A Beginners Guide To Grammatical Terms

User Friendly Dictionary of Grammar

My well-loved copy of TUFDOG

If you are either a parent of a child who has a language disorder or you’re planning to train as a speech & language therapist in the future, then this post is for you! When I went to my very first Linguistics lecture way back in October 1992 the lecturer, one Professor Jim Hurford (you’ll find his biog here if you are interested!), handed us all a bundle of paper which he dubbed ‘The User Friendly Dictionary of Grammar’ or ‘TUFDOG’. This document contained definitions of pretty much every grammatical term you could think of from ‘noun’ to ‘relative clause’. Prof Hurford’s reasoning was that, since schools had moved away from teaching the meanings of such terms and a clear understanding of such vocabulary is essential for students of linguistics, he’d best make sure we all knew our adverbs from our adjectives. Over my 4 Years studying Linguistics at Edinburgh, TUFDOG was invaluable and, as you can see, I still have my well-thumbed copy!

I am happy to tell you that TUFDOG was formally published in 1994 in much flashier format as ‘Grammar: A Student’s Guide‘ and it is still available from Amazon!

Anyway, getting to the point of this post, it occurs to me that if you are not someone who uses grammatical terms on a daily basis (so pretty much the whole world except for SLTs, language teachers, journalists, writers and editors) then I thought it might be helpful to have a brief explanation of the basics. This will be particularly useful if you are the parent of a child who has a language disorder as you will most likely be asked to work on one or more of these areas with your child.

Noun – a noun is the name of something. ‘Common nouns’ are the names of objects like ‘ball’, ‘sock’ or ‘house’. A good way to check if something is a common noun is to see if it makes sense if you put ‘the’ before it. For example ‘the house’ makes sense but ‘the drinking’ feels like it’s not finished and ‘the beside’ just plain doesn’t make sense! The names of people and places are also nouns but form a subgroup called ‘proper nouns’. Proper nouns don’t make sense with ‘the’ and typically have a capital first letter; eg ‘Isla’, ‘Edinburgh’, ‘Scotland’

Pronoun – a pronoun is a short word that you can use to replace a noun in a sentence so that you don’t end up repeating yourself all the time.

By way of example, you could say the following: ‘I saw James at the park yesterday. James said James was at the park to meet Polly. James and Polly were planning to go for ice cream together. Polly loves ice cream, Polly says ice cream’s Polly’s favourite food’ however, that sounds a bit repetitive with all the ‘Jameses’ and ‘Pollys’. Most people would probably use some pronouns to make it sound a bit better ‘I saw James at the park yesterday. He said he was at the park to meet Polly. They were planning to go for ice cream together. Polly loves ice cream, she says it‘s her favourite food’.

As you can see, we have different genders of pronoun: male, female, gender neutral as well as plural pronouns. There are also variations on each of these depending on where they come in a sentence. This can be really confusing for children who have a language disorder and they generally try to simplify the system by using only one gender and typically only one variant. In my experience, it is typically the male pronouns a child like this will stick to and if there is only one variant used, it will be either ‘he’ or ‘him’ (eg ‘him is washing him hands’). In English our pronouns are:

A list of English pronounsAdjective – quite simply, an adjective is a word that describes a noun. Some examples of adjectives are colours, sizes like ‘big’ or ‘enormous’ and attributes like ‘nice’, ‘long’ or ‘soft’. If you’re not sure if a word is an adjective, try it with a noun and see if it works; ‘the chair is soft’ works but ‘the chair is in’ sounds unfinished and ‘the chair is quietly’ doesn’t make sense.

Verb – ‘verb’ is another word for ‘action’, it is something you do. Examples of verbs are ‘love’, ‘run’, and ‘eat’. Verbs form the core of a sentence and they dictate what roles (see below) or positions need to be filled to finish that sentence so that it makes sense. For example ‘give’ is a verb. To use ‘give’ in a sentence we first need to have someone to do the giving but ‘Sue is giving’ isn’t a complete sentence. So give also needs something to be given but ‘Sue is giving the cake’ still isn’t a complete sentence. It turns out that ‘give’ also requires someone to receive whatever has been given so our complete sentence is ‘Sue is giving the cake to Bob’. By way of contrast, the verb ‘sleep’ needs only someone to do the sleeping to make a complete sentence ‘The dog is sleeping’ , you can add other things but these are optional. This is why it is so important for children to learn verbs as well as nouns as part of their early vocabulary. Without verbs, it is impossible to build grammatically correct sentences.

Roles – ‘Roles’ are the slots in a sentence that need to be filled to make the sentence complete. As described above, the verb you use dictates which roles need to be filled. The main roles to be aware of are ‘Subject‘, ‘Object‘ and ‘Indirect Object‘. There are others but you only need to know about those if you are studying in detail! The subject is the ‘doer’ of the action and in English, all verbs require at least a subject to make a complete sentence – The boy is drinking. The object is whatever the action is done to and many verbs require an object as well as a subject – The boy is drinking juice. You will also come across indirect objects which are typically the beneficiary of the action – The boy bought some juice for his brother. In English, the order of these roles in a sentence is usually subject, verb, object, (indirect object) or SVO(Oi).

Tenses – verbs in English have different endings and sometimes other words used with them to show when the action happens in time. Examples are:

  • James has tidied his room or James tidied his room – past
  • James is tidying his room or James tidies his room – present
  • James will tidy his room or James is going to tidy his room – future

There are many distinctions of different types of past, present and future tense but discussion of those in detail here will just get confusing! For the purposes of early language development, the most important thing is to ensure a child is able to express the basic 3-way past/present/future distinction.

Adverb – An adverb is a describing word much like an adjective but it describes a verb rather than a noun. Adverbs describe how something is done and very often end in ‘-ly’, examples are: gently, quickly, carefully. You can often turn an adjective into an adverb by adding ‘-ly’ to the end. For example in the sentence ‘Your dress is nice’, the word ‘nice’ is an adjective which describes the dress. On the other hand, in the sentence ‘Your dress is nicely made’, the word ‘nicely’ is an adverb which describes how the dress has been made, ‘made’ being the past tense of the verb ‘make’.

Preposition – a preposition is a word that tells you about a location or position. Examples are: in, on under, between, behind, in front. Many children who have language delays or disorders need some help to learn these. Prepositions are essential for daily understanding and are also fundamental building blocks for sentences.

Plural – a plural simply means ‘more than one’. Typically in English, we put a ‘s’ on the end of a word to show there is more than one, this is called a ‘regular plural’ because it is a regular pattern. Examples of regular plurals are ‘houses’, ‘socks’, ‘plants’. In English there are a subgroup of plurals which don’t follow this pattern and these are called ‘irregular plurals’. Examples of irregular plurals are ‘mice’, ‘geese’ and ‘sheep’.

That just about covers the main ‘parts of speech‘ that you are likely to come across if you are working with a speech and language therapist. Incidentally the term ‘part of speech‘ is a term that means a group of words which share the same characteristics in language. Basically, parts of speech are the building blocks you need to make sentences. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, prepositions, adjectives and adverbs are all parts of speech. It’s important to keep parts of speech in mind when you are working with a child who has language problems, particularly if they do not speak in sentences. In order to build sentences, it’s essential for a child to have a variety of words from various parts of speech in their vocabulary. A mix of nouns, verbs, adjective, adverbs and prepositions makes many more combinations available than just nouns and adjectives.

I hope that this article is useful and please do leave me a comment if you’d like further explanation or you’d like me to add something which I haven’t included!

Making Speech & Language Activities Easier or Harder

I was asked recently about how to make activities easier or harder for clients. When you’re training to be an SLT or indeed working as a newly qualified SLT, this can be one of the hardest parts of the job as you often have to make adjustments on the spot. With experience this gets easier but even the most seasoned SLT will have moments where they realise a re-think is required. The bottom line is, there is no magic list of incremental steps, knowing how to step therapy activities up and down is the very essence of the specialist skills that we learn when we become SLTs. That’s what all that theory is for and one of the reasons why “Speech & Language Therapist” is a protected professional title! Having said that, understanding a few key points is helpful when doing your planning especially while you are training or in your probationary year.

Before we continue…

First and foremost, 2 important things to remember are:

  1. If a task is clearly way too hard for a child, you can just stop doing it! Better to stop and do something easier than to continue with something that sends a message of failure. If you have no easier therapy task, there is nothing wrong with just playing a game together to regain the child’s trust and build rapport.
  2. There is absolutely nothing wrong with throwing an easy task into a therapy session. It gives the child experience of success and helps them feel comfortable. So if you do find yourself with too easy a task and no way to step it up, don’t panic!

The importance of thorough and ongoing assessment

To my mind, the most important part of being able to step activities up or down for a client is to have a very clear understanding of what their individual strengths and weaknesses are. That is why doing a detailed and comprehensive assessment is always my first port of call with any client. If that takes 2 or 3 or even 4 sessions, then so be it! Therapy will always be more effective when it is based on a clear set of assessment findings.

Of course, no assessment is foolproof and an assessment only gives you a snapshot of the child’s skills on a particular day. With that in mind, constant observation of the child during therapy sessions is also essential. Their strengths and weaknesses may vary depending on external factors like the amount of sleep they had last night, the time of day, whether they’re coming down with something, perhaps they’re excited about an upcoming event and so forth. You may find that they may learn the new skill you are teaching either more quickly or slowly than you anticipated and you need to account for this too.

Planning Therapy

Obviously it best practice to plan your therapy ahead but I would advise against over-planning. By ‘over-planning’, I mean doing something like sitting down and writing a detailed plan of exactly what you are going to do in each session of a 6 week block. By all means, have an overall outline plan for the 6 weeks based on your assessment and therapy aims but I’d advise adding specifics into your individual session plans no more than one or maybe 2 sessions ahead. That means that you have your overall ‘map’ of what you are doing in the block to keep your therapy focused but you have the flexibility to alter your weekly plans session to session based on the child’s performance each time. Here’s an example of a plan that I have actually used from the start of a 6-week block.

Example Speech & Language Therapy Plan

One of my pre-block plans. As you can see, I have only done specific plans for sessions 1 & 2 of the block at this point.

Something I have not shown here is how to step up or down these activities. That’s because I know this child really well and have various tricks up my sleeve based on my previous experience as an SLT and with this child in particular. And here’s the rub! As I said at the start, I cannot give a definitive list of what to do to make things easier or harder for clients because that list will be different and individual for each child. However, I can share the key things I take into consideration when planning and working out how to step activities up or down. These are:

  1. What CAN the child do? Are there stronger areas of their language/speech processing that we can use to support weaker areas?
  2. What is the child likely to find more difficult but still achievable?
  3. What scaffolds can I use to support learning of more difficult skills? (Modelling, visual supports, signing and so on) How will I fade out the use of these scaffolds?
  4. What things are going to be outside of the child’s current skill set developmentally?
  5. What things are going to be outside of the child’s skill set based on their disorder?
  6. Given each activity I have planned for the next session, how can I make each activity one step easier or harder based on what I know of the child and the answers to questions 1-5?

Obviously keeping accurate notes of your sessions comes into its own here because you can then use the information you recorded to see how the child did, which supports worked and which supports you can try fading out next session.

I hope that this is helpful for those of you having trouble with stepping up and down. You are not alone! If you have questions about specific clients, do feel free to email me at blethersslt@gmail.com I will get back to you as soon as I can but do bear in mind it can take a couple of weeks!


A Day In the Life of a Speech & Language Therapist

A Typical Day as a Speech & Language Therapist

I was asked recently to describe a typical day working as a Speech & Language Therapist. A simple question, right? WRONG! After quite some deliberation and a few false starts, I had a dawning realisation. I was struggling to describe a typical day as an SLT because THERE IS NO SUCH THING! In fact, the unpredictability and variation is exactly why I enjoy being a speech and language therapist. I can say with complete honesty, I have never, in 14 years as a speech and language therapist, been bored at work. How many people can say that, hand on heart? At work I have been amazed, stressed, amused, overwhelmed, challenged, excited, sad, worried, fascinated…. and the list goes on, but never, ever bored. It’s a bit of an emotional rollercoaster this speech & language therapy lark!

Why is Speech & Language Therapy so Varied?

There are several reasons why it is difficult to be bored at work if you are a speech and language therapist. First and foremost for me, is the beautiful diversity of people. Now, as a paediatric SLT, I can only really comment on children but I’m sure my colleagues in adult services will agree the following observation: Genuinely and without exception, every client is different. As we train to be SLTs we learn about groups of clients like “neurotypical children”, “children with autism” or “late talkers”. There’s nothing wrong with this, it helps us to learn, but when you actually get out there and meet a few clients who share a diagnosis, it immediately becomes obvious that NO TWO ARE THE SAME! This is all part of the fun! Meeting a new client for the first time, figuring out what motivates them, building a rapport, problem-solving their communication difficulties, watching them progress is the whole point of what we SLTs do and it is endlessly interesting.

Then there is the fact that most speech and language therapy jobs involve working in at least 2 different locations throughout the week. We SLTs can be found in health centres, clinics, hospitals, schools, nurseries, clients’ homes, specialist schools/units, private clinics and even prisons (working, not generally detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure!). Obviously each separate workplace involves a different set of challenges, colleagues and clients.

As well as the range of clients and working environments, and SLT must also make use of a huge variety of skills and roles. In addition to the ‘therapist’ role you signed up for, you often find yourself wearing any combination of heads including, but not exclusively, some of the following:

  • trouble-shooter – The usual strategies aren’t working for this particular child (they’re all different remember!), why is that and what are you going to do next?
  • artist – No-one else is going to make the reward chart you need to help your clients stay focused in that social skills group next week…
  • counsellor – You have a distraught parent in your treatment room because their child has just been diagnosed with autism…
  • logistics manager – Exactly how are you going to drive between 4 home visits and still be back to your clinic in time to write up all the case notes? What’s the most time-efficient route? Where will you park?
  • child – Yes, if you’re going to build a relationship and get the best out of a child, you need to be able to play like one!
  • sneaky sabotager – How are you going to get wee Johnny to ask for that toy car using his voice? You know he can say it but he doesn’t realise that the word gets him a go of his favourite toy. Yes, you’re going to sabotage his favourite car-run game by giving him the track but no cars!
  • writer and author – so you know what ‘Phonological Awareness’ means, how are you going to explain clearly what it is in a report for a parent with no prior knowledge of linguistics? And furthermore, who else is going to write you a story crammed full of words beginning with ‘s’ for little Julie’s session tomorrow?
  • researcher – a child with a diagnosis of Angelman Syndrome has just landed in your clinic room. What on earth is that?
Cleaning the carpet in the Mobile Therapy Room

Typical day in the life of a speech therapist? Working for yourself means you have to do EVERYTHING!

As a speech & language therapist, you will find yourself in all sorts of roles and, to be fair, any good SLT training course will have prepared you (at least in part!) to take on the many faces of an SLT. If you are considering applying for SLT training, it’s important to be aware that you will have very varied roles to fulfil and to appreciate that you will need to be very flexible in your thinking at all times.

So there you have it. There is no ‘typical’ day in the life of a speech and language therapist and that is exactly why it is such a great vocation to have! You can find out more about training to be a speech and language therapist from the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists.


Finding Speech & Language Therapy Work Experience

How can I get work experience with a speech & language therapist?

I am often asked if I can provide work experience for people who are planning to pursue a a career in Speech & Language Therapy. Unfortunately it is very difficult for me, and indeed most other independent SLTs, to provide work experience placements. This is down to issues of client consent, client confidentiality and the implications for insurance and legal business status. Sometimes it is possible to get some experience with your local NHS team but, again, these placements are very few and far between and are difficult to get.

While most of the higher education institutions understand that getting work experience directly with a speech & language therapist is very difficult, it does definitely count in your favor if you have some related practical experience under your belt when you apply. So what can you do about it? Well, I have highlighted the word ‘related‘ here because a little bit of ‘out of the box’ thinking can help you out significantly.

What sort of work experience is related to Speech & Language Therapy?

To get started, it will help you to think about the different client groups that speech & language therapists typically work with. Some examples are:

  • Stroke patients (usually adults but occasionally children)
  • Head injury patients (children & adults)
  • People who stammer (children & adults)
  • Children who have developmental communication disorders like Specific Language Impairment, Verbal Dyspraxia or Phonological Disorders
  • Children and adults who have communication disabilities related to conditions like Down’s Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy or Autistic Spectrum Disorders.

I’m sure you can see that a list like this will help direct you towards organisations that support these client groups. More often than not, these organisations are charitable and rely heavily on the support of volunteer workers – see where I’m going with this? Using my list above, which is not exhaustive, some (and there are many, many more!) related organisations that may be able to take volunteer placements are:

As you can see, with just a little bit of thought, we have generated quite a long list of organisations who support people with all sorts of communication difficulties and who work with volunteer staff. Time for you to get on the phone and make contact!

Working in schools

Whilst it is helpful to have experience specifically with people who have communication difficulties, do not rule out the possibility of spending some time working in a mainstream classroom. Interacting with typical children, forming rapport with them and understanding how their communication skills develop is also an essential part of being a speech & language therapist. Even if you plan to work with adults when you qualify, you will have to do practical placements in paediatric settings as part of your training. If you plan to take a year out before starting your training or are going in as a mature student, it is definitely worthwhile looking around for temporary or short term contract teaching assistant or nursery assistant jobs in your local area. With that in mind, volunteer work with playgroups, youth groups & children’s clubs like Brownies or Cubs are also worth considering and are perhaps easier to fit in for future SLTs who are still at school.

What if I have a family member with a communication difficulty?

Many people come into speech & language therapy because they have some personal experience of communication difficulties. That could be because they have a friend or relative with a communication disorder, or indeed because they themselves have needed support with communication in the past. Whilst this is valuable experience, you should be aware that it is also a very narrow and subjective experience of the issue in question. It will certainly count in your favor if you seek to expand your knowledge of the communication disorder in question by seeking the type of work experience described above. Doing so will help you to broaden your understanding and gain a better perspective on the wide range of experiences that a group of people with the same diagnosis can have.

Well, I hope that this post has provided all of you budding speech & language therapists with some helpful and creative ways of getting some work experience that is relevant to speech & language therapy. Good luck and do feel free to contact me with any comments or questions!

How do I become a Speech & Language Therapist?

A good place to start if you are thinking about a career in speech & language therapy in the UK is the Royal College of Speech & Language Therapists (RCSLT). On the website you will find a careers page where you can download the RCSLT Careers Guide. That said, here are a few pointers, hints and tips to help you along the way…

What training do I need to be a speech & language therapist?

Training to be a speech & language therapist means completing (and passing!) an approved, degree level qualification. The training takes 4 years as an undergraduate in both England and Scotland. If you already have a related degree like Linguistics, English Language or Psychology, you may be able to gain entry to one of the 2 year postgraduate masters courses on offer. If you are coming straight from school or don’t already have a degree, most institutions are asking for 3 A-Levels or 5 Highers for entry to speech & language therapy training at the time of writing. It’s best to check with each institution what the current requirements are as they do vary. Most places will insist on English and at least one science. Speech and language therapy training is an eclectic mix of academic topics from across arts, humanities and sciences. You will study language-based subject areas like linguistics and psychology alongside more traditionally science-based subjects like anatomy and physiology. For this reason, a broad range of subjects at A-Level/Higher is typically required.

What sort of things do I need to think about when I’m deciding where to study?

When you are searching for institutions that provide courses that qualify you to be a speech & language therapist, you should also be aware that the courses are not always titled ‘Speech & Language Therapy’! I trained as a postgraduate at Newcastle University and the course at that time was called ‘Language Pathology’. I’d also applied to Queen Margaret University where the course was (and still is!) unambiguously called ‘Speech & Language Therapy’, as well as to Sheffield University where the course title at the time was ‘Human Communication Sciences’.

When you are choosing Universities to apply to, some useful things to consider are:

  • Does the institution and the department you are applying to have an open day that you can attend? It’s definitely worth a visit if you can as it will give you a feel for the department, institution and the city. You may also be able to chat to some current students which is very useful to get a ‘users view’ of the course.
  • Consider the academic facilities – is there a good, well stocked library? Does the department have its own library? There is nothing worse that having to compete with 60-80 colleagues for the 3 copies of the set text available in the library!
  • Are there well organised arrangements for clinical placements? You will have to do these as part of your training and they can be quite stressful at the best of times as you will be nervous and out of your comfort zone. The last thing you need is disorganised placement organisers who leave it to the last minute to find & allocate placements or to find yourself working with a clinician who hasn’t been sent the relevant information about what is expected of you on placement. Some institutions, like Newcastle University, have on-site clinics that can be used for placements as well as external placements in NHS departments. This is handy but not an essential requirement as many universities like Queen Margaret have excellent links with their local NHS teams and have no trouble placing students.
  • Is there a good student support system within the department? Can you get support easily from the teaching staff and indeed the other students? Speech & language therapy training is intense, hard work and at times very stressful! At some stage during your training, you will probably need some support from an approachable member of the teaching team and/or your fellow students. It’s important to know that you can access that easily.

Do I need work experience with a speech & language therapist?

Before you apply, if you can get some work (voluntary or paid) with the client group you are interested in, so much the better. This doesn’t have to be as an SLT assistant as these jobs are few and far between. Neither does your experience have to be directly with a speech & language therapist. You could consider working as a teaching assistant, care assistant or working with one of the charities that support communication disabled people. If you have a family member with a communication disability, make sure you get some wider experience as well to increase your breadth of knowledge about that and other communication disorders. Have a look at my post called Finding Speech & Language Therapy Work Experience for more ideas.

Can independent SLTs give me work experience?

Some may but Blethers does not currently offer work experience placements. Most independent SLTs are registered as sole traders. That means that they generally have no employees and therefore no employee liability insurance. Taking on work experience placements would mean taking out extra insurance and complicates the registered business type. This is why many private SLTs don’t offer work experience, however, Blethers and most other independent SLTs will be happy to talk to you about training and working as an SLT.

You may have more luck getting work experience with some of the NHS teams or private special schools although you should be aware that they get lots of requests. Bear in mind that there are other ways to gain experience working with people who have communication difficulties. For example, working as a teaching assistant or volunteering with one of the communication/learning disability charities.