The Importance of Grammar for Speech-Language Pathologists

By Marilyn A. Nippold
February 28, 2023

For speech-language pathologists (SLPs), “practicing at the top of one’s license” implies a commitment to continuously expand and tap into one’s specialized knowledge when deciding how best to evaluate or treat individuals with known or suspected communication disorders. For example, many SLPs work with clients who have language disorders, and because SLPs are language specialists, their knowledge of grammar—the elements of language—is essential for carrying out evidence-based practice with preschool children (3–5 years), school-age children (6–11 years), adolescents (12–19 years), and young, middle-aged, and older adults (20+ years).

Many children, adolescents, and adults, for example, have developmental language disorder (DLD), a condition marked by deficits in the comprehension and production of syntax, morphology, and semantics in spoken and written language. However, DLD may go unnoticed and therefore untreated if the SLP is unfamiliar with the development of grammar, especially of complex syntax; does not know what to expect at different ages; and does not understand how syntactic complexity can vary in relation to the individual’s knowledge of the topic, motivation to communicate, and genre employed (e.g., conversational, narrative, expository, persuasive).

On the other hand, knowledge of complex syntax, how it develops, and how it can vary in different speaking or writing situations, can assist the SLP to conduct state-of-the art, evidence-based activities for assessment and intervention. Regarding assessment, language sampling is an excellent example of how this information can be used to practice at the top of one’s license. The gold standard of assessment, language sampling is the least biased way—culturally and linguistically—to evaluate a client’s ability to communicate in natural settings with accuracy, clarity, and efficiency (ACE). But this assumes, of course, that the SLP can identify the different types of words, morphemes, phrases, clauses, and sentences the client is using—or not using—during conversational, narrative, expository, or persuasive discourse.

For example, during the Favorite Game or Sport (FGS) expository speaking task, a 13-year-old girl who enjoys playing basketball and understands it well may nevertheless produce mostly simple sentences and fragments, and numerous mazes, as she attempts to explain the rules and strategies needed to win a game, and may struggle to use the correct terminology (e.g., center, guard, forward, traveling, dribbling). The well-informed SLP, however, would be able to describe how the girl’s performance on the FGS task contrasts to that of an age-matched peer known to have typical language development (TLD), a classmate who explains the game with ACE. In this way, the SLP gains valuable data needed to identify DLD, determine its severity, establish goals for intervention, and advocate for the student to receive appropriate services.

These and other topics are covered in the book, Grammar Guide for Speech-Language Pathologists: Steps to Analyzing Complex Syntax (Nippold, 2023). As the title implies, the book was written for students and professionals in the field of speech-language pathology. The book also takes a systematic and gradual “simple to more challenging” approach to covering the elements that comprise complex syntax, starting with different types of words (e.g., nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives), morphemes (lexical, grammatical, derivational), phrases (e.g., noun phrases, verb phrases), and clauses (e.g., nominal, adverbial, relative), explaining how they function and how they interact (e.g., “A relative clause functions like an adjective in that it describes things”). Once this information is understood, larger and more complicated elements such as communication units (C-units), terminable units (T-units), and types of sentences (e.g., simple, complex, compound, compound-complex) become transparent, particularly when readers spend time reviewing the material, completing the chapter exercises, and checking their answers.

This knowledge is equally important during language intervention. For example, when working with a 6th grade student who has DLD, an SLP might decide to use a metalinguistic approach to help the student identify relative clauses in sentences from a science text (expository discourse) and learn how they function to explain the meanings of words. This can be seen in the following sentence from a passage on water purification where the relative clause defines the key term filters: “Then the water passes through a series of filters, which are layers of sand, gravel, and charcoal.” Once students understand how relative clauses function, the SLP can encourage them to use this strategy to learn the meanings of other unfamiliar words they encounter and then to use those words (and clauses) when summarizing the passages. In this way, the SLP engages the students in the production of informative complex sentences. As another example, the SLP could teach the 6th grade student a set of later-developing metacognitive verbs (e.g., assume, recognize) in relation to the production of nominal clauses. This would be relevant, for example, when discussing the thoughts and feelings of characters in a story drawn from the classroom (e.g., “The fox assumed that the crow was naive,” “Jeremy recognized that he would be late for the party”). Then, as students retell the stories, the SLP can encourage them to use metacognitive verbs and nominal clauses when talking about the characters’ inner states. In this way, the SLP prompts the students to attend to key story grammar elements and to produce complex sentences.

As an added feature, the book addresses the needs of university professors who are tasked with the teaching of grammar to undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in speech-language pathology training programs. As a fellow professor, I realize how demanding—yet necessary—this assignment can be. To that end, a set of lectures in the form of PowerPoint slides are available to instructors in addition to a series of quizzes that can be administered to students after they complete each section of the book. The book, therefore, is designed to be useful not only to students and professionals, but also to professors engaged in the teaching of grammar. Although some may initially view this topic as dry and arcane, once the reader appreciates how knowledge of grammar can enable children, adolescents, and adults to communicate more effectively in natural situations, those notions should dissipate quickly.