University of Edinburgh

Assessment of Comprehension and Expression (ACE) for deaf pupils

Aberdeen School for the Deaf, 13 February 2013

Rachel O'Neill, Scottish Sensory Centre

Spoken language development over the primary years

Three interacting areas of language
  • Syntax - grammar
  • Semantics - word and phrase meaning
  • Pragmatics - language in use

Other areas like phonology we are not looking at today

Notes: I CAN website has a useful free poster about typical talk at primary and secondary. Very useful overview.

Important textbook about children's syntax: Katharine Perera (1984) Children's writing and reading

Syntax developments in primary school years: an overview

  • Noun phrase - More pre and post- modification; Noun Phrases in subject slot; and better use of reference (a/the)
  • Pronoun use - gradual awareness of audience's knowledge compared to child's
  • Verb phrase - fewer errors with modals (eg could, should), handling a sequence of verbs, and if constructions
  • Negatives - Older children less likely to use, eg I haven't got some windows. But there is regional variation in syntax and access to Standard English.
  • Questions - how is very late to be understood. With age, tag questions become more accurate, eg it could be a bungalow, couldn't he?
  • Passives - younger children interpret the first Noun Phrase as the subject, ignoring other syntactic clues

Common clause patterns by age 5

These 4 patterns form 80-90% of clauses used by the time hearing children start school:

clause pattern

(Perera, 1984 p. 95)

Rarer clause patterns aged 5

clause pattern

Spoken language and clause patterns

There is little change in this distribution of clause patterns as children go through the primary years. More adverbials are often added:

we / went / to Spain / this year / on holiday / in a plane

Spoken language and phrase development

By age 5, hearing children often use adjectives to pre-modify nouns:

I see a wooden horse (5;11, p. 99)
Adj N

Post-modification is much rarer:

the front of the bus (age 6, p 99)

the ghosts with the hoods over

Notes: The post-modification gradually increases over primary years. Probably linked to reading. Of and with are commonly used prepositions in the development of the NP prep NP constructions.

Phrases expanding clause elements

It is a good sign when the child can expand one or more clause elements to make a phrase, or even a subordinate clause.

That / Kimmy ball (2;0, Perera, p. 100)

I / see / three houses (aged 6, p. 99)

Subordinate clauses expanding clause elements

Clause in object position
I can't remember what was it about (age 6, p 135)

Clause in adverbial position
the man's going up and up to mend the aerial (age 6, p 139)

Postmodifying or relative clauses

It / like the goose that eat it in my book (2;10 )
  S S V O A

Notes: Note these phrases are actually clauses because they contain a verb. They can be analysed in their own right.

Top 2 examples from Perera

Ask, tell and promise

  • Carol Chomsky studied post-5 syntactic developments
  • These 3 verbs are used in reporting speech and involve complex sentences, eg:

She / told / me / to go to her house tomorrow
S V Oi Od (McLaughlin, 1984, p. 40)

  • Chomsky found that ask sentences were often misunderstood by 5-year old children, eg

Adult: Ask Joanne what to feed the dog.
Child: The hot dog (McLaughlin, 1984, p. 40)

Notes: Gleitman & Gillette (1995) argue that the semantic and syntactic environment of a verb are both crucial to learning its meaning, eg if we say John gorps then we know it isn't a meaning like hit because no object. It's more likely to be something like grow / smile.

Semantic developments

  • Delays by the age of 3 predict reading difficulties at age 7 and beyond. (Fletcher-Campbell et al, 2009)
  • Some deaf children who appear to be fluent are often hiding serious vocabulary delays.
  • This is one reason why the ACE assessment is so useful.

Semantic developments over the primary years

  • Key texts: Nation (2001) and Clark (1995)
  • Expanding the number of fields
  • Filling in the gaps
  • Saying the same thing different ways
  • Rate of vocabulary expansion
  • General knowledge and new word meaning

Notes: During the school years children elaborate the semantic domains they already have (Clark, 1995). They fill in gaps, work out more synonyms and antonyms. They learn more about the words they know too (Nation, 2001) for example they learn how the word is used in various contexts. The rate of vocabulary development is contested.

How do children acquire new words?

  • Phonological STM: attending and remembering sequence of sounds
  • Frequency: attending to frequent words and phrases
  • Collocation: attending to words which regularly appear together (eg post/box/man)
  • Fitting the new word into existing systems, establish when a word is a superordinate: eg 'It's a type of woodwind instrument' (Crystal, 2006, p. 200)

How are children supported to acquire new words?

  • Physical context: props, images
  • Prior knowledge: including talk round books and shared experiences
  • Social context: inference from overhearing conversations. Understanding roles and others' viewpoints (Theory of Mind: Morgan, 2012); Games and creative play (Morelock, Brown & Morrissey, 2003 )
  • Semantic support: discussing definitions, asking questions (Biemiller & Boote, 2006)

How do deaf children acquire new words?

  • Phonological STM: often weaker than in hearing children
  • Frequency & Collocation: may receive much less input data, especially if child doesn't read a lot
  • Fitting the new word into existing systems, hierarchies (superordinates and hyponyms) may not be well established
  • Physical context: likely to be used as a method
  • Prior knowledge: less background information especially of invisible systems, eg money
  • Social context: they often receive less input because miss out on overheard conversations, and particularly mental state vocabulary
  • Semantic support: definitions may be too difficult to understand if child already has weak vocabulary

Acquiring new words from reading

  • If 95% of words in a text are already known, then the other 5% can be inferred. (Nation, 2011)
  • But are deaf children doing enough extensive reading?
  • Are the texts they read carefully enough matched to their existing vocabulary level?

Pragmatic developments

  • Inference - related to how much caregivers make real world connections, and later to reading
  • Non-literal comprehension - phrasal verbs, idiom, figurative language
  • Organising features in longer stretches of speech
  • Taking the listener's needs into account, eg improving pronoun reference; guessing what they know already.
  • Ellipsis - leaving things out you don't need to repeat; eg
    Q. What was it about?
    I can't remember what was it about (aged 6, Perera p.154)


  • Have we ever been very good at providing semantic and pragmatic support during the school years?
  • These areas now more crucial for us because of the syntactic success of implanted children
  • Language assessments such as ACE are a start
  • Well-informed practitioners can write better IEPs and know what language support is needed


Biemiller, A & Boote, C (2006) An effective method for building meaning vocabulary in primary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 98(1), 44-62

Clark, E (1995) Later lexical development and word formation. Paul Fletcher & Brian MacWhinney (Eds) The Handbook of Child Language, Oxford: Blackwell.

Crystal, D (2006) How Language Works. London: Penguin

Fletcher-Campbell, F, Soler, J & Reid, G (2009) Approaching difficulties in literacy development. Milton Keynes, SAGE publications.  

Gleitman, L & Gillette, J (1995) The role of syntax in verb learning. Paul Fletcher & Brian MacWhinney (Eds) The Handbook of Child Language, Oxford: Blackwell.

Huttunen, K & Ryder, N (2012)§. Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics, 26 (10); 823 - 844 References I CAN website.

What's typical talk at Primary? Free poster:  

McLaughlin, B (1984) Second language acquisition in childhood, Volume 1, pre-school children. 2nd edition New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum  

Morgan, G (2012) Language delay affects Theory of Mind reasoning in non-verbal tasks, University of Athens, Accessed 11.2.13 [see from 67 minutes onward about varying input between deaf/hearing twins].

Morelock, M, Brown, PM & Morrissey, A (2003) Pretend Play and Maternal Scaffolding, Roeper Review, 26 (1) 41-51.

Nation, ISP(2001) Learning Vocabulary in another Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Perera, K (1984) Children's writing and reading: analysing classroom language. Oxford: Blackwell


Lovel, Maud, Miriam, Paige, Peter Falkirk Council Fife Council and to Katharine Perera, my former teacher


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