It is well documented in the literature that children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) experience significant grammatical deficits. While much of the focus has been on their morphological difficulties, there is less known about their difficulties in acquiring complex syntactic structures. Sentence recall has been acknowledged in the literature as a reliable methodological tool to investigate syntactic knowledge. This study examines an important complex syntactic structure, the relative clause, by Irish school age children with SLI, using a sentence recall task.
Thirty three children with SLI and thirty three typically developing (TD) children, between the ages of 6 and 7,11 years, carried out the task, which was based on work carried out by Diessel and Tomasello (2005). There was a difference in performance overall on the task – the children with SLI showing significantly greater difficulty. Relative clauses attached to the predicate nominal of a copular clause caused fewer problems for the children with SLI than those attached to the direct object of a transitive main clause. This is in line with the Diessel and Tomasello findings with younger TD children. A common error pattern in the children with SLI, also found in the younger TD children, in the aforementioned study, is that children with SLI tended to convert object, oblique and indirect object relative clauses to subject relatives.
The results suggest that problems with complex syntax in English extends well into primary school age for children with SLI, but that the trajectory of their development of relative clause structures may resemble that of younger children.