2 In Therapy

How to Teach Grammar: Drill-Based Practice

Last week, we talked about a general framework for targeting grammar goals (including some evidence-based strategies). But where do we go from there?! What does it actually look like? Let’s start with drill-based therapy.

NOTE: The links below are Amazon Affiliate links for your convenience, but I may receive compensation if you click through and purchase one of the books. *

There is a time and a place to teach grammar using drill-based practice. Using a variety of research studies, I provide suggestions for how to go about doing this in your speech room. This post is part of my How to Teach Grammar series, so click through to read this one and get links to the other posts.

What the Research Says

“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 (Eisenberg, 2014).

We can use drill-based therapy strategically, but 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 crucial. 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.

In summary, there is a time and a place for drill-based practice! Let’s talk about what the research suggests…

Drills Are Not Created Equal

Drills supported in the literature include…

  • Imitating contrasting sentences (Connell, 1982)
  • Modeling combined with production (Fey & Proctor-Williams, 2000)
  • Combining sentences (Strong, 1986; Weaver, 1996)

Grammar analysis [i.e., teaching labels for grammar concepts, dissecting sentences] and detecting errors for isolated sentences do not seem to be beneficial” (Eisenberg, 2007).

How Do I Do This?

I’ll walk through three strategies below, but scroll down to see a video of the three strategies in action (coming soon!).

1. Modeling Combined with Production

Modeling (with or without student imitation) helps students produce new targets (Connell, 1987). Students produce more untrained exemplars when they do have the opportunity to imitate the model.  Despite these positive results, research suggests that these improvements don’t generalize well (Connell, 1982).

2. Imitating Contrasting Sentences

Just having students imitate productions doesn’t help generalization, but contrastive imitation does (Connell, 1982; Connell, 1986). The child imitates both the target and a contrasting form that is semantically and/or grammatically related to the target. Here are some examples:

  • Pronouns: The boy is walking. He is walking.
  • Past Tense Verbs: He is eating. He ate.
  • Auxiliary Verbs: He will eat. He is eating.

Check out the video below for an example (coming soon!). Connell (1982) also includes a step-by-step training procedure.

“The most effective timing of the imitation drill is immediately prior to an activity that involves contextual use of the same structure” (Eisenberg, 2007).

3. Combining Sentences

Another approach is to provide students with two or more sentences and prompt them to create a single, longer sentence (Strong, 1986). There are two types:

Cued Combining: The therapist underlines components to be combined and/or gives students to use (e.g., conjunctions).

  • Example: I sometimes wonder SOMETHING. Superheroes do exist. (WHETHER) –> I sometimes wonder whether superheroes do exist.

Open Combining: The therapist doesn’t give specific instructions and allows the student to creatively combine the sentence.

  • Example: I like to eat cereal. I watch TV. –> I like to eat cereal before I watch TV.

Students can also be prompted to expand sentences (Gould, 2001). The therapist gives the student a simple sentence to start with and has the student build the sentence by increasing the length and complexity.

  • Example: I saw a monkey. –> I saw a silly monkey eating bananas at the zoo.

So there we have it–a few evidence-based strategies for grammar drill. Strategies for embedded practice are up next!

Want to read more? Click here to check out other posts in the series.

* Marisha McGrorty is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon properties including, but not limited to, amazon.com, endless.com, myhabit.com, smallparts.com, or amazonwireless.com.

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  • Reply
    Leah Ambrose
    May 8, 2017 at 12:23 pm

    Very informative. Thank you! I’ve always wondered if I was teaching grammar skills in the most effective way for generalization. My confidence has just been bumped up a notch or two thanks to you and your research!

    • Reply
      May 8, 2017 at 2:36 pm

      Yay! I’m definitely not a researcher, but I try my best to make sense of the evidence. 🙂 So glad you found it helpful!

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