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From the Editor: Simple to Complex—Targeting Elaboration Before Correctness

doi: 10.1097/TLD.0b013e318292602c
From the Editor

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For individuals using language and for children learning language, the components of content, form, and use come together in understanding and saying messages.

Bloom and Lahey (1978, p. 21)

The introductory quotation to this column came from Lois Bloom and Margaret Lahey (1978), whose language textbook was the source from which many TLD readers and contributors developed our love for and understanding of child language development and disorders. Syntactic development during the preschool years was the primary focus of much important work on language development and disorders in the 1970s. It was a time that contributed to the morphing of speech correctionists into speech–language pathologists. It was also a time marked by seminal works on grammatical development (e.g., Brown, 1973; de Villiers & de Villiers, 1978) and collaborative partnerships between psycholinguists and communication disorders scientists, such as the team of Bloom and Lahey, who taught us about typical and disordered language development and provided models for treating disorders.

Fast forward to 2013. In this second issue of Volume 33, issue editor, Melanie Schuele, along with her contributing authors, builds on important findings and frameworks from those earlier times, while adding evidence from newer research that goes “beyond Brown's (1973) 14 morphemes” (Schuele, 2013). One goal of the current issue was to review updated information that can inform present-day practice with children who struggle to learn the fine points of morphosyntactic forms. Among its many messages are reminders that complexity in its many forms (intraphrasal and intra- and interclausal elaborations) occur very early in typical development, essentially as soon as children begin to combine words into grammatical structures (Barako Arndt & Schuele, 2013). This does not mean that typically developing children use all elaborated forms with finesse or that complex forms necessarily would be judged as syntactically correct when they first emerge. What it does signal is that, at the same time children are acquiring the ability to represent simple propositions grammatically using simple forms, they are learning to use complex forms to communicate relationships among propositions more efficiently than separate simple sentence allow.

One of the issues facing clinicians is that they need a systematic means to identify and classify complex syntactic structures in their early stages of emergence, so they can quantify current levels of ability and target greater variety and skill in using more complex forms. Barako Arndt and Schuele (2013) tackle this issue in their article by providing a taxonomy and procedures for doing so. They also note the importance of recognizing subordinate clauses that rely on context for information that would be in the main clause. Considering Bloom and Lahey's (1978, p. 21) comment that “the components of content, form, and use come together in understanding and saying messages,” it makes sense that children might express meanings of subordinate clauses first in context. Examples would be responding to questions about temporal relationships (e.g., when I want to), causal relationships (e.g., because he took it), or even conditional relationships (e.g., if doggie can catch). Both clinicians and researchers can find much food for thought in this lead article. The authors have also provided online Supplemental Digital Content (available at: that can be used by clinicians wishing to brush up their skills in syntactic coding.

Oetting, Lee, and Porter (2013) also point out the importance of taking a broader systemic perspective on children who speak nonmainstream dialects of English, including African American English and Southern White English, rather than focusing exclusively or predominately grammatical features that differentiate those dialects. Understanding a child's current grammatical system as comprising both contrastive and noncontrastive features is an important factor in conducting appropriate assessment. Differentiating language difference from disorder requires knowledge of such distinctions, but whether or not a language disorder is suspected, all children need skills for formulating and comprehending more complex grammatical forms to handle the linguistic demands of academic language.

In his article, Weiler (2013) also builds on theoretical models provided by pioneers in the area of grammatical development. In this case, Weiler updates David Crystal's (1985) criteria for selecting verbs to target when work on past tense structures. Weiler does this by reviewing evidence from newer studies that relate to Crystal's original criteria. This work is also consistent with Bloom and Lahey's (1978) comment regarding content form and use coming together in communicative messages. In addition, clinicians will appreciate the tutorial aspects of Weiler's article on the complex relationships between verb form, content, and use for application to setting up intervention contexts most likely to support successful past tense verb structure learning.

Finally, Eisenberg (2013) builds on existing literature and her own extensive expertise to recommend strategies for scaffolding more complex syntax for children who are struggling. Her recommendations to combine mini-drills/lessons with scaffolding of more contextualized uses, also build on Bloom and Lahey's (1978) recommendations for targeting form, content, and use as integrated systems. Although components may be isolated for individual focus, the systems ultimately work together as an integrated system and should be targeted as such. Eisenberg is clear to point out the need for empirical testing of her recommendations, but her recommended hybrid approach makes theoretical sense.

This brings me to the motivation for my title for this Editorial, “Simple to Complex—Targeting Elaboration Before Correctness.” The updates on the evidence on typical development by the authors of this issue provide a reminder that elaboration precedes correctness in typical development. This supports a key principle I often share with my students, which is to target elaboration before correctness when designing language intervention aimed at building linguistic complexity. Using this principle would lead clinicians to set up clinical scenarios in which children need more complex forms to communicate more complex meanings. It would also involve responding to the children's communicative message, perhaps triggering even further elaboration, rather than focusing primarily on correctness. Correctness can be targeted later.

For one thing, that is how typical children acquire complex forms (Barako Arndt & Schuele, 2013), and for another, such an approach avoids conflicts in how “correctness” might be defined differently for children who use nonmainstream dialects (Oetting et al., 2013). Another message of this issue is not surprising. As mentioned both by Eisenberg (2013) and by Weiler (2013), although important work in grammatical development and intervention is ongoing, and not just confined to the 1970s, we clearly need more evidence to help clinicians know what practices are best. This issue provides important frameworks for supporting progress in that direction.

—Nickola Wolf Nelson, PhD


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Barako Arndt K., Schuele C. M. (2013). Multiclausal utterances aren't just for big kids: A framework for analysis of complex syntax production in spoken language of preschool- and early school-age children. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(2), 125–139.
Bloom L., Lahey M. (1978). Language development and language disorders. New York: Wiley.
    Brown R. (1973). A first language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
    Crystal D. (1985). Some early problems with verbs. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 1, 46–53.
    de Villiers J. G., de Villiers P. A. (1978). Language acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
    Eisenberg S. L. (2013). Grammar intervention: Content and procedures for facilitating children's language. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(2), 165–178.
    Oetting J. B., Lee R., Porter K. L. (2013). Evaluating the grammars of children who speak nonmainstream dialects of English. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(2), 140–151.
    Schuele C. M. (2013). Issue editor Foreword: Beyond 14 grammatical morphemes: Toward a broader view of grammatical development. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(2), 118–124.
    Weiler B. (2013). Verb selection and past-tense morphology: Crystal's criteria revisited. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(2), 152–164.

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