Semin Speech Lang 2006; 27(3): 173-186
DOI: 10.1055/s-2006-948228
Copyright © 2006 by Thieme Medical Publishers, Inc., 333 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10001, USA.

Assessing the Emergence of Grammar in Toddlers at Risk for Specific Language Impairment

Pamela A. Hadley1
  • 1Department of Communicative Disorders, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois
Further Information

Publication History

Publication Date:
29 August 2006 (online)


The purpose of this article is to identify areas of grammatical development that can be incorporated into risk-factor assessment models for toddlers between the ages of 2 and 3. A simple framework is presented for conceptualizing three early grammatical accomplishments: the acquisition of an initial verb lexicon, production of early sentence types, and the onset of tense marking. Strategies for using parent-report instruments and structure-specific language sampling to assess these areas in a time-efficient manner are provided.



Transitivity Classes

Our approach to the transitivity classification of verbs in the single-word stage follows the procedures of Olswang et al.[27] We consulted prototypical definitions found in the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English. [60] Verbs were identified as prototypically transitive when the first two definitions classified the verb as transitive. Verbs were identified as prototypically intransitive when the first two definitions classified a verb as intransitive. When both transitive and intransitive senses were identified in the first two definitions, the verb was classified as ditransitive.

Transitive verbs take or require a direct object to form a grammatical sentence.

  • Kiss: I kiss Pooh.

  • *I kiss. (ungrammatical without a direct object)

  • Push: Daddy threw the ball.

  • *Daddy threw. (ungrammatical without a direct object)

  • Intransitive verbs do not take or require a direct object to form a grammatical sentence.

  • Fall: The tower fell.

  • *The tower fell the ground. (ungrammatical with a direct object)

  • The tower fell to the ground. (requires a preposition for elaboration)

  • Sleep: The baby is sleeping.

  • *The baby is sleeping a bed. (ungrammatical with a direct object)

  • The baby is sleeping in a bed. (requires a preposition for elaboration)

Ditransitive verbs may or may not take direct objects; depending on discourse context.

  • Eat: I'm eating. (intransitive)

  • I'm eating breakfast. (transitive)

  • Open: The door opened. (intransitive)

  • I opened the door. (transitive)

Semantic Classes

State verbs refer to the condition of someone or something, whereas action verbs refer to events. These two classes can be differentiated by several morphological criteria when referring to the present moment. To refer to the condition of someone or something at the present moment, state verbs will be grammatical with simple present tense morphology (e.g., it fits, he wants that), but ungrammatical in the present progressive (e.g., *he is wanting that). In contrast, action verbs are grammatical in the present progressive (e.g., she is walking). Importantly, when action verbs appear in utterances such as she walks or bunny hops, the verbs do not refer to the present moment, but rather take on a generic or habitual meaning. The following tests can be used to determine if a verb is a state verb or an action verb.

  • Simple present test: Right now he / it verbs.

  • States: Right now he needs a nap / she has a doll.

  • Actions: *Right now he sleeps / jumps. (ungrammatical)

  • Present progressive test: Right now he / it is verbing.

  • Actions: Right now he is sleeping / jumping.

  • States: *Right now he is needing a nap / she is having a doll. (ungrammatical)

  • Response to present progressive question test: What's he / it doing?

  • Actions: sleeping / jumping / eating

  • States: *needing a nap / having a doll (ungrammatical)

Sentence Types

Subject-verb-object sentences are formed with transitive verbs. Examples include:

  • She kissed Pooh.

  • Cookie Monster ate a cookie.

  • Daddy threw the ball.

Subject-verb sentences are formed with intransitive verbs. Nonobligatory noun phrases must be attached to the basic subject-verb sentence structure via prepositions. Examples include:

  • The tower fell.

  • The tower fell to the ground.

  • The baby is sleeping.

  • The baby is sleeping in a bed.

  • Mr. Potato Head's nose goes in here.

Pamela A Hadley, Ph.D. 

Department of Communicative Disorders

Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL 60115

Email: [email protected]