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.

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5 responses

  1. I will be doing research on the accuracy of Brown’s study, what do you think would be a good Plan B project questions?


    1. I personally think it would be interesting to examine the link between phonology and later language development. This is not something that was considered when Brown was doing his research. Do early phonology deficits correlate with later language deficits? (I think so, but I don’t think there’s been any, or much research.) Would early phonology tx reduce later language deficits, or later reading deficits, of later learning disabilities? I think it would be a good idea to use testing data from a rural coop, where they test hundreds of kids in different districts, and kids get different services based on the district. Many of these kids are automatically tested every three years.


  2. Thanks for the idea. Instead, I will be looking at the accuracy of the emergence of in and on prepositions according to Brown (since it was only based on three children). For subject use, I will be looking at the CHILDES database. I will count the number of prepositions used in children and compare it to the research Brown found. Do you have any resources that discuss Browns study in detail? Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks


    1. Robert E. Owens’ Language Development: An Introduction actually has a ton of very specific information on Brown’s work. Oh yeah, I just remembered this - A Steven Pinker obituary on Roger Brown with some good info on his actual study, and this “citation classic” on his study from the University of Pennsylvania. I hope you find something that helps us practitioners help kids in this and in any future research!


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