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Friday, October 2, 2009

Listening to the Whole Sentence

Listening to the Whole Sentence

How to deal with listening and comprehension difficulties caused by complex sentences.

By Susan Zimmerman, MA, CCC-SLP

Many of the students we work with have difficulties with listening and comprehension, especially when they encounter sentences that are longer than five to seven words. They usually can interpret simple declarative and interrogative sentences, but they may need to have them repeated.

What happens to children's ability to listen and comprehend when sentences are longer and more complex and express gradations in meaning? How can they "listen their way" through these sentences and interpret the meaning? We can express great thoughts with simple sentences, such as "Love is kind" or "It hurts to be hungry." But what if we want to talk about relative values or conditional truths? We have to use more complex language, like "Because love is kind, I will show I love you by being kind to you," or "It hurts to be hungry, but it's worse to be hungry and alone."

One of the great rewards of practicing speech therapy is taking complex skills and breaking them down into parts. Not only does this help students learn how to manage the parts of speech and language, it helps them put everything together.

There are many ways to create complex sentences. We typically use coordinating or subordinating conjunctions and adverbs to combine phrases and clauses. I present the main part of a complex sentence and help students understand how to manipulate it to refine meaning.

The first step is to get some sentence strips big enough so all students at the therapy table can see them easily. Write adverbs and conjunctions on individual slips of construction paper or index cards, and give each student a small pile. Each child should have identical stacks of words. I suggest using the following words or phrases: "because," "since," "or," "when," "although," "however," "but," "except" and "even though." I would not put "and" in the stack because it doesn't help with auditory complexity.

Present a simple sentence on the sentence strip. Leave an underscore at the beginning and end of the sentence to allow room for the adverb or conjunction. Read the written sentence, such as "I like apples," to the group, then alter the sentence by saying something like, "Although I like apples, I like oranges better." You then can perform the following steps in any order:

  • Students repeat the expanded sentence.
  • They find the adverb or conjunction in their pile.
  • They identify whether it came at the beginning or end of the original sentence.
  • Question students about the meaning of the sentence. Does this person like apples? Do they like oranges? How do you know? If they had a choice, which one would they pick?
  • Do they agree with the expanded sentence? How would they change it if they could? Would they turn it around? Would they add another fruit?

Depending on the needs of your group, you can stay with this one sentence for the entire session or move on to another sentence, such as "Basketball is fun to watch." You can expand this sentence in the same way depending on the needs of your group. For example, you can say, "Although basketball is fun to watch, I like football better," or you can expand it to say, "Basketball is fun to watch, although it gets very noisy!"

Go through the steps each time you expand a sentence. I do not recommend writing down the expanded sentence because the main point of the lesson is to improve auditory processing. We are working on helping students understand what they hear the first time they hear it, and we want to give them as many trials as possible in the time we have with them. Writing down sentences can come a little later when they are sure of what they have heard.

One reason I like this therapy activity is that all preparation can be done ahead of time and saved for many sessions. Since only the basic sentence is written on the sentence strip, you can expand it differently the next time without the need for more preparation.

You can use this lesson at any age, depending on the needs of your students. They don't have to be able to read. As long as one student in the group can find the written adverb or conjunction, he or she can show the others. Students also can guess until they find it.

After completing a sufficient number of lessons, students will become comfortable with the process and demonstrate an increased understanding of complex sentences. You then can let them make up their own sentences. Either you or the students can suggest a core sentence, and they can take turns expanding it in different ways. Make sure they are listening to and understanding each other. It's important to check for comprehension frequently by asking questions.

I do not use this as a grammar lesson about parts of speech. I don't even use the words "adverb" or "conjunction." I just call them words to help us tell more.

Susan Zimmerman is on staff at Madison Elementary School in Madison, ME. She can be contacted at szimmerman@mes.sad59.k12.me.us.

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