Tools for Measuring Sentence Development: Some unanswered questions.
Unanswered questions from the August 13th posting:
Standardized Tools for Monitoring Sentence Development
1 Developmental Sentence Scoring
Research Report on the DSS by Laura Lee, 1970, giving a very detailed description of what this tool entails. It involves collecting via audio tape (perhaps now video tape) 50 samples of a child’s spontaneous speech, for children ranging in age from 3-0 to 6-11. This article gives a very detailed description of the range and complexity of sentence production skills. I suggest this tool not so it will be used as a formal test, but because it offers a very detailed listing of all of the sentence structure (syntax/grammar) elements.
2 Here is another standardized commercial tool with multiple measures of language, including sentence knowledge: Preschool Language Assessment-5
3 For a more recent tool see Appendix B of Anne Toolen Rowley’s dissertation:
http://media.proquest.com/media/pq/classic/doc/2042615911/fmt/ai/rep/NPDF?_s=wX%2BgGMdVSIyrCLGodLwDOPKJbI8%3D or a Power Point of her work:
4 American Speech Hearing (Language) Association Annual Convention
Got Grammar? An Easy Way to Review Grammar and Syntax
For the most part, the tools noted above were designed for Speech/Language Pathologists. At the same time, the information presented in the tools provides good insight into the range of syntactic knowledge norms we should pay attention to in preschoolers (0-5) language development. Many of these tests are for children 3 to 5 or 3 to 7. We will need to pay attention to sentence development from 18 to 36 months. In this age range, knowing the developmental norms is critical, since so much of syntactic development occurs between 18-36 months. Although even in the 3-5 range, some syntactic elements are more complex than others.
Laura Lee’s DSS test is especially informative. Because so many language development authors suggest that “syntax” or “grammar” knowledge/skill is essentially complete by age 5, it is easy to assume that there is little need to pay and to the more sophisticated elements of syntax: embedded clauses, auxiliary verbs and secondary verbs, use of conjunctions, and question forms. These syntactic elements may tax a child’s cognitive, processing, and memory skills.
In addition to monitoring sentence grammar, we need to pay attention to the pragmatics of language at the sentence level. Do children understand and use sentences for the full range
of purposes? There are several ways of talking about “using” sentences to communicate: pragmatics, functions, speech acts, communication purposes, intentions. Researchers have studied babies’ communicative purposes even before the babies can put words together to make sentences. Hoff describes the work of R. S. Chap showing a wide range of “speech acts” at the One-Word Stage, including labeling, repeating, answering, requesting action, calling, greeting, protesting and practicing. (Hoff, p 103). Nino (l995), cited in Hoff, lists “communicative intention” by a 1-1/2 year old, including, greetings, agreeing, refusing, disagreeing, asking a yes/no question, disapproving and expressing surprise.
Although addressing function relative to older children, Pinnell (in Power and Hubbard’s Language Development: A Reader for Teachers) suggests using Halliday’s seven categories for language function to assess children’s repertoire of language functions: instrumental, regulatory, interactional, personal, imaginative, heuristic, and informative. In that same text, Halliday describes each function in detail. For further details, see https://classroomdiscourse.wordpress.com/2014/04/26/sentences-function-part-3-of-3/ We will come back to the “functions of language” topic again as we move to the discourse level of language.
As with other levels of language, given that children start to develop 2 word sentences as young
18 months, it is important to start tracking their progress and pace of development on a regular basis from age 2 on. The data tell us that the typical development of sentences (grammar, syntax) is essentially complete by age 4 or 5. That being the case, it seems reasonable to suggest tracking progress every 4 to 6 months between 2 and 5. Again, we don’t want to miss tracking those “optimal” periods of development only to find that a 4 or 5 year old child is well behind the typical milestones. We have too much information and research that tells us that children who arrive at kindergarten with under-developed language skills are likely to struggle to keep up as they go through school.
One study that highlights the role of “sentences” in the “readiness for school” literature is an “old” monograph study: Language Development, Kindergarten through Grade Twelve Walter Loban, NCTE, 1976. I quote this study here because of the insight it gives us on the importance of sentence structure. The following are direct quotes from the text:
“In the elementary school, the members of the High group were superior in tentativeness or flexibility of expression; they avoided the flat dogmatism of the Low group, the stark statement without possibility of qualification or supposition. They used more subordination than the Low group, thus reducing the number of communication units by combining them in complex fashion. Even so, the High group still exceeded the Low group in number of communications units in oral language.”
Although all subjects knew and used all the basic structural patterns of English sentences, the High group had a much greater flexibility and repertoire within the pattern of a sentence: that is, they had more ways to fill slots like the subject, the modifiers, the objects. Their usage was also more conventional that the rest of the group.”
“Both in reading and in written composition, the proficient (High) group excelled and they were superior in using connectors--like meanwhile, unless--in a test which showed their median to be almost double that of the Low group. The High group also excelled in the use of adverbial clauses of concession and condition. On listening tests, those who were superior with oral language ranked highest. IT IS OF SPECIAL NOTE THAT THOSE SUPERIOR IN ORAL LANGAUGE IN KINDERGARTEN AND GRADE ONE BEFORE THEY LEARNED TO READ AND WRITE ARE THE VERY ONES WHO EXCEL IN READING AND WRITING BY THE TIME THEY ARE IN GRADE SIX. OUR DATA SHOW A POSITIVE RELATIONSHIP OF SUCCESS AMONG THE LANGUAGE ARTS.”
Loban goes on to note that these differences are not attributable to poor cognitive development.
“NOTHING THAT WE HAVE EVER FOUND SUPPORTS THE IDEA OF ANY BASIC ABILITY DIFFERENCES AMONG ETHNIC GROUPS. WHAT WE DO FIND IS THAT THOSE WHO USE THE FULL RESOURCES OF LANUAGE USUALLY COME FROM FAMILIES WITH REASONABLY GOOD SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS. SOCIAL INJUSTICES, NOT GENETIC DIFFERENCE, ACCOUNT MOST PLAUSIBLY FOR THE LARGE NUMBER OF OUR MINORITY SUBJECTS WITH LOWER SOCIOECONOMIC BACKGROUNDS. ANGO SUBJECTS FROM LOW SES STATUS FELL INTO THE NONPROFICIENT LANGUAGE GROUP JUST AS INEVITABLY AS THE SUBJECTS FROM MINORITY GROUPS.”
If Loban’s study were inconsistent with current data on the “Achievement Gap,” perhaps we could ignore it as old data. It is not inconsistent with the current attention to the Achievement Gap. Too many children are still arriving at kindergarten without the oral language skills that they will need to succeed.
Backtracking to our discussion of both sentence structure (grammar and syntax) and function, we need to look at both of these dimensions of sentences in determining how to use the developmental data gleaned from standardized tests, formalized checklists or naturalistic observations.
I would suggest that the easier starting place it to note to what extend the child uses all of the functions of sentences (as per Halliday). In those instances where a function is not being used to an appropriate developmental level, then we might look more closely at the syntax/grammar of the utterances.
At the same time, when a 3 year old is not using fairly complete basic sentences or continually lags behind the developmental norms, we should determine whether more attention, more stimulation or scaffolding or more direct intervention is needed.