Telegraphic speech refers to taking away the grammar of a phrase and only leaving the content words. “Ball up,” “foot in,” and “more doll” are all examples of telegraphic speech. In addition to the videos provided by the state, I have heard many of my well-meaning colleagues using the same type of speech. Their logic is that if you take away the grammar of a sentence, children are able to focus on the important words. The question we must ask ourselves though is, “How do children learn language?”
Children start using grammar in their speech around the time they start using 3 word utterances. However, they start tuning into grammar long before that. Even children at the single word level can understand 5-6 word such as “Cookie Monster is tickling Big Bird.” Children are natural “pattern seekers” of language. They use clues to figure out the language around them. These include recognizing familiar words, tuning into syllable stress, and paying attention to the melody and pauses of the language.
Researchers found that babies as young as 4 months consistently paid more attention to paragraphs when the pauses were where we would expect them:
“Once upon a time, a lady lived in a big house” :pause:
“Once upon a time, a lady :pause: lived in a big house”
Although babies do not understand the meaning of the words, they are showing us that they are paying attention to how our language works.
In another study, toddlers showed better accuracy in pointing to a picture when a grammatically correct statement was given (“Find the dog for me”), compared to when the word “the” was taken away (“Find dog for me”). This shows us that children really are paying attention! Furthermore, the grammar used around words helps children learn classes of words. Words such as “the” and “a” indicate nouns while the -ing ending is associated with verbs.
Most children with language impairment have significant difficulty learning to use grammar. According to Marc Fey, a professor in the Department of Hearing and Speech at the University of Kansas Medical Center, telegraphic speech makes it harder for children to learn grammar because it strips away the very markers from language models that children need to hear. This makes the task of language learning more difficult (Fey, 2008).
When we take away the very clues that help children figure out language, we may be doing them a disservice. A good rule of thumb is to model short, grammatically correct sentences. For example, you can say, “Put your shoes on” as opposed to “shoes on.” Going slow and pairing your words with gestures are additional ways to help children learn language. When we understand how children learn and develop language, we can be mindful of how to give them what they need.
Conklin, C. Telegraphic Speech-Should we or shouldn’t we – A summary of available research, www.Hanen.org
Fey, M. E. (2008). The (mis-)use of telegraphic input in child language intervention. Revista de Logopedia, Foniatria y Audiologia, 28(4), 218-230.
Fey, M. E., Long, S. H., & Finestack, L. H. (2003). Ten principles of grammar facilitation for children with specific language impairments. American Journal of Speech Language Pathology, 12(1), 3-15.
Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (1999). How babies talk: the magic and mystery of language in the first three years of life. New York: Plume.
Jusczyk, P. W., K Hirsh-Pasek, D. G Kemler-Nelson, L. Kennedy, A. Woodward and J. Piwoz. “Perception of Acoustic Correlates of Major Phrasal Units Young Infants.” Cognitive Psychology, 24: 252-93, 1992.
Roberts, S. “Comprehension and Production of Word Order in Stage 1.” Child Development, 54: 443-49, 1983.
Brooke is the owner of The Speech Dynamic PLLC, where she provides play based and family centered speech therapy in the Houston area, She is the co-creator of “Wiggle time,” an interdisciplinary curriculum for pediatric therapy. She has presented at The North Carolina Exceptional Children’s Conference regarding embedding language into routines. She has also shared her expertise on a panel for The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Brooke has a passion for helping families understand the importance of play for speech & language development.