When should we start working on sentences?  

The answer to this depends on the individual child but in general, two word combinations should be targeted as soon as the child has at least 50

When should we start working on sentences?

The answer to this depends on the individual child but in general, two word combinations should be targeted as soon as the child has at least 50 "words" that are used to request (mand), can be receptively identified and labeled (tact) with no prompting. Deciding when and how words are combined into phrases and sentences should take into consideration the current skills of the child. For example, how many words can the child successfully imitate? Does the child spontaneously imitate (echo) long sentences? Is the child able to mand with single words with no prompting? Does the child echo 2 or more words without prompting?

As discussed previously, some children with Autism have no difficulty using complete sentences in an echoic or imitative fashion. These children may use sentences in a "cut and paste" fashion but have difficulty combining words into sentences in a flexible manner. For these children, it is very important to "break down" their sentences to be sure they are using each "piece" for a variety of functions and then to build word combinations back up, being sure to continue asking questions requiring some single word responses at times. For example, even if a child is able to say "I see a little red sock on the floor." When he comes into contact with it, it is also important that he be able to respond to "what is that? (sock), What color is it? (red), Where's it the sock? (on the floor) What size is the sock? (little). In addition, it would be important to be sure the child is able to also use the same sentence form to tact (label) different sizes and colors of socks he sees on the floor and in different locations! 

Other children may be able to use single words to request and label items with no prompting but have a great deal of difficulty combining words. There may be a breakdown in articulation of words when the child attempts to use words with multiple syllables and/or when two or more words are combined. For these children, it will be important to slowly increase the length of their sentences as the child will have more difficulty producing words correctly as the complexity of the utterance increases.

As with all other teaching, if the child exhibits escape behaviors or stops spontaneously requesting and labeling things, look at the difficulty of your targets and adjust accordingly. We don't want to lose progress by trying to combine words too soon!

"Little Words"

Should children be taught to use all the "little words" such as "a", "the"(articles) to produce grammatically correct sentences or is it OK to teach "telegraphic" or "baby talk" type of word combinations? This is a question commonly asked and there is some disagreement among professionals as to the correct answer. The author believes the decision should be based on the needs and learning history of the individual child as well as the age of the child.

Typically developing children first begin forming sentences with incorrect grammar and gradually learn to produce correct word endings and sentences. The problem lies in that once some children with Autism learn a "rule" or a specific way of saying something; it is often difficult to change! For these children, it would be important to teach correct grammatical forms or forms appropriate to the situation from the beginning. The author's "rule of thumb" is that if the child is able to echo the correct form easily, teach it, but don't stress word endings or article use at the expense of building longer utterances.

On the other hand, if a child has severe difficulty combining words into sentences and demonstrates more articulation difficulties when the length and complexity of words and sentences increases, it may be beneficial to teach more "telegraphic" type sentences. Our goal is to teach the child to communicate as much as possible. The "little words" that carry little or no meaning in a sentence may be dropped in order that the child may be able to communicate more complex ideas. For example, let's say a child is unable to imitate more than 4 syllables. If he attempts any phrases/sentences longer than 4 syllables, his articulation becomes unintelligible. For this child, teaching him to say, "read big red dog" to request the Clifford book may be more successful than to attempt to teach him to request the same book by saying, "I want to read the Clifford Book" because "I want to" carries very little "communicative value" and adds a great deal of length and "Clifford" is a difficult word because of the "cl" blend. The point is, look at what is important for the child to be able to communicate to you and teach him a way to tell you based on his current skills. If a response has to be consistently prompted, it is most likely too difficult for the child at this time and it is unlikely that the child will use the response functionally. Remember, we want the child to be approaching us all day long, telling us what he wants!

If you do decide to prompt "grammatically correct" sentences rather than telegraphic combinations, be aware of any chaining or "chunking" that may occur. Since those "little words" or word ending frequently aren't under separate stimulus control for the early learner, they may just become "part of the word". For example, the child may appropriately use "shoes" or "blocks" because these are typically prompted in the plural form but still may not discriminate the conditions of having one or more than one present to determine if the plural form should be used. This would be evident if the child requested one "shoe" using the plural form. Or, if the child has been taught to use "the" in all his sentences (i.e. Give me the ball), the child may fill-in "something we roll is a..R= the ball". These responses must be under separate stimulus control if the child is to learn to use other quantifiers such as "some balls, more balls, 2 balls etc.".

In what order should word combinations be taught?

This is another area where there is some disagreement among professionals. Partington and Sundberg recommend that a developmental continuum be followed and suggest the following order:

Noun+ Noun (Two mastered tacts together- ball, car)

Noun+Verb (ball rolling) Note that verb + noun combinations are given as examples in the manual

Adjective + Noun (big ball, little truck) 

Verb + Adjective + Noun (bouncing red ball)

On the other hand, Dr. Carbone suggests the following order be used when teaching tacts:Noun + Noun (ball and shoe)


Carrier Phrase + Noun (It's a ball)

Noun + Verb (ball rolling)


Tact item when told feature, function, class

Tact feature, function, class when told item

Adjective + Noun + verb (white bear running)

Tact features

Tact with carrier phrases, properties and verb (It's a red ball rolling.)

" (with 2 properties) (It's a little, red ball rolling.)

In his description of the sequence to use to teach mands, Dr. Carbone suggests the following:

Single word mands for items, activities and actions

Requests others actions

Requests with carrier phrases

Requests others to stop an activity and help

Requests others attention

Requests information (asks who, what, where, when, how, which, whose, why questions)

Requests future events

Requests using adjectives, prepositions, adverbs, pronoun

Teaching techniques for word combinations/sentence formation

1.  Mand to Tact transfers- One way to teach combinations is to transfer from the mand (request) as described above. The child is first asked to clarify their request their request then the response is transferred to the tact.

Ex: Instructor: Which ball do you want?

Child: blue ball.

Instructor: Tell me about this. 

Child: (It's a) blue ball.

2.  Building tact combinations- This teaching procedure involves using responses the child has mastered to "build" longer and longer utterances. 

Ex: Instructor: What's the boy doing?

Child: Kicking (mastered response)

Instuctor: What's he kicking? (touching the ball)

Child: ball (mastered response)

Instuctor: That's right! The boy's kicking the ball. What's happening?

Child: The boy's kicking the ball (echoic)

Inst: Good job! Tell me what's happening? (transfer trial)

Child: The boy's kicking the ball. (BIG reinforcement!)

Once the child is able is consistently using the phrases to respond, they can be combined to form even longer utterances.

Ex: Instructor: What's happening?

Child: The sleigh's flying.

Instructor: Which sleigh?

Child: The little sleigh.

Instr: Where is it flying?

Child: In the sky.

Instr: Tell me about this.

Child: The little sleigh's flying in the sky.

3.  Expanding Utterances- A technique often used with typically developing children is to reinforce their correct utterances and also add one more word/phrase to tact the environmental event. This technique can also be used with children with Autism and is especially successful with children with a strong echoic.

Ex: Child: car (pointing to a picture of a car in a book)

Instructor: That's right! "Red car"

Child: red car.

This can also be accomplished by using a "fill-in" type task.


Inst: Tell me about this.

Child: Mommy sleeping. 

Instr: Right! Mommy's sleeping "

Child: in the bed.

Instr: Right! Tell me about this. 

Child: Mommy's sleeping in the bed.

4.  Contingent Comments- Once a child has learned to make comments which are associated with your comments, a variety of sentence forms are easier to teach. You might start by teaching these with simple mands:

Ex: Inst: I want a cat. (as you take the cat)

Child: I want a dog. (prompted as he takes the dog) 

Later, other sentence forms can be taught: 

Ex: Inst: I have a red marker. 

Child: I have a blue marker.

Things to be aware of when teaching combinations

1.  Continue single word responses when appropriate- Remember to continue to go back and be sure the child is able to give single word responses and to respond to questions appropriately. 

2.  Teach the child conditions under which further information is needed- We want to be sure to teach the child when it is and is not necessary to use descriptors and clarifications. For example, let's say a child is at the butterfly garden with hundreds of butterflies present and he wants his mother to see a particular butterfly. In this context, saying, "Mommy, look at the butterfly!" would not be enough information. He would need to request that she look for a very specific butterfly in a specific location. "Mommy, look at that blue and white butterfly at the top of the cage!" On the other hand, if there were only one butterfly present in the yard and the child wanted to show it to his mother, saying, Mommy, look at that orange and black butterfly on the purple flower" would indeed sound a bit "odd" as it would be more information that needed for the situation. 

3.  Be careful to reinforce correct combinations even if you don't get the combination you had in mind! It's easy to get so focused on a specific target that we forget to really listen to what the child is saying! For example, if you have a "color + noun" target in mind when asking the child which sticker he would like, be sure to reinforce if he mands for the "shiny dog sticker"! (I've actually seen a correction procedure run on this so don't laugh!)

4.  Be sure to teach words in a wide variety of combinations to avoid responses getting chained together. For example, teach multiple objects with the same adjective (big ball, big house, big shirt, big pants) and the same object with multiple adjectives (big shirt, blue shirt, striped shirt, warm shirt) 

5.  Be careful that you are not requiring so much that the child is no longer making an effort. If you see a drop in manding (requesting) after beginning to teach word combinations, the target response may be too hard for the child. For example, if a child is manding using single words with no prompts but stops or greatly reduces manding when an adjective is added, back off a bit or reinforce each response as a single word and combine the words as a model for the child without requiring the combination as a response. Ex: Child: cookie Instructor: which one? Child: big Instructor: big cookie! (as she gives the child the cookie) ***If the child begins requesting a cookie with the word "big", be sure you have him say "cookie" before getting the cookie!

6.  Some professionals suggest beginning to increase the length of utterances with carrier phrases. While this may be fine for some children, stress function of the words used to expand utterances for children who have difficulty imitating longer utterances. 

T. Vail 9/02


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