Anyone else struggle with grammar goals? It can be challenging to find fun and effective ways to target these goals. I used to use a lot of drill-based practice, but my students just weren’t generalizing to other activities in the therapy room (and totally forget any generalization to the classroom!). I knew I had to do something different, but how in the world are we supposed to get enough targeted practice in context? Oh, and let’s put that student in a mixed group to further complicate things, right?
Let’s try to answer these questions!
But wait! Check out the first post I wrote about why (and how) I teach skills in therapy. The post includes a general “framework” for teaching in therapy. I try to use that framework in each of the “How to Teach” posts, but grammar is a little different!
Step 0: Assessment
I always start with a language sample. Many of our students with language disorders struggle with the cloze tasks that we often see in assessments or tests (e.g., “Today, I run. Yesterday, I…”), so it may not be a fair assessment of their skills. Why target irregular past tense verbs just because they can’t answer questions on a test, right?
I record the student in conversation and also pull 1-2 additional samples for good measure (e.g., story retell, picture description). I transcribe the sample in an Excel sheet. This makes it easy to quickly calculate MLU. I make notes of what I’m seeing (e.g., specific grammar/syntax errors, word finding, etc.) in the second column. By doing this, I get a good overall picture of the student’s grammar (as well as overall language). If I have concerns about specific skills (e.g., verb tenses, pronouns, etc.), then I pick conversational topics or materials that will elicit those grammatical forms.
I know these things take time, but use tools/resources to help you! This is time well spent!
Here are some suggestions:
- Here’s a copy of the Excel sheet that I use to transcribe language samples, take notes, and automatically calculate MLU!
- See how Shannon from Speechy Musings uses Microsoft Word for her language samples. She also shares a free checklist!
- Read about how SLP Toolkit can help with language samples!
- Check out these FREE language assessment visuals.
Once I identify areas of concern, I’ll do some quick dynamic assessment using the materials in the corresponding SLP Now Skill Pack. How much is the student struggling with any given grammatical form? Does he/she even understand the concept (e.g., past vs. present, singular vs. plural)?
I don’t often write “pure” grammar goals. That’s my bias/inclination. It doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to write a goal for a specific target (e.g., irregular past tense verbs). I tend to write goals for grammar in the context of a broader language goal (e.g., story retell). This helps me focus on generalization and looking at the whole child (vs. getting stuck on one component of their grammar). However, if the student shows a need for decontextualized practice (e.g., drill), then that is what we’ll do!
* Quick Strategy Review *
If you’re looking for a quick review of strategies (or if anyone asks you to justify why you do what you do in therapy!), this article is a goldmine! Fey, Long, & Finestack (2003) review 10 principles of grammar intervention for students with Specific Language Impairments.
Their first principle is this:
The basic goal of all grammatical interventions should be to help the child to achieve greater facility in the comprehension and use of syntax and morphology in the service of conversation, narration, exposition, and other textual genres in both written and oral modalities.
It’s easy to forget this part! When we’re assessing and planning for therapy, we need to ask ourselves how the student will be able to use this in “meaningful oral or written communication activities” (Fey, Long, & Finestack, 2003).
Here are three more of Fey, Long, & Finestack’s (2013) principles that you could quickly implement in therapy:
- Highlighting the features naturally in conversation – The therapist puts the target at the end of the sentence (“He IS.”) or contrasts two elements (“You will, but I won’t.”)
- Using sentence recasts – The therapist corrects what the child says or modifies the modality (e.g., turn a statement into a question).
- Contrastive imitation – The therapist asks the client to imitate pairs of sentences, one with the target and one with a related grammatical form (e.g., past and present tense).
Sigh of relief, right? We do these things already!
I was curious how this would all come together. One study (Fey, Cleave, & Long, 1997) describes a treatment approach in a preschool classroom. The therapists selected several grammar targets and cycled through the targets (a week for each). They used contrastive imitation and focused stimulation. Contrastive imitation was a drill-based activity, while focused stimulation included frequent models and recasts in a variety of activities (e.g., play, snack, and other common preschool activities).
Eisenberg (2014) also wrote an article about “what works in therapy.” She emphasized many of the principles discussed above, but she also discusses dosage, actively engaging students in producing the target form, and not targeting imitation until the student has the chance to hear the grammatical form. And my personal favorite…
Different activity types might best be used in a complementary way within our therapy sessions, using high-structure drills to highlight and prime linguistic features and then immediately incorporating those features into embedded activities.
Just to drive this home, Eisenberg (2007) says…
The use of discrete skill instruction [e.g., grammar analysis, modeling, imitation drills, error detection, and sentence combining] as the sole intervention approach, without embedding use of newly acquired structures in meaningful activities, is not recommended.
…authenticity is crucal. Students must have a reason for doing the things that lead them to learn and use grammar so that they can read, write, and speak better.
Now that we have some evidence-based strategies, let’s really dive in!
Step 1: Teaching
As always, I start off with a quick introduction of the skill. I pull out the visuals and verbally walk through them with the student. I use the assessment data to decide where to start.
When I teach a skill (especially with older students), we talk about why we want to target this skill. Ideally, they’d also be involved in the process of selecting goals in the first place.
Here are some reasons why students might “care” about grammar:
- Being understood by friends (e.g., Their stories might get really confusing if they’re not using appropriate verb tenses!)
- Needed in any writing/speaking career (e.g., sports announcers, singers, teachers, authors)
- Miscommunication (Google grammar jokes and you’ll get some funny examples.)
Encourage them to think of their own reasons! The more personal, the better!
Step 2: Focused Stimulation *
Focused stimulation (Fey, 1986) involves rich language modeling of specific language structures in daily life contexts. The therapist doesn’t require the child to produce anything.
Step 3: Quick Drill *
Some students may also need more traditional drill practice, but we don’t stay here long. This may include…
- Imitating contrasting sentences
- Modeling combined with production
- Combining sentences
“Grammar analysis and detecting errors for isolated sentences do not seem to be beneficial” (Eisenberg, 2007).
Step 4: Embedded Practice *
Because grammar is a bigger topic, I’ll be sharing practical tips for targeting grammar using books, games, and curriculum-based materials. Stay tuned for blog posts diving into each of these!
One thing to think about in the meantime… We can manipulate the context to create more opportunities for the student to use the target (e.g., carefully selecting activities, books, conversation topics). When you’re deciding which activities to use in therapy, think about how you can modify them for this purpose!
* NOTE: These steps aren’t linear! You’ll jump around from step to step, as needed. I put them in this order because the research suggests that students shouldn’t imitate sentences (Step 3) until they’ve heard several examples of the grammar target (Step 2). Eisenhower (2014) also recommends doing quick drill (Step 3) before jumping into embedded practice (Step 4).
I hope this was helpful! Comment below with your favorite strategies or any questions that you might have!