Looking at Expository Discourse Across the Grade Levels

By: Sean J. Sweeney CCC-SLP

This post is the fifth in our SGM® Summer Study Series. We and guest bloggers have been sharing research articles with connections to the methodologies of Story Grammar Marker, Braidy the Storybraid® and ThemeMaker®. The purpose of this series is to provide ideas and support for using our tools and expand your thinking during these summer months!

In each of our summer studies posts, we have been looking at recent research articles that may inform your use of MindWing’s narrative and expository tools as you ease into a new school year. This post will look at a study that examined the expository language of typically developing 5th-9th graders along with their performance on a language elicitation protocol. In this way, the article provided key information about assessment, but also has supportive points for the use of the language structures of ThemeMaker® both in assessment and intervention.

The Rules of the Game: Properties of a Database of Expository Language Samples (Heilmann and Malone, 2014) was written by two researchers working at the university and school district levels, respectively, in order to summarize their efforts at constructing a database to illuminate language skills for this older age group and serve as a clinical basis of comparison. The full article is available via ASHAWire (ASHA’s electronic publications portal) if you are a member.

We’d encourage you to read the entire article as part of your “summer studies,” and it would be a great context for a discussion session among colleagues at school. Some of the key points are as follows:

    • The authors indicate that much research on Specific Language Impairment (SLI) has tended to focus on younger populations, though students with language difficulties naturally continue to struggle as the language demands of the curriculum become more intense over later years in school.
    • Language sampling and analysis (LSA) is a key procedure for identifying areas of difficulty and confirming continued eligibility for services, but it is often not used particularly with older students due to the lack of clear protocols and comparative data.
    • “Planned” expository discourse is confirmed as a critical tie-in to curriculum, particularly in the light of Common Core State Standards’ (CCSS) expectations that students can, for example, “present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically.”
    • Factors around engagement are important in elicitation tasks, which is why the authors used a meaningful prompt, asking students to explain a sport or game that they like (this prompt having the added benefit of being relevant across all cultures).
    • Interestingly, and particularly relevant to the tools within ThemeMaker®, the authors recognized trends in dynamic assessment within classrooms and incorporated both planning time and materials (an expository planning sheet) to clarify expectations and scaffold language production.
  • 235 students not receiving special education services underwent the procedures and language samples were transcribed and coded using Systematic Analysis of Language Transcripts (SALT), particularly for the following characteristics:
    • Language Complexity- Mean Length of C-Unit (the independent clause plus all associated subordinate clauses) as well as Clausal Density (frequency of subordinate clause production).
    • Lexical Diversity- variety of words used.
    • Productivity and Fluency- including total number of words and C-units
    • Expository structure and effectiveness- the authors developed an Expository Scoring Scheme aligning with the planning sheet (described more below) and rubric for scoring.
    • Error Analysis-particularly related to grammatical errors.

For the purposes of our work with narrative and expository text, the elicitation prompt, planning sheet and rubric are of particular interest. 70 school-based Speech-Language Pathologists administering the procedure asked the participating students to explain their ideas in language along the following lines:

“I want you to imagine that I am a student about your age. I’m visiting the United States from another country and I want to learn as much as I can about life in the U.S. You can help me by explaining how to play your favorite sport or game. You have lots of choices. For example, you could pick a sport, such as basketball or tennis. You could pick a board game, such as Monopoly or chess. Or you could pick a card game, such as poker or rummy…. Assume that in my country we don’t play [name of sport or game]. I’d like you to explain everything I would need to know to so I could learn to play. I’ll expect you to talk for at least five minutes…”

This provides an excellent example of a clinical prompt both in its clarity of expectations but also pragmatic qualities, in that it asks the student to frame the perspective of the listener in order to maximize the quality of his or her explanation. It therefore serves as a model for us to consider in conducting language sampling.

The planning activity the examiners asked students to complete is relevant to both assessment and intervention. The planning sheet established expectations for the expository components of the sample, as follows, and provided spaces for the students to write and plan out their ideas:

  • Object: What you have to do to win
  • Preparations: Playing Area and Setup/Equipment and Materials/What players do to get ready
  • Start: How the contest begins, including who goes first
  • Course of Play: What happens during a team or player’s turn…
  • Rules: Major rules, including penalties for violations
  • Scoring: Different ways to score, including point values
  • Duration: How long the contest lasts, including how it ends…
  • Strategies: What smart players do to win, both offensively and defensively

In this planning sheet, the researchers provided a specific scaffolding tool for the topic that included a schema geared toward its essential details. Executive function specialist Sarah Ward (see https://cognitiveconnectionstherapy.com) calls this strategy “feature teaching,” or helping students see the common features of topics to provide a map for their description. In this case, the researchers naturally used features shared by all games or sports!

ThemeMaker Tool Front

This approach gels well with that of ThemeMaker®, not only because the features suggested above correspond with and would need to include expository text structures. For example, the Preparations could be expressed as a List, the Start and Course of Play as a Sequence, and Rules and Strategies as Cause-Effect relationships. Additionally, the planning activity suggests the usefulness of ThemeMaker® Expository Maps (perhaps with clearly identified Topics) for dynamic assessment and therapeutic activities. Clinicians can extend the information provided by this study and use ThemeMaker® to structure expository language on other topics besides sports and games (e.g. a movie review, recipe, or other engaging topic).

A key take-away from this article, besides the helpful language data to be used comparatively when working with students in and around this age range, is the authors’ emphasis that clinicians should take a “comprehensive view of expository discourse and address multiple dimensions during instruction.” Specifically, ThemeMaker®’s structures around key words (e.g. because, although) and topic sentences can be used to scaffold grammatical competence and complexity, as can other strategies, while still addressing the dimension of expository structure.

Reference: Heilmann, J. & Malone, T.O. (2014). The rules of the game: Properties of a database of expository language samples. Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, Retreived from http://lshss.pubs.asha.org/article.aspx?articleid=1890528.

Author Sean Sweeney, MS, MEd, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist and technology specialist working in private practice at the Ely Center in Newton, MA, and consults to local and national organizations on technology integration in speech and language interventions. His blog, SpeechTechie, looks at technology “through a language lens.” Contact him at sean@speechtechie.com.

Sean Sweeney
Sean Sweeney


Sean Sweeney, MS, MEd, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist and technology specialist working in private practice at the Ely Center in Newton, MA, and consults to local and national organizations on technology integration in speech and language interventions. His blog, SpeechTechie (www.speechtechie.com), looks at technology “through a language lens.” Contact him at sean@speechtechie.com.

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