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Grammar & Sentence Structures Difficulties in Middle & High School

I’ve noticed a trend when it comes to working on grammar and sentence structure with middle and high school speech & language therapy students.  My students often look like they have “mastered” their various IEP speech/language goals: subject-verb agreement, copula use, & even complex sentences.  Yet when I read their writing, I still see the errors in their work.  What’s more, I have students who have “perfected” making complex sentences but are not understanding complex sentences in the texts they have to read.  So what’s going on?

Well, let’s compare what language therapy activities we often use to drill our students on a goal vs the reality of their academic demands.

Subject-Verb Agreement

Hypothetical speech therapy activity for subject-verb agreement:

Clinician: “Tell me what is happening in the picture.”
Student: “The girl IS running.”

And now a real life activity for science:

Question 1: Write about how DNA and RNA differ.

Possible Answer: “DNA contains ribose while RNA contains deoxyribose.  DNA is found only in the nucleus while RNA exists in the nuclear & the cytoplasm.”

Trickier, isn’t it? Now the student has to produce subject-verb agreement for less familiar noun-verb combinations.  He or she must determine if DNA and RNA are singular or plural nouns.  What do they stand for? Is the acronym one unit or multiple units?  And if she knows DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid….. which part of that is our student supposed to look at to determine the word is singular or plural?

Complex Sentences

Let’s do another example.

Hypothetical therapy activity for complex sentences:

Student looks at clause strips with independent and dependent clauses and a set of conjunctions such as “because”, “although”, etc.  Student has to make sentences with the cut-out clause strips and conjunctions.  Perhaps student also has to make sentences given picture cards and prompts like “Why was the boy crying?”

And now a real-life reading passage for social studies (courtesy of IXL)

Many different Native American groups were already living in the region that became the Middle Colonies when Europeans began to form settlements there in the 1600s. Two of the most important groups were the Iroquois Confederacy and Algonquian-speaking peoplesBoth of these groups interacted with Dutch traders in present day New York. 

So if your student had to answer a question like  “Who were the most important groups in the Middle Colonies of the 1600s and in what way were they similar?”, do you think they’d be as successful with this task as the earlier speech therapy one? Could they:

a) comprehend the long noun phrase first (“many different native American groups” vs “the boy”)?

b) make sense of the embedded relative clause second (“that became the Middle colonies”)?

c) Recognize where the complex clause was in the sentence and what the subordinating conjunction “when” meant? Is your student familiar with complex sentences involving “when” or has he/she mainly been drilling the popular compound/complex conjunctions like [and, or, but, because, although]?

d) Provide a grammatically correct written answer? The student’s response would require longer and more syntactically complex sentences.  Could the student monitor and correctly use tense throughout? Would they be able to maintain subject-verb agreement for this more grammatically and syntactically demanding task? Well, if they are anything like the students I work with, you might get answers like this:

Iroquois Confederacy and Algonquian-speaking peoples was most important because they both interact with the Dutch Traders.”

Or maybe they would end up using “were” but leave “interact” in the present tense.  Or they might say the groups “are important because they interacted with the Dutch”.  Or they would use some other words but not quite succeed in putting everything together.  That is, if they understood those lengthy, complex sentences at all!

The main point of this little thought experiment is that our students have far greater school demands on their grasp of grammar, syntax, and verbal comprehension than we are giving them with many of our therapy activities-no disrespect to my  No-Glamour® cards!  This insight supports SLPs using curriculum materials for therapy, and yet sometimes current materials are too challenging, too unfamiliar, or too lengthy for the students to work on in our brief sessions.  Sometimes the student doesn’t have classwork or doesn’t bring it to the session.  But have no fear! That’s where we start thinking deep about how to modify our materials and exercises to align more closely with their language needs.  Here are some basic ideas:

Advanced Grammar & Sentence Structure Therapy

1) Target subject-verb agreement with longer noun phrases.  They will already know “the boy eats candy” but may not be sure how to produce a sentence with the noun phrase “a box of tulips”, “the banks of the river”,  “the sharp knife with the red handle”, or “My brother or his two friends”.  They may also find greater challenge in nouns like “everyone”, which connotes multiple people but is singular because it refers to a group, and “each______” , which also covers multiple things or people but is talking about each item or person individually.

2) Target correct tense use with complex sentences, relative clauses, and that-clauses (of which a restrictive relative clause is one type).  Our students often know how to do simple sentences, but have more trouble with understanding when it is appropriate to switch tenses and when the tense should remain the same throughout.  See some examples below:

1. The 2nd largest carnivore in the animal kingdom was once the Mauisaurus, and it is no longer alive today. (changing tense, compound sentence)
2.  The candidate that wins the most electoral votes will be the president (changing tense; restrictive relative clause)
3.  She advised that I develop money-management skills (changing tense, that-clause)
4.  It was Deep Throat that informed Bob Woodward about the Watergate Scandal (consistent past tense, that-clause).

3) Expose your student to passive voice in a really simple way.  You can literally take the pictures you use for making simple present or paste tense and ask the student to “flip the sentence around”.

You can teach that in most sentences, the noun (person, place, thing, or idea) *is* something (like “red” or “pretty”….. in other words being described) or it *does* something.  In passive tense, something is being done *to* the noun. For example,

(Picture of a girl writing):

Student: “She is writing a story”.
Clinician: “Now flip it around so something is being done to the story.”
Student: “The story is being written by the girl.”

4) Stop worrying about the students knowing the terminology.  I heard a great ASHA webinar about how our students have poor working memory and we are overloading their capacity by asking them to learn terms like “relative clause”.  More to the point, many of our regular ed students don’t know these terms but are perfectly capable of making sentences with relative clauses.  Honestly, I make up terminology that gets the message across. “Long noun” is fine for elaborate noun phrase.  “Extra information clause/phrase” is fine for relative clauses with a distinction between “required extra information” and “bonus extra information”.  Obviously if you can teach them the terms go for it, but I find my students never retain this information and it has not actually helped them understand and use these structures.  It’s more important they can do it than name it!






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