The Language Fix

A blog for sharing language and learning information


September 2008

Roger Brown’s Stages – 1973

Brown described five stages of language development based on a child’s mean length of utterance (MLU).  His research demonstrated that MLU was a better predictor of what linguistic structures a child was able to use than was chronological age.  This research, which examined three children whom Brown dubbed Adam, Eve, and Sarah, was the ultimate explanation of language acquisition for years.  The complexity of Brown’s description has also, unfortunately, painted language acquisition as a complicated morass of agent+actions, entities+locatives, recurrences, and nominatives that quite frankly, has turned off many students (especially speech-language pathology students) from this entire area.  The structural analysis of language samples based on Brown’s language description is a staple of the SLP college experience often remembered with revulsion.  Despite this, the influence of this study can not be denied.  Neither can it’s untouched accuracy in describing the process of language development.

The best online description of Brown’s work is at Caroline Bowen’s speech therapy site.

The Hart-Risley 30 Million Word Gap Study – 1995

After decades of collaborating to increase child language vocabulary, Betty Hart and Todd Risley spent two and a half years intensely observing the language of 42 families throughout Kansas City.  Specifically, they looked at household language use in three different settings:  1) professional families; 2) working class; and 3) welfare families.  Hart and Risley gathered an enormous amount of data during the study and subsequent longitudinal follow-ups to come up with an often cited 30 million word gap between the vocabularies of welfare and professional families by age three.  This controversially large number came from the data that showed welfare children heard, on average, 616 words per hour, while children from professional families (essentially children with college educated parents) heard 2153 words per hour.  The longitudinal research in the following years demonstrated a high correlation between vocabulary size at age three and language test scores at ages nine and ten in areas of vocabulary, listening, syntax, and reading comprehension.  This study was subsequently used to fuel the fire of arguments for early childhood programs such as Head Start.

For an excellent summary of this study, read this.  A good comment on this study and poverty’s influence on education can be found here.

High Fives… Language Acquisition Studies – “Wugs”

Over the next few days I will be describing some of what I feel are the language acquisition studies marked by their significance to both our current knowledge of language acquisition as well as historical impact upon subsequent research in the field.  Without any adieu, and with no particular order, here they are.

image from (

Jean Berko Gleason’s “Wugs”  – 1958

Berko Gleason and colleagues presented pictures of imaginary creatures to children.  The pictures were given labels such as “wug,” made up by the researchers.  The children were then presented with varieties of the make believe creatures to test their ability to apply linguistic rules.  The famous example is “This is a wug.”  (1 wug)  “What are these?”  (More than one.)  Very young children had difficulty, but children by age 4 or 5 could usually label the plural “wugs,” and most importantly – could do it without ever having heard the word used before.  These sorts of pictures were also used to test other aspects of syntax acquisition, such as possessives and verbs.  The nativists have long used this as evidence that language is not memorized.  A shortened explanation of what I think is going on can be found here

Continue reading “High Fives… Language Acquisition Studies – “Wugs””

A Few Facts About…Ellipsis

Ellipsis occurs when a nonessential word is omitted from speech or writing.  This happens more frequently than most people realize, and it is the source of much confusion when learning oral language or written language (i.e. reading).  An example:  “I knew (that) I needed to speak up.”

  • Ellipsis is common in clauses with relative pronouns, as in the above example or in this example:  “There’s the place (where) I went to school.”
  • Ellipsis is also common with prepositions, e.g. “Give (to) me a kiss.” or “Call (for) him a cab.”
  • The inclusion of these prepositional phrases or relative clauses may be considered technically correct, but redundant nearly to the point of being superfluous.
  • The existence of ellipsis is evidence for the notion that language is more convention based than rule based.  We do what works best, even when it seems to defy grammatical rules.  As with every other structure in language, ellipsis exists because it assists.
  • (An ellipsis is a punctuation symbol (…) used to indicate omission.)

Learning Link

Speaking in Tongues is a series of short broadcasts in English from Barcelona on language learning.  Among the shows are episodes covering:

 Each segment, lasting about 10 minutes, uses Macromedia Flash Player.

Recent Research

Memory Training Can Increase Intelligence

This study, published in April of 2008, was led by Susan Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl, done at the University of Michigan, and has been cited in various publications including the New York Times, and Wired magazine.  The study participants – college students – increased their scores of working memory through a training regimen that lasted from eight to 19 days.  Working memory is a form of fluid intelligence that researchers have generally thought to be fairly fixed throughout life.  This study demonstrated that at least fluid intelligence is likely more plastic than has previously been thought.  (Fluid intelligence is often considered one type of intelligence, with crystallized intelligence being the other.  Crystallized intelligence draws on existing skills, and information in long term memory that has been learned, while fluid intelligence is the measure of manipulating various new concepts.  It involves problem solving, working memory, and to some extent, creativity.)


Martin Bushkuehl was interviewed here at the sharpbrains website.

What Happens When We Learn – And When We Don’t

A child with a deficit in a skill typically has not discovered the power of that skill.  Thus remains the initial opening for novelty.  I believe that children are often more open to suggestion than we often give them credit for.  In other words, initially discussing the benefits of a skill can be an extremely effective introduction to the teaching of a skill.  However, because complex language is not yet a favored method of input for children in language therapy, these explanations can be brief.  Why are working on verbs?  Because every sentence has them, and with them you can talk about what anything does.  Why practice comparatives and superlatives?  Because with them we can greatly increase our powers to describe.  And it always helps to relate these introductions in personal ways.  Statements such as, “With superlatives you can tell me that you are a faster runner than your brother.” tend to work well.

Continue reading “What Happens When We Learn – And When We Don’t”

Around the Web

Another good post can be found here.

Around the Web

Great post here called “How Do We Learn – The 5 Basic Principles of Learning.”

Some Specific Language Therapies

What follows are some very general descriptions of popular language therapies, used primarily with younger children.  Much of this information has been taken from Roseberry-Mckibben and Hegde’s An Advanced Review of Speech-Language Pathology.

Recasting – When an adult repeats what a child says, altering it to make it grammatically correct.  Two types of recasting are  1)  Expansion – simply making the utterance correct; and 2) Extension – making the utterance grammatically correct and adding information.  Some examples are…

  • Expansion – Child:  “That ball.”;  Adult:  “That is a ball.”
  • Extension – Child:  “That ball.”;  Adult:  “That is a big red bouncy ball.”

Focused Stimulation – The clinician models target structures to stimulate child to produce these specific structures.  This is usually done in a play activity.  For example, the target structures, “off” and “on” may be repeated by the clinician fifty times in a Mr. Potato Head activity in an attempt to elicit the words from the child.  Several target words may be combined in a single activity.

Joint Book Reading – Involves reading high interest stories repeatedly over several sessions.  When children are familiar with the stories, they are expected to fill in target words.  For example, the clinician may say “The woman was _______”, to attempt to elicit -ing verb “driving.”

Self Talk – The clinician describes his or her own activities while playing with the child.

Recent Research

Study on Stigmatization of Children with Speech Impairments

This link from COMD News summarizes a study reported in Folia Phoniatrica et Logopaedica (The International Journal of Phoniatrics, Speech Pathology, and Communication Disorders).  Per the abstract:

The study was based on 362 questionnaires completed by parents of children with speech-language impairment. The questionnaires concerned perceived stigmatization by other children, other adults and family members as a result of the child’s developmental problems. Results: In our sample, about 50% of the parents reported negative labeling of their child and about 30% felt they were involved in the stigmatizing process. Parents whose children also had behavioral problems more often reported negative labeling than parents whose children did not. Conclusion: The findings suggest that parents of children with speech-language disorders often perceive stigmatization of their children or themselves. In counseling such families, professionals should therefore address stigmatization and its consequences as a separate and important issue.

A Few Facts About… The Spacing Effect

The spacing effect is a well supported finding in learning research that exposure to a material over time supports memorization.  Some facts…

  • The best time to reinforce previous learning is at a point just before forgetting takes place.  This point varies from person to person.  It also varies depending upon what is being learned.
  • The time interval that a fact is remembered increases with repeated exposure.
Graph illustrating time intervals of the spacing effect
  • The spacing effect has been used to create software to assist learning, as mentioned in this article from Wired magazine and here.  Before that it’s lack of application had frustrated social scientists, as mentioned on this psychology website.
  • The spacing effect has been known for more than a century.
  • It has been documented in other species.

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑