Mini paper review: Teaching Novel Grammatical Forms to Children With Developmental Language Disorder

Helen Norris, PhD student, Institute of Education, University of Reading

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I found this paper when considering the use of novel grammatical forms in my own research investigating the benefits of explicit formal grammatical teaching in primary school to monolingual speakers.

What does the study involve?

This study compares explicit versus implicit training of novel grammatical forms. A common characteristic of Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) is a weakness in the use of grammatical forms such as the regular past tense- ed ending. Interventions to improve the ability to use grammatical inflections are an important aspect of treatment to support these children. Twenty five children aged 5-8 years old with DLD took part in a study where the effectiveness of an implicit training approach (where children are exposed to several exemplars of a linguistic rule), was contrasted with an explicit instruction approach (where learners are made consciously aware of a particular linguistic pattern or rule). Explicit instruction is thought to draw on learners’ metalinguistic abilities.

Three novel grammatical rules were created:-

  • Gender marker
    • “When it is a boy, you have to add x to the end. When it is a girl, you don’t add anything to the end.”
    • Example: John can swim + novel marking. Ashley can read.
  • Habitual aspect marker, similar to an English tense marker
    • “When the animal is always do/ing the action, you have to add x to the end. When the animal has been do/ing the action for a short amount of time, you don’t add anything to the end.”
    • Example: See the horse sleep + novel marking. See the sheep jump
  • First-person marker reflective of the third-person singular marker in English
    • “When the creature talks about herself or if you talk about yourself, you have to add x to the end. When you or the creature talk/s about someone else, you don’t add anything to the end.”
    • Example: Now I drive + novel marking. Now you skate.

A single consonant was used to mark each of the novel grammatical inflections.

Participants were told that they were going to learn a new alien language. They listened to training sentences featuring the novel forms while viewing images related to the sentences on a computer screen and had to orally complete either trained or untrained sentences correctly. Grammatical forms were trained one at a time and training sessions were rerepeated up to a maximum of five. The difference between the two experimental groups was that the explicit group also heard an explanation of the rule. A follow up test took place a week after training was completed on each rule.

What were the results?

Learning was not equal across the three novel forms,(the gender marker was learnt best), but when the scores are collapsed across the three forms the explicit- implicit group learnt better than the implicit only. The maintenance of what they learnt was also better. Importantly, this group were also better at generalising their learning to complete sentences using untrained vocabulary.

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And what are the implications?

While this was a USA-based study, the finding that explicit teaching of grammar can be beneficial compared to implicit only exposure makes a relevant contribution to the current SPaG debate in the UK.

This study has potential use for clarifying the role explicit training may have in supporting the grammar learning of children who would not meet diagnostic criteria for DLD, but who have weak syntactic awareness which impacts their reading comprehension and writing. Scores on a standardised test of listening comprehension in the study ranged from well below to well above average, so while this was an investigation of the effectiveness of an intervention for children with DLD, the results have potential to be relevant for a wider population.

However in this study the explicit teaching only used rule-based explanations, with no formal grammatical terminology. This is in contrast with the current UK National Curriculum where students are taught to identify and label parts of speech such as’ fronted adverbials’, or ‘subordinating conjunctions.’ In addition, while this study focuses on grammatical inflections, (morphosyntactic awareness), it is important to remember that mastery of English grammar is not limited to this: understanding of the role of different word classes such as prepositions, adjectives or conjunctions play in sentences is important too. A better understanding of how well these structures can be learnt with explicit teaching compared to implicit exposure and whether learning formal grammatical terminology for these helps or hinders would be extremely useful for teaching practice.

Further, this study trained the children orally; they were not exposed to the written forms of the novel grammatical forms. During middle childhood exposure to written language increases rapidly. So for older children than those in this study who are developing readers, one question is how explicit teaching via reading can be beneficial for grammar learning. Do we see a similar pattern to the Finestack study? Or are there important differences?

Finally, it would be useful to reflect on the use of the term ‘implicit’ teaching in this study and in the wider field of grammar learning. Interpretations range from simply the absence of an explicit explanation of a rule, to experimental paradigms designed to facilitate unintentional learning or entirely unconscious learning. Here it is defined as teaching minus an explicit explanation; the children were told that they were learning a new language, they were given examples of a particular form and given feedback on their attempts to complete sentences using the novel forms. Some researchers consider that any form of intentional learning, (which must certainly be the case here), brought about by teaching cannot truly be termed implicit. See Rieder, 2003 for a discussion of this issue. Perhaps it is more helpful to talk about comparing explicit rule-based teaching with incidental learning via exposure to selected exemplars? The important point is whether it is more beneficial for children to deduce the pattern or rule for themselves or for them to receive an explicit explanation, with or without formal grammatical terminology.


Full reference: Finestack, L. H. (2018). Evaluation of an Explicit Intervention to Teach Novel Grammatical Forms to Children With Developmental Language Disorder. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 1-14.

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