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Stop Teaching Rote Language!

As Whoopi Goldberg put it, “I don’t have pet peeves, I have whole kennels of irritation.”

Somewhere along the way we have become too focused on a child’s phrase length versus the function of their communication, or their overall vocabulary development. This becomes evident when we teach children with autism to use rote language or carrier phrases such as “I want + ____” or “Can I have + ____” when making requests.

When you stop to think about it, this only benefits the listener in that it sounds nice because it is a 3-4 word utterance. However, this does not really benefit the speaker. For example, if a child says “bubble” or “I want bubble” the outcome is the same in that the child gets bubbles.

Why you should reconsider teaching rote phrases:

1. Rote phrases do not build vocabulary

2. Language is not typically developed in this fashion

3. Teaches inflexibility of language use

4. For some children the carrier “I want” and “Can I have” can become confused, causing the child to chain both together in a phrase such as “I want, can I have bubbles?”

5. Some children will over-generalize a phrase, such as saying “I want car” versus “It’s a car” when describing a picture shown

6. Does not sound natural

Instead of teaching carrier phrases or rote language I encourage you to consider expanding on the child’s vocabulary in a way that allows them to make more specific requests, such as “Big bubbles” or “Blow bubbles.” In my practice I like to make use of pivot phrases. Not only does this benefit the speaker and builds language but it also mimics typical development of grammar.

Pivot words are essentially words that stay in a fixed position of a 2-word utterance generally in the first position of the utterance. For example:

In addition to building vocabulary, using pivot phrases versus rote phrases provides:

1. Language learning seen in typical language development

2. Allows for more novel and flexible sounding utterances

3. Increases generalization of word meaning, especially verbs

4. Reduces confusion and over-generalization on the part of the learner

So, instead of teaching rote phrases that a child can memorize, consider using pivot phrases. Not only will this reduce the risks of mis-learning or over-generalizing, but it will build vocabulary faster. Eventually your kiddo will build up enough vocabulary that you can start working on increasing their phrase length. After all, shouldn’t we teach children to talk in a similar fashion as their peers?


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