NLA Stage 4

The transition to Stage 4 has been pre-empted many times already on this website, particularly in our last videos about Stage 3. Since GLPs are already ‘delayed’ in their language development, our natural tendency is to rush ahead and try to ‘catch them up.’ But as you know by now, that is impossible, and we never want to revert to some form of prompting or teaching in the misguided hope that it is possible. In truth, such an unnatural tactic will simply delay the process they have worked so hard to be a part of.

Gestalt language development is a continuous process, and just because Stage 4 is about grammar, it is no exception. It’s not as if GLPs have now ‘arrived’ in a place where they can just catch up. They are still GLPs, and the idea of constructing sentences with building blocks is all brand new. They have no template so far, so we want to give them one — one that is developmental in nature, flexible in application, and foolproof in its foundational support for sentences.

Stage 4 naturally begins with ‘pre-sentences,’ that is grammar that isn’t directly about making sentences but rather about making meaning. This grammar is about relationships, relationships among concepts and words that we call ‘semantic relationships.’ Developmental Sentence Types (DST) is a research-based tool that provides a foundation for those relationships, and many of out stories in NLA Supports help us explore how to use DST in Stage 4.

You don’t have to be a grammarian to feel confident at this stage. We have done the work for you, with all of the ‘cheat sheets’ you need in English, and hints at those in the other languages represented by the handouts in the International thread. The premise of DST is that a full grammar represent ‘types’ of sentences, each of which needs time and nurturing to grow authentically. In other words, sentences don’t grow like “My + brother + ‘s + name + is + Paul.” They grow from these foundational relationships: brother + Paul; name + Paul; my + brother; name + is. DST outlines all those relationships plus more, and when you read it over, you will recognize all the 2 and 3-word combinations little ALPs in your life have said. Now your GLP gets to say them too! Once you realize how natural they are, you can relax into playing with DST combos together.

The prize will be how 2 and 3-word combos then morph seamlessly into little sentences! It just happens… “Brother name Paul” and “Paul my bother” and “Paul’s name” grows into “Brother name is Paul” and “Brother my name is,” with the common features of Stage 4 grammar being experimental, incomplete, and inaccurate! It’s important that Stage 4 is that way. Variety is important. Accuracy and consistency are not! They will come later, at Stage 5.

Developmental Sentence Scoring (DSS) will be your companion at Stages 4-6, once your child has experienced all that DST has to offer. Stage 4 brings your GLP all the basic pronouns, basic present tense verbs, basic past tense verbs, basic future tense verbs, basic question forms (reversals like ‘Is it?’) and beginning Wh-question forms (Who, what, where, how much, how many), and the conjunction ‘and.’ At the end of Stage 4, GLPs can say basic sentences such as, ‘We all had ice cream at the zoo, and then Nolan went home with his mom.’ Wow!! Think about it!


Ereeni, Nellie, and Marge introduce Stage 4 as a natural extension of the word + word combinations gestalt language processors discover at Stage 3. We also introduce Developmental Sentence Types (DST) is a tool that illustrates how children naturally develop different ‘types’ of early phrases. Ereeni shares a case example in which a student created an original story with utterances like, “Oh no staircase broken everywhere,” illustrating the possibilities once phrases and sentences can be generated ‘from scratch.’ We aren’t looking at correct sentences yet…but that will come as Stage 4 continues — and morphs into Stage 5. Stay tuned!

Supports: Stage 4

When little analytic language processors (ALPs) begin using grammar they are between two and three years of age. Their grammar is fledgling, experimental, and imperfect. They’ve just begun to learn from the grammar around them — and have processed it for a very short period of time. They make lots of mistakes, but we expect that, and don’t call them ‘mistakes’ at all — because for any language developing child, ‘formulating’ from scratch with grammar and then ‘retrieving’ it are all new territory. But at age three, the ideas that ALPs express with grammar are limited — unlike the more sophisticated ideas an older GLP has by the time they are at Stage 4. So the requirements of using grammar for an ALP and a GLP can be quite different. But our supports can help a lot!

As with the three Stages before Stage 4, supporting your GLP still means following their lead! That means not going ahead of them, not expecting anything that is developmentally beyond them, assessing their progress often, checking in with your SLP regularly, recognizing grammar development as a logical process, and staying in partnership with your child.

So support at Stage 4 begins this way:

First ask yourself the question: ‘What is it about Stage 3 that hints that your child is ready to expand referential word + word combinations to more grammatical word + word combinations?’

Do you know absolutely that if ‘red + ball’ is followed by ‘throw + ball’ that the child wouldn’t revert to Stage 2 and say “I’m going to throw the ball.” We don’t want Stage 2 to re-emerge here! We want everything that Stage 3 is meant to accomplish to have been accomplished. 

Then you are ready to introduce grammar, but not just any grammar, pre-sentence grammar! Grammatical elements stretch referential word + referential word combos in every conceivable direction. Word order doesn’t matter, in fact the opposite of how phrases sound is good for practicing word + word combos! The following list includes examples, but check your DST chart for a complete list:

  • referential word + verb (‘kitty + go’ and ‘go + kitty’)
  • Wh word + referential word (‘where + kitty’ and ‘kitty + where?’)
  • referential word + negative (‘kitty + not’ and ‘not +kitty!’)
  • referential word + conjunction (‘kitty + and’ and ‘and + kitty’)

Yes, verbs, and question words, and negatives, and conjunctions! At a pre-sentence level, ALPs play with grammar like all these forms and more. Again, please check your DST.

Specific supports at Stage 4 include these:

  1. GLPs’ time spent at Stage 3 is highly individual. It might be as short as a day for a very young child, or months-long for an older child. But the child will lead to the next stage. Our job is to support the child while they are there, making sure we let them know we understand how significant it is.

  2. When 50% of your GLP’s utterances during your Stage 3 games are referential word + referential word, we can feel confident that they have “lived” in Stage 3. And whenever your child starts to add bits of grammar, regardless of this benchmark, our job is to follow them!

  3. How? By being very open-minded about what Stage 4 is … and is not. It’s experimental … word + word. And it’s not ‘fluent’ intonational contours. It sounds halting … and hesitant … and thoughtful. Like Stage 3 did. “Kitty … my” “Kitty … sleep.” It almost sounds like ’stuttering,’ but it isn’t. The hesitancy is because it’s thoughtful. It’s all brand new. Yes, it’s language development — but it’s also language retrieval, that is accessing brand new words!

  4. Try to find an SLP to help you, and study Developmental Sentence Types (DST) and Developmental Sentence Scoring (DSS) together. You will start with: DST for early Stage 4, DST + DSS 1-3 for middle and later Stage 4. 

  5. Begin your Stage 4 modeling with brand new formulations, ones you suspect your child has never said. This way, you can avoid the old mitigations that might trigger a return to Stage 2. Stay away from the contractions noted above, and especially stay away from ‘Let’s…’ Model new grammar like, ‘Kitty is so cute.’ and ‘I saw that kitty!’ and ‘Where is he now?’ and ‘I found him!’

  6. Get ready by doing some private brainstorming about alternative grammar for the first Stage 4 grammatical combos. Use the DST for guidance, and think about grammar that allows you and your child to see the power that grammar provides! 

  7. Use a progression through Stage 4: early Stage 4 combos from DST, middle Stage 4 combos from DST + DSS, and later Stage 4 combos from DST + DSS. 

  8. Know that it’s to be expected that kids will sound less fluent than they did at Stage 2, similar to how they sounded at Stage 3 but more so. They are formulating ‘from scratch’ now, retrieving their new vocabulary and grammar, and have no musical ‘echoes’ in the back of their heads to rely on. Because they have no pre-fab intonational contours to use, our language models can support them best by using clear speech, and lots of intonation!

  9. The videos here will tell some real stories, and, over time, more stories will further amplify our points.

Know that it can be fun: more fun than you thought it would be. And we will bring you more to help you. Our Supports section will grow as this site expands. 

In the vernacular of Stage 3:

  •  ‘Fun + now’ 
  • ‘I + fun’
  • ‘Grammar + fun’

And of beginning Stage 4:

  • ‘Get + grammar’ 
  • ‘Funny + grammar + play’
  • ‘Is + fun + grammar?’

And of later Stage 4:

  • ‘I love grammar.’
  • ‘You love grammar.’
  • ‘You and I both love grammar.’
  • ‘Are you serious?’

Keep playing!

Supports Stage 4.Ereeni

In this video, Ereeni demonstrates how a wordless book can be used to both elicit a language sample, and model Stage 4 grammar. In the conversational style both participants adopt, this language sample shows how grammar can be modeled and used in conversation in a very natural way. Marge offers thoughts about grammar development, as illustrated by DSS.

Stage 4 Mini-chunks

Q: Is Stage 4 ‘pure’ grammar?
A: No…

Q: But what are those ‘mini-chunks’ that sound like Stage 2?
A: Well, they’re just mini-chunks that sound like Stage 2.

Q: Score them separately? Score the mini-chunks (2)?
A: No…then our scoring would be wrong, because we’d confuse ourselves and everyone else into thinking the child was partly living in Stage 2.

They’re not. Read on…

Thanks to those of you who have asked the deep questions about Stage 4! The questions about grammar development, and how it works when Stage 4 kids are using Stage 2 mini-chunks as part of their Stage 4 constructions! Some of you have called it ‘straddling Stages 2 and 4.’ I didn’t really know what you meant, because it seemed like you were thinking that your child hadn’t really gone through Stage 3, and you were either trying to model Stage 3, or trying to figure out how to backtrack from the grammar you had heard your child say, and revisit Stage 3.
Well, now I get it. Thanks to Sarah & Idris (@where_idris_leads) for spelling it out for me, and the conversations we got to have about the use of mini-chunks from amidst Stage 4 grammar.
First a caveat: some kids do need to visit/revisit Stage 3. Cam in the NLA book was one of those. His parents first sensed he’d back-slid from (4) to (2). But that’s not what we’re talking about now. We’re talking about the emerging and grammar-developing Stage 4 child, the one whose Stage 3 we’ve witnessed (or realized) and now we’re seeing early grammar. Except it’s not all grammar; some of it sounds like remnant Sage 2.
And it is, but that doesn’t make the utterance ‘score’ half and half. The remnant Stage 2 parts are ‘mini-chunks’. Their ’score’ is pure (4) even if their grammar is not.
Stage 4 includes lots of ‘mini-chunks’ from Stages 2. And this phenomenon will continue through Stage 4, and likely into Stage 5, maybe even Stage 6. This ‘mini-chunk’ phenomenon is just because Stage 4 kids, like we all of us, use these short-cuts in our self-generated language, and they don’t go away until they are either absorbed in an analytic fashion or replaced by self-generated alternatives.
If you have not watched Chloe in any of our webinars or courses, this is how her Stage 4 example went. Note the Stage 2 mini-chunk “All the way” that resolved as the conversation continued. Each utterance that included this mini-chunk was still scored (4), but we were highly-aware of the mini-chunk and continued the conversation till it found its rightful place in a sentence. Some are not that easy; some need more attention, but not a separate score from the overall utterance.


C: It’s a map. (2)

M: Oh, it’s a map?

C: This is swimming pool. (4)

C: All the way, there is a swimming pool. (4)

M: All the way over there is a swimming pool?

C: No, the all the way xxx there. (4)

C: The water coming all the way here. (4)

J: Oh, the water’s coming here.

C: Dripping here. (4)

J: It’s dripping.

M: It’s dripping all the way down here.

C: In the hole. (2)

C: What’s down there? (4)

M: There’s a hole down there? Can you see?

J: Or hear it, maybe you can hear it.

C: Water’s dripping down there. (4)

But now let’s look at “It’s a map,” which was clearly a (2) with it’s contraction and no other grammar. Interestingly, however, we could see with, “This is swimming pool” and “…there is a swimming pool” however, that “is” was being used as a freed single word so we did not try to work with ‘It’s’ at that time. It was in our minds, however, but in the last utterance, Chloe used the contractor “Water’s…” making us feel that “’s” was close to being under Chloe’s generative control.

Lots to think about with our brave Stage 4 kids, but here’s the lesson:

Stage 4 is grammar, self-generated grammar, experimental grammar — even if there are mini-chunks from Stage 2 incorporated into it! Those mini-chunks are important to note, but not important enough to change the overall utterance score. That would be confusing at best, and misleading at worst. We might think we needed to support this Stage 4 child as a Stage 2 child. We do not. We deal with mini-chunks like the entities they are, not like Stage 2. We have to remember that the Stage a child “lives in” is where we will meet the child. And that is Stage 4.

Happy Stage 4!

Stage 4 Support Handouts all in one package.