at each level of oral language development (sound, word, sentence, discourse) in the same way?
How much knowledge, skill or training is required to monitor progress?
Are there other factors that influence monitoring progress?
How well do we use the data from monitoring progress?

That posting focused on monitoring at the “sound” level of language, with specific reference to the type of skill “sounds” represents.  Using a reference from Hoffman, Teale and Piagia, I noted that “sounds” reflect a “constrained” skill.

“In discussing the Common Core State Standards, Hoffman, Paciga and Teale point out that some literacy standards (“Foundational Skills” which they call “constrained” skills) are relatively easily conceptualized in terms of component parts that follow a fairly linear trajectory.  ….

Words, sentences and discourse are “unconstrained” skills: that is, we continue to develop these skills throughout our lifetime and development of these skills is more challenging to trace beyond an initial level of “mastery.”  At the same time, by the time children reach “school age/kindergarten” we have a pretty good sense as to whether or not these skills are developing at a “typical” rate.

Before tracing development at the sentence level, note that the same “guidelines” for monitoring progress apply:  tools, frequency of monitoring and use of the data.

Tools:  Standardized, formalized checklists and naturalistic observations.


*concerns of teachers and parents about the “pace” or “rate” at which the skill is being developed by individual children,

*meeting the goals of the specific curriculum (assuming there is a specific curriculum),

*sensitivity to the predictive power of the skill (for subsequent development of other skills).


Using data to plan instruction and timely intervention. Yes!, we should use the data--assuming that we know what the monitoring tells us about what we need to change about the curriculum, the teaching/learning, the context, or our understanding of the child.  Even if we don’t see anything to change, having a record of the child’s development is useful for both teachers and parents.

Sentence Development

The developmental norms for sentences provide a great deal of information about when sentences develop, what those sentences consist of, and how the sentences are used.

When and What Develops?

First, let’s note that the basics of sentence structure (syntax, grammar*) begins around 21 months or when children have acquired a basic 50 word “vocabulary” and are completed by the time children reach 4 or 5.  Hoff says, “The last major syntactic development is the production of multiclause sentences.  This course of development usually begins some time before a child’s second birthday and is largely complete by the age of 4 years.” (p 228)

Hoff (pp 228-244) gives us lots of examples of what develops, showing examples of a child’s two word utterances: possessives (daddy coffee; mommy book), property-indicating patterns (big shell, ho sand), recurrence number and disappearance (more raisins, two shoe, all gone), locatives (sand ball (on), ball daddy (to), actor/action (mommy sit, daddy work) and “other combinations”.

Hoff also describes morpheme development and sentence type development: negative forms, question forms, and complex sentence forms.  These sentence forms become increasingly important as we help children engage in the “extended” conversations that reflect and predict a critical dimension of school success—the ability to elaborate and engage in more abstract language.

Roger Brown, an early researcher on language development gives us additional information of sentence development, including embedded and co-joined sentences.  Brown traced sentence development from 12 to 47+ months, noting that “and” appears between 22 and 26 months, and “ but, so, or and if” appear between 31-32 months.  See the link below for a more detailed outline of Brown’s work.

Sentence Function or Use.  While children are learning to produce sentence grammar (structure), they are also learning how sentences are used to convey meaning.  Michael Halliday gives us a list of the “functions” of sentences.

Instrumental: I want a banana

Regulatory:  “First I … you need a rake and you have to build over the rake.”

Interactional:  “Do you like cricket too Henry?”

Personal:  “I know that song ‘cause we sang it at Kindergarten.”

Heuristic:  “We could make a water thing to tell how much rain we got.”

Imaginative: “Alice the camel has one hump, one hump, one hump.”

Representational:  “It is raining really heavy and heavy all day.”

This chart from Michael Halliday is from a 1969 article in Educational Review titled “Relevant Models of Language,” which appeared in Language Development: A Reader for Teachers edited by Brenda Miller Power an Ruth Shagoury Hubbard, Merrill Prentice Hall, 2002

To see the more detailed blog post:

Three other important notes about sentences.

Sentence comprehension.  According to Hoff (p 247), although it is harder to measure with naturalistic observations, “the sequence of grammatical development that occurs in comprehension is like the sequence in production, but it occurs earlier.”

Sentence complexity.  Sentences can be more or less complex (orally or in writing) because of three factors:  (1) features of open class words (nouns and verbs) and their relationships. (2) number and types of syntactic operations (usually reflected in sentence length) and (3) type of syntactic operation (order of main and subordinate clauses.  See Scott (pp 342-344) in Handbook of Language and Literacy edited by Stone, Sillman, Ehren and Apel.

Sentences and smaller and larger units of speech.  Sentences are not independent of the prior level (words) and the next level (discourse). In order to understand and use sentences, you need to know the words that make up the sentences and the larger unit into which the single sentence fits.  Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek point out (pp 157-8):

    “Babies find the units in the language stream.   Where are the words? The phrases? The clauses?  Although babies have to find these, this doesn’t mean that they have to be able to name the units.  In fact, they can’t…At some unconscious level, however, babies need to be aware of these grammatical units if  they are to learn to produce grammatical sentences….”


Should we approach monitoring of all levels of language in the same way?  No.  What we are monitoring will be influenced by the complexity of the skill, the rate at which the skill “typically” develops, at what age development is largely complete (constrained vs unconstrained skills), how complex a task the monitoring is, and the tools we have available.

How much knowledge and skill are required?  Lots… especially important is the knowledge of language development, including a sense of the rate or pace at which the child is developing the language skill.

Are there other factors that influence both the development and the monitoring of the skill?  Yes, specifically important are the context in which the monitoring takes place and the task the child is engaged in.  Some contexts will be more typical for the particular child, some less.  That needs to be judged and noted.  Some tasks are more difficult (in general and for a particular child), some tasks less so. It may be necessary to monitor several types of tasks to get a complete picture.

How well do we use the data collected?  Ideally, we are monitoring how well a particular child is progressing on a schedule that will allow us to intervene at an optimal time .  We need to share the information with parents and other important persons in the child’s life (teachers, para-educators, supervisors, specialists).  And, most importantly, we need to intervene if the child is not progressing at a pace that will allow him or her to be successful.

I will need to save the following topics for the next blog post, continuing with Sentence Development
Tools for Tracking
Frequency of Monitoring







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