I recently (well, a few weeks ago) asked on Facebook if anyone had any specific questions that I should write a post about. A follower requested that I post about expanding MLU in three to five-year-olds while also targeting early sounds (I assume /p/, /b/, /m/, /n/, /w/, etc.).
This was a difficult topic to research. I really didn't find too much scholarly information out there, but I found a little, so I thought I would share that with you.
If you are concerned about increasing MLU, then I assume you're concerned about a student lacking specific morphemes. You should always do a language sample to determine which morphemes are and are not being used. Building rapport is extremely important when beginning therapy with any child, especially with those who have limited expressive language abilities. You can do pretty much any activity that targets the specific morpheme goals as well as mixing in a little bit of articulation work. For example, play with bubbles. You can say "popping the bubbles" and also expand on it - "Johnny pop the bubbles"; "Johnny is popping the bubbles"; "pop pop pop"; "popping bubbles"; "big bubbles"; "mommy can pop bubbles". Those are all sentences that target early sounds as well targeting a specific morpheme (especially if you're working on -ing or -s).
If you're simply working on increasing utterance length, use recasts and expansions. This is basically repeating what your student says in an expanded form. According to Yoder, Spruytenberg, Edwards, and Davies (1995), expansions are adult utterances that follow the child's utterance. These utterances typically increase the syntactic and/or semantic complexity of the message.
For example, if your student is only using two phrase utterances, but you want to increase it to three, the easiest way to do this is to add in an attribute (preferably an attribute or a word that begins with an early sound that you are targeting):
Student: puppy run
SLP: big (early sound) puppy runs
Expansion: the big puppy runs
SLP: brown (early sound) puppy runs
Expansion: the brown puppy runs home
Using expansions and recasts helps teach vocabulary and increases MLU.
It's important to follow the student's lead. Let the student decide what he or she wants to play with, and play alongside him or her. Repeat back what he/she says in an expanded form.
Also, using verbal routines (contexts whose roles are filled by verbal turns) can improve the effectiveness of expansions in facilitating language development in children who are at the single word stage. One example of a verbal routine is using a picture book. The adult would ask a series of expected questions, and the student would respond while making spontaneous comments. For example, the student might say "cat chair" while pointing to a cat sitting on a chair. The adult would expand on that utterance and respond, "yes, the cat is on the chair". Other examples of verbal routines include phone play, nursery rhymes, and conversing about picture books (Yoder, Spruytenberg, Edwards, & Davies, 1995). Now, the picture book example would only be considered a verbal routine if the same picture book is used in repeated interactions.
When verbal routines are developed, children are more likely to verbally participate in conversation and this would provide more opportunities for expanding their language. The predicability of a verbal routine lightens the information processing load and makes it easier for the children to respond. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that children are more likely to learn from expansions when in routines (Yoder, Spruytenberg, Edwards, & Davies, 1995). While children learn better and are more likely to converse when in a routine, avoid having boring sessions. Reading the same picture book is okay, but do a different activity to further reinforce the ideas from the book. Other ideas is to have the child act out scenes from the book or draw pictures to represent ideas from the book. These activities will allow you to also target those early articulation sounds.
As always: model appropriate speech and language, give a lot of positive feedback and praise, and have fun!
One great game to play that targets both early sounds and can allow you to work on expanding utterances is Articulation BINGO. You can use articulation bingo for any sound in the initial, medial, and final positions and well as target words, phrases, sentences, etc.
Download this free activity here: Early Sounds Articulation BINGO
Note: The download includes initial, medial, and final /p/, /b/, /m/, /n/, and /w/ with four different BINGO layouts.
Katie from Playing with Words 365 wrote a post about 15 Kids Games she can't live without. It's a great post, and most of the games there increase MLU. Using any of the games that Katie wrote about, while also using recasts and expansions will allow for an increased MLU.
Worst comes to worst, if you have a hard time targeting the two goals together, target them separately. When the student gets to a stage where he/she is working on the articulation sounds in sentences or conversation, then it will be easier to target those specific sounds using expanded utterances.
Yoder, P. J., Spruytenburg, H., Edwards, A., & Davies, B. (1995). Effect of verbal routine contexts and expansions on gains in the mean length of utterance in children with developmental delays. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 26, 21-32.