Talkin’ in a winter wonderland: Planning a thematic syntax lesson

by Emily Humphrey, MSDE, CED

Winter brings mixed emotions and varying levels of motivation for students and professionals alike. On one hand, it seems a fine time for hibernation-for getting back into the swing of school after break and maintaining skills. On the other hand, winter is a perfect time for exciting thematic learning. Syntax lessons can center on weather, winter clothes and the thrill of snow!

Below is a play-based snowball fight lesson I find exciting and motivating for my students, year after year. I use the TAGSTeacher Assessment of Grammatical Structures rating forms to guide my planning and assessment. It starts with the five fundamentals of planning a syntax lesson.

  1. Determine present levels: Take a language sample to mark baseline data on the TAGS. A language sample will give you a snapshot of common errors specific to your student.
  2. Determine what’s typical: Consider what a child with typically developing language around the same age would say during this activity. How would he play? Use this information to guide expectations.
  3. Determine syntactic lesson objectives: Target emerging syntax structures, areas for growth and/or IEP goals.
  4. Determine activities: Consider age, interest and appropriate expectations.
  5. Determine expected outcomes: Think about your goal. Will you assess comprehension? Will the child require model and imitation? Will you prompt for language or expect spontaneous use of the target language?

Every winter, I adapt the same snowball fight lesson, altering the target language to fit my students’ needs. A fun activity to repeat, particularly when it snows and it’s easy to evaluate the carry-over of target language into more natural situations, such as centers and recess.

Snowball fight syntax lesson:

Materials: rolled up socks or crumpled paper

Language targets:

  • verb-noun
  • verb tenses (past, present and future)
  • pronouns: (my, your)
  • prepositions (to, under, over, through)

Activity: Snowball fight! Have your students take turns picking up a snowball and using language to talk about what they will do. Pause the play after the action so they can talk with each other about what just happened.  Use the language targets below to practice and assess comprehension by following directions.

Sample language:

  • throw/roll/kick the snowball; snowball under/on table;  snowball over head; snowball through legs
  • roll the snowball to me; throw the snowball to me; snowball over your head; snowball through my legs: roll the snowball under the table; throw the snowball over my head; roll the snowball through my legs
  • I will kick the snowball under the table. I will throw the snowball over your head. I kicked the snowball under the table. I threw the snowball over your head. You threw the snowball through my legs.

For more information about how the TAGS can work in your classroom, check out the free online course, Getting Your Feet Wet With TAGS.

White, E. (2014). TAGS – Teacher Assessment of Grammatical Structures (2nd Ed.): Revision of 1983 curricula by J. Moog and Victoria Kozak-Robinson. Central Institute for the Deaf, St. Louis, MO.

Emily Humphrey served as a classroom teacher in the Anabeth and John Weil Early Childhood Center at CID – Central Institute for the Deaf. She currently works as a parent educator in the CID Joanne Parrish Knight Family Center (coaching caregivers of children ages birth to three with hearing loss). Emily organizes and contributes to CID’s blog for professionals.

4 replies
  1. Ryan H
    Ryan H says:

    Hi Ms. Humphrey,

    Thank you for your post. I am currently an graduate student and itinerant teacher of Deaf and Hard of Hearing students. I have been introduced to TAGS previously but it is helpful to see it utilized in a lesson plan. It seems like a great way to determine where to start with an objective or target. I love the idea of a snowball fight because it is exciting and enjoyable for the students. This will probably elicit more spontaneous language. How do you assess language during hands on activities? Do you prefer to record data as it happens or observe and record the information later?

    Thanks again for the great read!

    • Emily Humphrey
      Emily Humphrey says:

      Hi Ryan, thanks for writing in. My preferred method of collecting data is to video record my lesson to track language upon watching. I find this method allows me to stay present while teaching and ensures accuracy of data collection. I realize this may not be an accessible option in your current school or future placements. In that case, I’d encourage you to track data in the moment using a data collection sheet specific to your target. For example, try not to track vocabulary, length of utterance AND a syntax target. Decide on one specific target; this will help you stay present while teaching and get some data!

  2. Julia
    Julia says:

    Hi Ms. Humphrey,

    I am currently studying to be a speech-language pathologist and am especially interested in working with deaf and hard of hearing children on syntax. It was great to be able to read about how to incorporate syntax instruction into a thematic lesson! I especially appreciated the meaningful teaching of syntax within fun activities such as a snowball fight. You mentioned in your post that in planning a syntax lesson you begin by taking a language sample, and I was curious about how you typically elicit this language sample? In my speech courses, we have discussed how different methods of eliciting language samples can yield different data. Therefore, I was wondering what method you choose in order to obtain data that is most representative of children’s language abilities? I also really appreciate you mentioning that the activity can be repeated, and that this repetition in naturalistic situations can be used to assess the carry-over of language targeted previously. This is very helpful for planning how to track data over time.

    Thank you very much for sharing this creative idea,

    • Emily Humphrey
      Emily Humphrey says:

      Hi Julia! Thanks for your sharing your thoughts and kind words. It’s easy to look over the fact that we can use these activities and language targets over and over to ensure generalization of the syntax. If its fun and motivating (and still an appropriate target) keep it up! You asked about taking a language sample that is most representative of the child’s ability. I would recommend taking language samples over the course of four to six weeks. This ensures a wide variety of activities, environments and language. To do a more formal language sample, I’d suggest setting up an activity where you offer several objects/toys that act as a prompt for conversation. A toolbox, a purse, even a shoe box full of objects! It helps if you know what interests and motivates the child that way the objects/activity will be familiar to the child and spark language. You’ll want to facilitate the activity without prompting for specific language to get a true spontaneous snapshot.


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