Here Are the Rules: Overcoming Barriers in Language Development

adult and child conversing at a table

It was years ago, while Lizbeth Finestack was working as a clinician for children with learning disabilities, that she started wondering whether there might be a better way to help children overcome language impairments.

“I was always questioning my techniques and what I was doing, and whether it was the most efficient and effective way to go about things,” she said. “That’s part of what drove me to go back for my PhD; knowing that I wanted to focus on intervention research.”

Today, Finestack, PhD, leads the University of Minnesota’s Child Language Intervention Lab, based in the College of Liberal Arts’ Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences. The lab’s mission is to identify better ways to help children with neurodevelopmental disorders—including primary language impairment, Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, or autism spectrum disorder—overcome barriers to language development. Her team’s research includes improving our understanding of language impairments in children, developing new techniques for addressing these impairments, and measuring the outcomes of intervention efforts.

One line of Finestack’s research focuses on children with developmental language disorder, which affects approximately 7 percent of the population. For these children, picking up on the patterns and rules of language just by hearing others speak is very hard. They may have trouble learning to read or to talk in their early years and be slower to reach milestones in language development, such as saying their first word.

“Language is particularly difficult for them, for no known reason,” Finestack said, adding that developmental language disorder occurs in the absence of autism and intellectual disabilities.

The implications of such an impairment are huge. Language development lays an important foundation for a child’s education, but impairments can make it harder for them to succeed not just in reading and writing assignments, but in all subjects. The ability to express themselves clearly also helps children form friendships and interact successfully with their peers, which is important for social development.

Let’s Talk Rules

Traditionally, speech-language pathologists have focused on “implicit” interventions to help children with language impairments—essentially, providing examples that allow them to subconsciously infer the grammatical rules at play and start using them correctly. The idea is that increasing how frequently children encounter grammatical forms in different contexts will help them better understand how to handle these forms. While the implicit method can result in some improvement, studies have shown it takes a long time.

Finestack’s research, which originally began with her dissertation and has continued for the more than 10 years since, explores the opposite approach. Top-down, “explicit” instruction focuses on teaching children the rules themselves—such as that you must add “ed” to the end of many verbs to make them past tense.

“My explicit intervention is really focused on these types of grammatical markers,” she said. “The thinking is, ‘can we break down language and really teach them these markers?’ because they’re not learning it from the natural environment like most of us do. Most of us can learn language implicitly; we just pick up on it.”

In one study, Finestack made up fake grammatical forms and presented them to children with developmental language disorder. Using made-up grammar rules ensured that the children all started at the same level of no prior knowledge or familiarity. She asked the children to imagine that a creature from outer space came to Earth and used many of the same words we do, but spoke a little bit differently. The study participants came across three new grammatical forms: one that depended on the gender of the speaker, one that depended on how long a given activity had been going on, and one that changed when spoken in the first person.

Some of the participants were taught these rules upfront (explicit instruction) while the others were given examples but did not have the rule explained (implicit instruction). Finestack found the explicit approach presented an overall advantage. In only four or five sessions, children who were taught the rules learned the grammatical form with 80 percent accuracy.

In another, more recent study of children with autism who also had difficulty in language development, she aimed to teach each child a real grammar form that they were already known to have trouble with. They were first taught through an implicit approach, and then later with explicit. Their understanding jumped during explicit intervention, and two thirds had retained the information during a follow-up several months later.

Some questions remain. The benefits of explicit instruction, for example, may vary based on the specific grammatical rule being taught, and there’s reason to believe different ages may show different levels of success with the method (3 year olds don’t benefit from it as much as 6 year olds).

Going forward, Finestack aims to keep exploring these details. As more research is done, she sees opportunities to widely encourage explicit intervention for clinicians working with children on language development. Ultimately, her goal is to provide a better way for helping children make up for lost time and catch up with their grade level.

“We don’t yet have the evidence base out there to show it’s effective,” she said. “Explicit intervention is not what the textbooks say to do. Putting it out there will be really beneficial.”