Working with children who have language impairment: Don’t forget the “glue”

While acquiring language, children show a tendency to use function words with a very high frequency compared to content words. These high frequency words are referred to as core vocabulary words, a term frequently used in AAC. These include pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, articles, auxiliary verbs, modals, indefinites, as well as content words including adverbs, but few nouns or verbs. Function words provide speakers a bridge to combine words to increase their utterance length. You can think of these as the glue that binds together grammar and vocabulary. This “glue” is important and are used across different kinds of contexts including conversations and story-telling. They are used across many contents including work, school and home.

We were interested in understanding how children with language impairment (LI) use these core vocabulary words. We wanted to know which core words they used; if patterns were different in each language; and if children with language impairment used these same core words as often as those with typical development.

So, in a recent longitudinal study we looked at use of core vocabulary words in Spanish-English bilingual children with and without LI. We analyzed 30 core vocabulary words in Spanish and English narrative samples of children in kindergarten and again in first grade. Children with LI produced fewer core vocabulary words and used them less frequently compared to their typically developing (TD) peers. This difference was more pronounced in first grade.

Graphical abstract_revised
One lesson we can draw from this is that children with LI have much more sparse vocabulary as compared to their typical peers consistent with previous findings. What was unexpected was that they also use core words much less often than their TD peers. While this does not mean that intervention should focus on, for example, the articles “the” “la” or “el” in therapy. Or at least not exclusively. But, it is important to think about how these core vocabulary words supports learning of the content words (such as nouns). It may be important to teach content words in phrases rather than in isolation so that the core words are reinforced. These can also serve as “frames” to teach other content words. As children progress we can continue to help them to link together learned phrases into sentences and conversation. So, as you work with children with language impairment, don’t forget about the glue that holds it all together.

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