Language Therapy: The Case Against Carrier Phrases

Janine Shapiro, CCC-SLP, BCBA

I’ve recently written about the importance of teaching children requests as “first words” rather than animals, letters, numbers, or colors.  I’ve also been discussing the importance of avoiding general requests and social niceties.  For example, don’t teach the word “more” and refrain from prompting children to say “please” too early.  The list of “don’ts” continues with today’s advice: Resist the urge to teach the carrier phrase “I want_________” immediately after a child begins speaking his first words!

The Desire to Expand Length of Utterance

It happens all the time.  A child with delayed speech/language begins talking.  The practitioner teaches the child to request.  The child starts requesting using single words.  Everyone is overjoyed.  But suddenly, the intense urge to play “catch up” commences.  Now that the child is talking, the differences in phrase length look like an obvious target.  Speech-language pathologists have a fancy acronym for phrase length: MLU, or, “mean length of utterance.”  MLU is most easily measured in number of words and roughly correlates with age number in a child’s early years.  So, conservatively, we expect that a 1-year-old should speak with an MLU of one, a 2-year-old should exhibit an MLU of two, and a 3-year-old, an MLU of three.  Keep in mind that by definition, MLU refers to an average phrase length.  Two-year-olds frequently say “No!” Therefore, they have to compensate with lots of utterances longer than two words to present with an MLU of two!  So when a child begins talking at age three, and a parent or clinician wishes for the child to sound like his peers, it can be both tempting and easy to teach him to expand his phrase length using the carrier phrase “I want_______.”  As a result, a child can be speaking using one-word requests like “chip” and “train” one week and during the next speech therapy session, exit the office saying “I want chip” and “I want train.”  This seems like incredible progress!  What could possibly be wrong with this?

The Problem with Carrier Phrases

The problem is that once a child learns to say “I want” to gain everything desired, you restrict the child from learning to combine nouns and verbs!  Essentially, nearly every verb that a child would learn becomes replaced by “want.”  For example, “eat candy” gets replaced with “I want candy.”  “Hold baby” becomes “I want baby.”  Typical development doesn’t begin with one word and then immediately jump to three!  Children begin combining two words together when they develop a vocabulary size of about fifty words.  So resist the urge to teach “carrier phrases” like “I want” in an attempt to superficially improve the child’s language.  

Teach Flexible Language

Instead, invest in a strong foundation for future language success and teach the child to combine nouns and verbs flexibly!  Don’t teach “open door” without teaching variations such as “open box” and “open Cheetos.”  At the same time, you also teach “close box” and “eat Cheetos.”  This strategy approximates typical language development and increases the likelihood that the child will learn how to generate his own flexible language rather than produce robotic phrases. 

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