Puzzles, Patterns, & Repetition: A Grammar-Based Approach to Speaking

Grammar puzzle pieces with parts of speech written on them.My first-born son was a late talker. Children much younger than he were speaking in sentences much longer than his while my husband and I were getting excited when he said “Pop!” as the speech therapist brought out the bubble machine. The parenting journey for late-talking children can be tricky, since sometimes it’s autism and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s a language disability for life and sometimes the concern goes away overnight when children suddenly start generating language as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. For our boy, it turned out that he is autistic and does have a language disability, but learning grammar helped him find his voice.

My son is seventeen years old now and has given me permission to tell our story, which started over a decade ago. He was barely talking then, so we enrolled him in a special-needs kindergarten classroom in our school district. His teacher was kind but my son was terrified, and we left the school to educate him at home. It wasn’t just that he didn’t tolerate our separation, although being apart was heart-wrenching for both of us. I noticed that the school didn’t try to teach him very much. There were goals about making beds and zipping jackets, but the typical kindergarten academics—ABCs, handwriting, numbers—were missing from his program. The classroom just wasn’t up to the challenge of challenging him.

I’m not sure we were up to the challenge either, but we were sure that low expectations would produce low results. We were already facing significant delays—and yet he was quite advanced when it came to puzzles. He loved following patterns, and he delighted in repetition. One of his specialists suggested to us that he could start learning to read. Is that even possible, I wondered, to read before talking? We used a phonics curriculum that had letters of the alphabet printed on puzzle pieces that interlocked to form words. This was a visual that made sense to him. As he read more, he spoke more. Although he was growing in his vocabulary he was not yet able to communicate his thoughts or ideas very well. To convey meaning effectively he had to connect his words into sentences using grammar.

Professionally I am a Latin teacher, so grammar is my thing. When I became a mother I left the physical classroom and started teaching Latin online so that I could stay home with my children. I still teach Latin online today. Studying Latin is a great way to learn grammar, as we classical educators know well. We learn grammar when we speak English, too, but it’s not as easy to isolate grammatical ideas when you are analyzing your own mother tongue. A native English speaker will say “The dog runs after the cat” just because it sounds right, instead of “The dog run after the cat.” In other words, we understand the grammar rules intuitively. Studying a foreign language like Latin takes away the benefit of intuitive understanding. At first nothing “sounds right.” Latin gives students an opportunity to learn and apply the grammar of a foreign language, which can shed new light on all languages, including one’s mother tongue.

It’s that intuitive understanding that seemed to be missing for my son. I was his mother, yet he did not absorb his mother tongue from me. Whatever the complexities of his disabilities, he did not learn language in a typical way, and nothing seemed to “sound right” to him naturally. And then I had an epiphany. My Latin students were solving the linguistic puzzles of Latin sentences, learning grammatical patterns, and using repetition to master rules and paradigms. Puzzles, patterns, repetition—these are my son’s superpowers. He needed a grammar-based approach to speaking.

We started with this simple sentence: Airplanes flew. The curriculum we used suggested a question-answer flow, which I simplified for my son who wasn’t ready to answer questions yet. Instead, we read the sentence together. I labeled each word on the page, modeling for him what I hoped he would do independently down the track. We must have read that sentence together a hundred times. “Airplanes flew. Subject noun, verb.” Then we created new sentences with the same pattern: “Rabbits slept. Subject noun, verb.” We kept that same initial pattern for weeks, but he didn’t mind the repetition. We wrote sentences about airplanes, rabbits, and Thomas the Tank Engine characters. My goal was to input the “subject noun, verb” pattern until he could compose such a sentence himself. It took a long time, but he achieved that goal.

Since he was not yet responding to questions, I used a modified fill-in-the-blank approach: “Airplanes … [I would pause, raise my eyebrows, and cheerfully act like I was about to say something but wouldn’t until he just had to jump in and finish it for me] flew!” “Thomas … puffed!” “Rabbits … hopped!” Once he was supplying the verb to fit my subject noun, I would prompt him to dictate his own complete simple sentences to me by putting my pencil to paper and looking at him expectantly, with cheerful eyebrow raised. It became a game we both enjoyed.

We introduced adverbs next, so our sentence became “Airplanes flew swiftly. Subject noun, verb, adverb.” My son latched onto that pattern quickly because he had the hang of things by then. We started with our airplane sentence, our rabbit sentence, our Thomas sentence, and repeated the familiar process by adding one new word at a time. We reused enough of the old favorites to keep the sentences familiar. We slowly added new elements while always emphasizing the patterns. Imagine the excitement when we started direct objects. I remember him having a giggle fit once, laughing and laughing because a sentence didn’t have a direct object in it. I’m not exactly sure why it was so funny at the time, but I sure loved his laugh and still do!

As my son mastered the advancing sentence patterns he would try them out in a conversation. Remarkably, he would say things like: “Article adjective, adjective, subject noun, verb, preposition, article adjective, object of the preposition!” My response: “Good, now use your words.” He’d repeat the same thought he had expressed before, using words this time for my sake: “The green train fell behind the couch!” My dear boy was talking, fitting each word together in his mind like pieces in a puzzle.

A decade later, he now enjoys Legos, bowling, FaceTiming his grandparents, and singing in the choir. His disabilities are still a very real part of his life, but now he can talk about them openly. He advocates for himself by explaining, “I will take my time and tell you slowly.” Grammar helped him find his voice, and although I don’t know what adventures are in store for him next, I am eager to hear all his stories.

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