Simplifying Speech- What Does the Research Say?

Emily Roberts M.A., CCC-SLP
March 24, 2021

We have all heard children use phrases such as “my turn slide,” “doggie go,” or “look car,” but we wouldn’t think that was unusual. As we know, children of early language development use simplified speech to communicate. If we heard an adult say those same phrases what would we think? Some would react positively thinking that the adult is using simplified speech to make sure the child understands what is being said. On the flip side, some would react negatively wondering why an adult would not model proper English sentences.

Using Simplified Speech (Telegraphic Speech)
Advocates for this approach say it is beneficial for several reasons, the first being that it is easier for young children with language delays to process. We know that a phrase such as “bus down” would be easier to understand than “the bus is going down the hill.” The second reason would be that it focuses on what speech therapists call semantic relations (e.g. agent+action [baby sleep], action+object [push car], etc.). Last, this method may be easier for a child to imitate and can help them to bridge from one-word utterances to two-word utterances.

Using Grammatically Correct Sentences (Grammatically Simplified Input)
Having a child process and listen for the grammatical features of language may actually help facilitate language processing by helping the child to anticipate upcoming words. Children process spoken language more quickly when it’s grammatically correct than when it’s telegraphic. Removing grammatical features such as –ing and plural -s hinders children from learning new words. If the child hears “drinking” then they hear “stomping” this helps with their understanding of grammar and figuring out that the new word is likely an ongoing action. Omitting these helpful clues penalize children who are already falling behind. Another related concern about using telegraphic speech is that it is not good for children with ASD who regularly use echolalic speech and then will memorize the wrong language patterns.

What does the research say?
A meta-analysis (based on opinions of experts) in 2010 by Anne van Kleeck from the University of Texas at Dallas determined that there was almost no research on the benefits of using one approach over the other. In 2014, Shelley Dredin-Oja and Mark Fey of the University of Kansas Medical Center compared children receiving telegraphic prompts (say “duck walking”) vs. grammatical imitation prompts (say “the boy is jumping”). 2 out of 5 of the children failed to imitate any functional words but the other 3 children produced more grammatical morphemes when given grammatical imitation prompts than when provided with telegraphic prompts. The article stated, “Both types of prompts elicited a similar number of imitations containing semantic relationships…[and] providing a telegraphic prompt to imitate does not offer any advantage as an intervention technique.”

Courtney Venker led a study of how parents talk to their children with ASD. It showed that using high rates of telegraphic speech was associated with less developed language skills two years later. Although treatment studies are needed to confirm this finding, the preliminary evidence shows telegraphic input may have a negative impact on language learning. In 2016, a meta-analysis of 257 children showed that parents who used more grammatically correct utterances were associated with the most positive language outcomes for children displaying developmental delays.

Take-Away Points
-Clinicians need to understand the difference and work with the families to make sure they understand to make an informed decision.
-Despite the research being almost non-existent a few years ago, we now know that grammatical input is more beneficial than telegraphic input for supporting language.
-SLPs should be using grammatical input as much as possible (unless we have a strong reason to believe otherwise) since our practices should be based on the best, most current research available.
-We should simplify our utterances, but keep them grammatically correct when trying for imitation (e.g. “open the door” rather than “open door”).
-When using grammatically correct models, you can make them longer or shorter to suit the child without resorting to using telegraphic input to add length. For example, a shorter model would be “my turn” or a longer model would be “It’s my turn for the bubbles” instead of telegraphically stating “my turn bubbles” to elicit a three-word phrase.
-SLPs should use a variety of techniques to highlight particular words or concepts such as stressing certain words by increasing the length of the word, volume, and pitch and de-emphasizing other words making them softer and shorter (e.g. OPEN the DOOR).


Sources Cited (APA): Venker, C & Stronach S (2017) When Is Simplified too…Simple? The ASHA Leader, Vol. 22, 42-47.

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