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Learning of Idiomatic Language Expressions in a Group Intervention for Children With Autism.

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In typical development, children learn an extensive range of idioms and other figurative (non-literal) language expressions during childhood and adolescence. However, many children with autism fall far behind in their idiom comprehension and production and never fully reach adult levels. The current study measured the effectiveness of a group idiom intervention for ten children, aged 7 to 12 years, with autism spectrum disorders. This intervention was conducted by a community-based social skills program. The children were initially very low in idiom understanding, but were able to learn and remember the meaning of idiomatic phrases that they were taught during the 2-week-long intervention. The children showed greater increases at a delayed post-test for idioms trained in the intervention than idioms that were untrained controls. Implications for future educational possibilities are discussed.
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Article
Learning of idiomatic language
expressions in a group
intervention for children
with autism
Elisabeth M. Whyte
Department of Psychology, The Pennsylvania State University, USA
Keith E. Nelson
Department of Psychology, The Pennsylvania State University, USA
Kiren S. Khan
Department of Psychology, The Pennsylvania State University, USA
Abstract
In typical development, children learn an extensive range of idioms and other figurative (non-
literal) language expressions during childhood and adolescence. However, many children with
autism fall far behind in their idiom comprehension and production and never fully reach adult
levels. The current study measured the effectiveness of a group idiom intervention for ten
children, aged 7 to 12 years, with autism spectrum disorders. This intervention was conducted
by a community-based social skills program. The children were initially very low in idiom
understanding, but were able to learn and remember the meaning of idiomatic phrases that
they were taught during the 2-week-long intervention. The children showed greater increases
at a delayed post-test for idioms trained in the intervention than idioms that were untrained
controls. Implications for future educational possibilities are discussed.
Children with autism often have a difficult time interpreting the meaning of idioms and other
types of figurative language (Kerbel and Grunwell, 1998; Norbury, 2004; Rundblad and
Annaz, 2010). Idioms are a relatively complex and varied type of figurative language, and
‘although an idiomatic phrase can be interpreted literally, when used in a specific or
specialized context, its meaning is nonliteral and it expresses an idea or concept’
(Bernstein, 1987, p. 136). For the idiomatic phrase ‘kick the bucket,’ the figurative
Autism
17(4) 449–464
ÓThe Author(s) 2011
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DOI: 10.1177/1362361311422530
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Corresponding author:
Elisabeth M. Whyte, The Pennsylvania State University, Department of Psychology, 115C Moore Building, University Park,
PA 16802, USA.
Email: emv131@psu.edu
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meaning conveys that something or someone died (e.g. Mary cried for weeks when her rabbit
kicked the bucket), rather than the literal meaning of performing an action on a bucket. As
with most idioms, the figurative meaning of ‘kick the bucket’ rests on shared usage among
speakers of a language. Idioms vary on dimensions such as compositionality (how much the
individual words contribute to the figurative meaning), how familiar the phrase is to the
individual, and whether or not the phrase is presented in a supportive context (Titone and
Connine, 1994). Research has found that all three of these dimensions have an impact on an
individual’s comprehension of the idiom phrases in both childhood and adulthood, although
the mechanisms of how children acquire idiom knowledge is still under debate in the
literature (Gibbs, 1992; Hamblin and Gibbs, 1999; Levorato and Cacciari, 1992; Levorato
and Cacciari, 1999; Nippold and Martin, 1989; Titone and Connine, 1994).
While the focus of the present empirical study is on idioms, it seems probable that what is
learned will have some relevance for children’s learning of three other types of figurative
expressions: proverbs (‘too many cooks spoil the broth’), similes (‘her nose is like a cherry’),
and metaphors (‘the girl is a tiger’), which also have been found to be difficult for children
with autism and other language disorders (Berman and Ravid, 2010; Nippold, 1991;
Rundblad and Annaz, 2010). Each of these types of figurative language share the
common feature that the listener must go beyond what is literally said (in words and their
syntactic arrangement) and remember the figurative meaning from past common usage, or
create on the spot a new contextually appropriate meaning, for a phrase or sentence
(Bernstein, 1987; Berman and Ravid, 2010).
Children with autism who fail to develop the understanding of figurative expressions may
have difficulty with school and in interacting with their peers. This implication is highlighted
when considering that figurative language expressions (including metaphors, similes, indirect
requests, and idioms) are relatively common in children’s literature and in mainstream
classrooms (Colston and Kuiper, 2002; Lazar et al., 1989). Additional instruction in the
form of interventions for children with autism who fall behind in their idiom knowledge may
help to aid them in understanding the language being used in classroom instruction, in
addition to being better able to follow conversations with their parents and typically
developing peers.
Development of idiom comprehension in children
Typically developing children in elementary school are able to interpret some idioms, and
idiom comprehension increases throughout childhood and adolescence. In research by
Ackerman (1982), children as young as six were able to interpret a small percentage of
idioms when they were presented in a context biased towards the figurative meaning. The
percentage of idioms correctly interpreted increased significantly with age for 8- and 10-year
old children, with none of these age groups reaching adult comprehension levels. The role of
context in aiding the interpretation of figurative phrases (idioms, metaphors, similes, and
proverbs), has been highlighted for both typically developing and disordered children
(Berman and Ravid, 2010; Bernstein, 1987; Levorato and Cacciari, 1992). Children have a
more difficult time interpreting unfamiliar idioms, and may rely more on context for
interpreting unfamiliar idioms than familiar idioms (Nippold, 1985; Nippold and Martin,
1989). Multiple studies have found that children are more likely to produce a figurative
meaning for the idiom when the idiom is presented in a context biased towards the
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figurative meaning, rather than presented in isolation or a literal context (e.g. Ackerman,
1982; Levorato and Cacciari, 1992).
While understanding figurative language may be difficult for all young children, it is
significantly more difficult still for children with autism or language disorders (Berman
and Ravid, 2010; Dennis et al., 2001; Norbury, 2004). Children with autism and language
impairment have difficulty understanding idioms and are more likely to provide literal
meanings to idioms than their typically developing peers (Kerbel and Grunwell, 1998;
Norbury, 2004). Nikolaenko (2004) found that typically developing children (age 10 to
15) performed around 90 percent correct on their idiom task, whereas children with
Asperger’s syndrome were performing below 40 percent on the idiom task.
There are several cognitive and linguistic skills that predict individual differences in idiom
comprehension, such as syntax, vocabulary, theory of mind, and working memory
(Norbury, 2004). These abilities may be impaired in children with autism and contribute
to difficulties with idiom comprehension. Norbury (2004) found that children with autism
and low language skills performed worse than the children with autism who had high
language skills, showing that language ability is a significant predictor for idiom
comprehension ability. Children with autism and language disorders show similar
difficulty with comprehending other types of figurative language, probably because of
their delays in language development and other important cognitive skills (Berman and
Ravid, 2010; Nikolaenko, 2004; Rundblad and Annaz, 2010).
Even though typically developing children may use the linguistic context to help them
determine the meaning of idioms and other figurative phrases, children with language
impairments may benefit considerably less from the contextual information when
interpreting various types of figurative language, such as proverbs, metaphors, and idioms
(Berman and Ravid, 2010; Norbury, 2004). Qualls et al. (2004) suggest that the ability to
make use of context in interpreting figurative language may rely on linguistic processing
resources that are reduced in children with impaired language abilities.
Idiom intervention studies
Two previous intervention studies have been successful at teaching idioms to children with
communication disorders or intellectual disabilities (Abrahamsen and Smith, 2000; Ezell and
Goldstein, 1992). Abrahamsen and Smith (2000) used computer-based and classroom-based
interventions to teach 16 idioms to children with communication disorders. The eight
participating elementary school children included a heterogeneous group of children with
communication disorders. The results of the intervention were that the children were able to
learn the meaning of at least some of the idioms. In addition, the children learned better
from the classroom intervention than the computer-based intervention, perhaps because the
classroom group lessons allowed more interactive and naturalistic dialog (Abrahamsen and
Smith, 2000).
In research by Ezell and Goldstein (1992), the meanings of 12 idioms were taught to four
children, age 9 years, with intellectual disabilities. The idioms were presented in context
biased towards the figurative meaning with sets of pictures depicting idiom meanings, and
each child learned individually with an adult trainer. Over the course of up to 20 sessions
across several weeks, children learned to discriminate between the literal and figurative
meanings of idioms used in their training sessions (Ezell and Goldstein, 1992).
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Several researchers have suggested that children with language impairments (including
children with autism) should be taught how to comprehend idioms with a focus on
presenting idioms in context (Bernstein, 1987; Norbury, 2004; Wiig, 1989). Nippold (1991)
suggests that idioms should be taught to children by presenting the idioms orally in the
context of a short story and asking questions that draw their attention to contextual cues in
the story supporting the idiom’s figurative meaning. The goal of this teaching approach is to
emphasize a comprehension strategy based on drawing active attention to the multiple
contextual clues, which may be more helpful for the children than simply teaching the
meanings of a set of idioms outside of any contextual framing (Nippold, 1991).
The purpose of the current study was to examine the effectiveness of a group idiom
intervention for children with autism at a community social skills summer program.
To measure the comprehension of idioms, children were given a pre-test definitions
task, in which they were asked to define idioms embedded in short paragraphs. These
paragraphs provided contextual information highlighting each idiom’s figurative meaning.
Nine treatment idioms and nine untreated control idioms were chosen and matched based
on low comprehension scores at pre-test. It was hypothesized that children would score
better on the treatment items after intervention than before intervention, with these
gains still being evident at a delayed post-test two weeks after completion of the idiom
intervention unit.
Methods
Participants
Participants were ten children with autism, ages 7 to 12 years (nine male, one female, mean
age ¼9.5 years), who were enrolled in a community-based summer social skills program for
children with autism in Pennsylvania. During the summer, the social skills program was
conducted 5 days a week, for 3 hours each day.
To be enrolled in the social skills program, a child was required to have a diagnosis of an
autism spectrum disorder. As identified by a parent report questionnaire, the children in this
study had received a primary diagnosis of autism or Asperger’s syndrome. Three
participants were also diagnosed with intellectual disability. Comorbid secondary
diagnoses included attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (five children) and Cornelia De
Lang syndrome (one child). At pre-test, the children were administered the Peabody Picture
Vocabulary Test - III (Dunn and Dunn, 1997). See Table 1 for descriptive information on the
sample of children with autism (age, vocabulary, and number of days they attended out of
the possible 9 intervention days).
Measures
Idiom pre-test. Each child was administered an idiom definition pre-test. The 26 idioms used
in this study were chosen from Titone and Connine’s (1994) list of 171 idiomatic expressions
with descriptive norms for adults, and the items selected had moderate to high scores for
familiarity and meaningfulness.
The 26 idioms were presented in the context of a paragraph biased more towards the
figurative meaning of the idiom, with two to three short sentences (see example in Appendix
1). Then, the child was asked to state the meaning of the idiom. The child provided a verbal
response to each item, which was coded following the classifications used in Abrahamsen
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and Smith (2000). These classifications are: correct (figurative meaning), related
(to figurative meaning), literal, restated, or not related (to the idiom).
Two scores were computed for idiom performance. First, total number of correct idioms
was recorded (out of 26), with all other responses scoring zero. Second, a composite of
correct (2 points each) and related responses (1 point each) was calculated (total score out
of 52), with literal, restated, and not related answers scoring zero. Related answers showed
that the children were trying to think figuratively about the idiom, but did not yet know the
correct figurative answer.
Results for the individual items of this pre-test were used to determine which idioms to
target in the group and intervention phase, and for within-participant control-tracking, as a
result of not having an available control group. From the 26 idioms, a subset of 18 items
were chosen on the basis of being incorrectly answered consistently across children in the
pre-test. Similar difficulty for the nine treatment and nine control items was assured by
pairing treatment and control items on the basis of the number of correct and related
responses the children gave. They were also matched as closely as possible on number of
words in the phrase, and ratings of familiarity, compositionality, and meaningfulness
reported by Titone and Connine (1994). See Appendix 2 for all 26 items on the pre-test;
these are sub-classified as treatment items, matched controls, and the remaining
supplemental items.
Immediate post-test. During a free-play session towards the end of each day during the
intervention phase, each child was asked individually by the experimenter to produce the
figurative meaning of the idiom that they had learned about earlier in the day. Scores were
calculated as a total of correct responses (out of 9 points) when asked to produce the
meaning of the phrase. For comparing the first two intervention items with the last two
intervention items, a composite of correct (2 points each) and related (1 point each)
responses was calculated, similar to the scoring of pre-test items. Then, the child was
prompted with a multiple-choice response with two possible answers (the correct
figurative answer and an incorrect but figurative foil), and asked to respond verbally with
the answer they thought was correct. Scores on the multiple choice questions were
calculated, and percentages were attained such that their score was divided by the number
Table 1. Descriptive information for each child.
Participant Age Vocabulary Attendance
1 9 84 8
2 8 49 5
312648
411639
5 9 84 6
6 9 104 5
712819
8 7 101 9
9 8 76 9
10 10 N/A 7
Mean 9.5 78.44 7.5
Includes age (years), standardized PPVT-III vocabulary scores, and attendance (number of days they
attended the intervention program, out of a possible 9 days).
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of days they attended. Given the format of this immediate post-test, no data for control
items were collected for the immediate post-test, and data were not collected for days the
children missed.
Delayed post-test. After the conclusion of the intervention phase, children’s
comprehension of idioms was assessed using the same idioms with the context paragraphs
used in the original pre-test. This delayed post-test was administered to each child
between 10 and 22 days (mean ¼15 days) after the conclusion of the intervention phase.
For the purposes of comparison, the delayed post-test was scored in the same manner as at
pre-test.
Procedure
An idiom intervention was integrated into the curriculum of a group social skills program
run by a community-based organization in Central Pennsylvania. The group of children
were introduced to one idiom each session, for a total of nine idioms presented over 2 weeks
of the summer program. All idiom intervention sessions were conducted by the staff of the
social skills program, using materials developed by the researchers. The staff of the program
met periodically with the experimenter to discuss the lesson plans and idiom teaching
strategies.
The summer social skills program lasted approximately 3 hours for each session and met
5 days a week, with a different topic covered every few weeks. The program followed the
same general structure every session, with 15 minutes allocated for every activity. The
sessions started with circle time, during which the children sat on the floor gathered
around the program’s lead staff member and talked with each other about various topics.
This was followed by various other activities, usually consisting of lessons or crafts
completed at the tables, playing outside, snack time, story reading, and so on.
Throughout the intervention, the staff members used applied behavior analysis-based
prompting strategies, with prompting targets tailored to the individual child’s social skill
development needs.
During the idiom intervention unit, a staff member introduced the topic of idioms during
circle time, and read a paragraph to the group that presented the idiom in context. The
children answered several questions asked by the staff member about the paragraph,
including information about the context relevant to the idiom meaning, and then about
the figurative meaning of the idiom. The paragraphs were longer in length than the ones
used in the pre- and post-tests, and differed in specific content (see Appendix 1 for an
example).
After they were finished with the paragraph activity, the children were asked to sit down
at the tables and complete a worksheet related to the idiom. All worksheets for each idiom
contained the following components: a clip-art picture related to the figurative meaning that
the children could color, a place for the child to write the figurative meaning of the idiom, a
place for the child to write their own sentence containing the idiom, and a large space for the
child to draw their own picture of the idiom meaning (the last two components required the
child to think creatively and come up with their own contexts that meaningfully related to
the idiom). Children with poor writing skills were given assistance by the staff members for
completing any of the sections that they were unable to complete alone. In addition, the staff
members discussed the content of these worksheets with each child as they were completing
the task, to help make the worksheets an interactive learning tool.
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Results
Pre-analysis
For the immediate post-test analysis, the total number of correct responses for intervention
items violated normality (severe skew and kurtosis values), and therefore a nonparametric
(Wilcoxon’s signed-rank) test was conducted. For the delayed post-test analysis (composite
scores of correct and related responses or with the full set of 26 idioms), the data upheld
normality such that t-tests and analysis of variance (ANOVA) were appropriate.
Idiom pre-test comprehension
Most of the children did not know the meanings of the vast majority of idioms on the pre-
test prior to intervention. Total number of correct responses on the pre-test ranged from 0 to
6, with a mean of 3.1 out of the 26 idioms on the test. For the composite score of correct and
related answers, children scored between 0 and 25 out of 52 points.
Pre-test versus immediate post-test
Children showed significant improvement in their definitions of idioms after the immediate
post-test, with a greater number of correct responses on the treatment items at immediate
post-test than pre-test, Z¼2.68, p <.01. See Table 2 for each child’s pre-test and
immediate post-test number of correct answers. In addition, on the multiple choice
question testing comprehension at the immediate post-test, children were correctly able to
identify the meaning of between 80 to 100% of the idioms on the days that they attended the
program.
Table 2. Number of correct figurative explanations and percentage of correct multiple
choice responses.
Participant Pre-test Immediate post-test
Multiple choice
percentage correct
1 0 1 87.5
200 80
301 83
4 1 9 100
5 0 2 100
615 83
7 1 9 100
8 0 2 100
9 0 2 88.9
10 3 7 100
Mean 0.6 3.8 92.24
Median 0.0 2.0 94.45
The numbers of correct figurative explanations for the nine intervention items during the pre-
testing and immediate post-testing for each child are given, along with the percentage of correct
multiple choice responses for days they attended (out of 5 to 9). Mean and medians are included
owing to non-normality of data.
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Another measure of improved idiom comprehension was idiom definition performance on
the first 2 immediate post-test items for each participant compared with their last two
immediate post-test items. These children with autism spectrum disorders improved
significantly from the first two intervention idioms (mean ¼2.6 correct and related
responses out of a possible 4) to the last two (mean ¼3.1), t(9), ¼1.86, p <.05.
Delayed post-test
The intervention also led to improved idiom understanding as measured 10 days to 3 weeks
after the intervention. For the composite of correct and related responses, delayed idiom
post-test scores were compared with pre-test scores for the intervention and control items,
using a 2 (treatment vs. control items) 2 (pre-test vs. delayed post-test) ANOVA. Children
scored significantly higher in idiom skills at the delayed post-test than the pre-test,
F(1,8) ¼25.44,p<.001, Z
p2
¼.761 (large effect size). Children also scored significantly
higher on treatment than control items, F(1,8) ¼26.21, p <.001, Z
p2
¼.766 (large effect
size). In addition, there was a significant interaction of pre-test/post-test by treatment/
control, F(1,8) ¼18.73, p <.01, Z
p2
¼.701 (large effect size).
Figure 1 contains the pre-test and delayed post-test score averages for the composite of
correct and related responses for treatment and control items. On the pre-test, there was no
significant difference between treatment and control items, t(9) ¼1.46,p>.1. On the delayed
post-test, children scored significantly higher on idiom understanding for the treatment items
(mean ¼8.78 out of 18) than for the control items (mean ¼2.22 out of 18), t(8) ¼5.2,
p<.001, d¼1.49 (large effect size). This suggests that the gains for the intervention items
are probably not due to learning outside of the program, and also suggests that children did
not generalize learning to the matched-difficulty control phrases on the delayed post-test.
12
10
8
6
4
2
0
Pre-test Dela
y
ed Post-test
Average idiom score
Treatment
Control
Figure 1. Mean scores (with standard error bars) for the children’s correct and related figurative meanings
for the pre-test and delayed post-test, for both treatment and control items (out of a possible 18 points
each).
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To examine the overall difference for the pre-test versus delayed post-test, the number of
correct responses was compared for all 26 idioms. Children correctly stated the figurative
meaning of more idioms at the delayed post-test than at the pre-test, t(8) ¼3.39, p <.001,
d¼0.57 (medium effect size). See Table 3 for the total number of correct and related
responses at pre-test and the delayed post-test for each child.
Compositionality analyses
Possible performance differences in relation to compositionality were examined by
comparing idioms high versus low in compositionality by median split. Analyses were run
at pre-test and separately for intervention and control idioms at post-test. At no phase of the
study was there a significant differences in participants’ performance for items high versus
low in compositionality.
Discussion
Children with autism spectrum disorders readily learned the meaning of multiple idioms
during the two weeks of a social skills intervention program that included engaging activities
for exploring idioms. Before the intervention, scores on idiom comprehension were very low
for most children in the program, in line with previous descriptive studies of children with
autism. Increases in idiom comprehension were found in daily immediate post-tests during
the intervention and retention was shown in delayed post-testing several weeks after
completion of the intervention. These gains seen several weeks after the end of the
intervention are especially promising because they show retention of information taught
outside of a controlled laboratory setting (a community-based social skills program).
Children were better able to explain the meaning of idioms included in the intervention,
whereas matched but untreated control idioms showed no gains from pre-test to post-test.
These results for control items were expected both because the intervention seemed too short
Table 3. Total correct and related responses.
Pre-test Delayed post-test
Participant Correct Related Correct Related
13167
20001
31103
466116
548136
6 6 13 13 6
768134
81353
91121
Average 3.11 4.55 7 4.11
Total numbers of correct and related responses are given for each child on the idiom pre-test and
delayed post-test, out of a possible 26 items. Participant 10 is excluded owing to missing delayed
post-test.
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to support much generalization of idiom comprehension to the untreated idioms and because
these participants with autism spectrum disorders were not expected to learn many control
items from experience outside the study. The present finding of substantial improvement on
idioms taught in intervention does not speak to whether or not the children memorized the
phrases or developed learning strategies for figuring out the meanings of idiom phrases.
During the intervention, nine items were presented in a paragraph context with the
teachers drawing attention to the contextual cues by asking the children questions about
those cues, which previous research suggests should be done for helping children figure out
the meaning from context (Nippold, 1991). Because of the short nature of the intervention,
presenting and teaching only nine idioms may not have been enough for the children to learn
strategies for interpreting new phrases. However, the performance of the children with
autism in the current study at the delayed post-test shows that even if they only
memorized the meanings of the phrases, they were still able to recall those meanings 10 to
22 days after learning the phrases, which is especially promising for children who started
relatively low in their idiom knowledge. It could also be possible that other methods (such as
multiple choice) would be more sensitive at assessing generalization beyond the intervention
items, especially for the children with overall poor language abilities. Finally, it is important
to note that during intervention the children made significant improvement in defining
idioms from early to late intervention items. This result may possibly reflect some
carryover from earlier learned items of some generalized awareness or idiom-
interpretation strategies that eased learning of the last two intervention idioms.
The staff of the community-based program was able to make the idiom learning process
fun and engaging for the children. The multiple interactive teaching tools (stories and
worksheets) used by the program’s staff were enjoyable activities that called attention to
the idiomatic meanings and also tried to hold the children’s social-emotional and cognitive
engagement. In this kind of group setting, the stories served as a good introduction to the
idiomatic phrase, and allowed the group to discuss what they thought the meaning of the
idiom was. The question and answer component of the paragraph reading session allowed
the children to talk about the contextual cues that were useful for figuring out the idiom’s
meaning. The worksheets designed for the current study were very engaging for most of the
children, who were able to draw pictures or write sentences with examples of the idiom’s
idiomatic meaning which they created themselves. For example, when the idiom for the day
was ‘fish out of water’, one of the children drew a picture of a boy wearing a pink dress who
was sad because the other boys (who were wearing pants) were laughing at him. Thus, the
worksheets allowed the children to be actively involved and creative, and allowed each child
to explore their own examples of the idiom in contexts that were meaningful to them. In
addition, the worksheets allowed the children to practice what they had learned in new
contexts, which is thought to help aid children’s understanding of idioms (Nippold, 1991).
Control item comparisons revealed that the autism spectrum children were relatively low
in idiom comprehension before intervention, and that passage of time or learning
opportunities outside the idiom intervention procedures probably led to no improvement
on idiom abilities during the several month time-period of this study. Each child was exposed
to idioms during intervention that they had not mastered before, because items were chosen
for the intervention on the basis of the fewest number of children at pre-test producing the
correct meaning. This kind of focused concentration on multiple language challenges for
each child, together with a mix of socially engaging ways of presenting those challenges, has
been empirically tested in a rich variety of language-intervention studies. For example,
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Nelson and his colleagues have used a dynamic systems theoretical perspective in the design
and the interpretation of interventions shown to have high impact on learning by children
with autism of new reading and oral language skills (Nelson, 2001; Nelson et al., 1997), but
had not previously addressed the figurative language expressions used in the present study.
More broadly, for other language domains – including syntax, vocabulary, and reading
facilitation for children with typical and atypical language development, a dynamic
systems stress in the design of interventions has been used to present children with
individual challenges in language with highly engaging methods (Camarata and Nelson,
2006; Nelson and Arkenberg, 2008; Nelson et al., 2004). In future research, it may be
possible to extend the combination of challenges and social engagement from dynamic
systems-focused language interventions to interventions designed to teach multiple
varieties of figurative language, such as metaphors, similes, and proverbs, to children
showing deficits in figurative language comprehension (Berman and Ravid, 2010). In
addition, because vocabulary and syntax are strong predictors of figurative language
production or understanding, it may be possible to intervene both directly on figurative
language and indirectly through strengthening of other language skills known to relate
highly to increased figurative performance.
Abrahamsen and Smith (2000) found that classroom-based idiom interventions were
more effective than computer-based instruction for teaching idioms to children with
communication disorders, because the classroom settings allowed naturalistic dialog
between the teacher and the children, as well as interactive activities. In the current study,
the stories and worksheets were also effective in teaching and engaging the students, as they
allowed students to explore contexts related to the meaning of the idioms, and allowed the
adults to interact with the children as a group and on an individual basis that supported the
children’s learning.Presenting the phrases in context may be particularly important, because
Nippold (1991) suggests that this may aid in helping children learn how to interpret
unfamiliar idiomatic phrases. While typically developing children are able to use context
to help them interpret idioms, children with language disorders and autism may not be as
skilled at using context to help interpret figurative phrases (Ackerman, 1982; Levorato and
Cacciari, 1992). New research could seek to address multiple possible avenues for
strengthening awareness and learning of idioms and extend teaching methods to other
figurative expressions such as metaphors, similes, and proverbs (with adjustments made
for each type of figurative language). Bernstein (1987) recommends also teaching
metaphor, simile, and proverb phrases in a supportive figurative context, similar to the
importance of presenting idioms in a figurative context. Additional strategies that could
be taught might include ‘spotting’ that what has been said in a story or conversation does
not make literal sense. The children could also look for idioms commonly used in other
sources relevant to the child, such as television programming or classroom discussions. Such
awareness could be used to motivate searches for clues to meaning in contextual details, or in
requests for clarification, or to seek out focused direct help from other people, reference
books, or internet resources.
All such complex strategies for finding appropriate figurative language interpretations
should be taught with adjustments to the child’s current levels of attention, memory, and
language skills and type of figurative language (see Berman and Ravid, 2010; Bernstein,
1987; Nelson and Arkenberg, 2008; Nelson, 1989; Nippold, 1985; Nippold, 1991). For the
teaching of proverbs, it may be helpful to highlight how the individual words in the phrase
contribute to the figurative meaning. It may also be helpful to introduce syntactically easier
Whyte et al. 459
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and more frequently heard phrases before moving on to more difficult constructions
(Nippold, 1985). Proverbs may need to be taught after other types of figurative phrases
are understood, because this type of figurative language is thought to be more difficult for
children to learn (Bernstein, 1987; Nippold, 1985). Thus, the most difficult proverbs may
need a direct teaching strategy, emphasizing committing the meanings to memory, for
children who show the most difficulty with understanding the proverb phrases in context.
For similes, the syntax carries a clear framework of comparison and this should be used in
teaching both the core meaning (e.g. ‘smooth as glass’) and nuances that depend on the
particular entities being compared and the context of use (e.g. differences between the kind
of smoothness in ‘a lake smooth as glass’ versus a ‘sales pitch smooth as glass.’). For
metaphors, Nippold (1985) suggests they should be taught by starting at a perceptual
level for easier metaphor constructions by asking the child to ‘notice various similarities
between different pairs of common objects’. Then, children should gradually work their way
up to understanding more difficult metaphorical phrases (Nippold, 1985). To master the
wide variety of metaphoric expressions in a language, it may be valuable to call explicit
attention to their many different forms, to the active examination of the possible similarities
and differences involved in a particular metaphor. Child engagement could be raised by
choosing text or oral presentation contexts which are rich in metaphors and idioms and
that are of particular interest to a child, including varied books, poetry, sports programs,
news and weather reports, and television series.
Future research should be conducted to determine the relative effectiveness of different
approaches to teaching idioms and idiom-awareness to children with autism. For example, it
may be more helpful for some children to learn idioms from individual sessions, similar to
the strategies used by Ezell and Goldstein (1992). This individualized approach has been
successful as well in many studies that have facilitated language skills in language-delayed
children through combining individual challenges with rich emotional-social and
conversational supports (e.g. Nelson, 2001; Nelson et al., 2004). It may be possible that
some children with autism learn better when they have more individual attention, and the
ability to hear the same idiom on more than one day.
The compositionality of idiom phrases often has an effect on idiom comprehension by
adults, and this factor could also have an effect on how children learn idiomatic phrases
(Gibbs, 1987; Gibbs, 1992; Levorato and Cacciari, 1999; Titone and Connine, 1994). Even
though there were no significant contributions of compositionality on pre-test idiom
comprehension or in the learning of idioms in the current study, future idiom intervention
studies should take compositionality of the phrases into account. With more intensive
intervention, compositionality clues could be part of an acquired set of useful strategies in
interpreting new idioms in varied contexts. Further, the varying compositionality of the
idiom phrases may have an effect on the intervention strategies best used to teach the
phrases, or for which items are easier to learn in various intervention settings. For idioms
higher on decompositionality (where it is easier to identify the meaning from the individual
words in the phrase), an intervention strategy may be to focus on how the individual words
relate to identifying the figurative meaning of the phrase. For example, Hamblin and Gibbs
(1999) highlight how verbs in the idiomatic phrase may help contribute to the meaning of the
phrase, and so for idioms containing verbs, it may be possible to capitalize on the relations
between the meaning of the verbs and the figurative meaning.
Abrahamsen and Smith (2000) recommend a direct teaching strategy for children with
communication disorders, which this study also supports. However, the time scales of both
460 Autism 17(4)
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interventions were relatively short and children were taught fewer than 20 out of the many
hundreds of idiomatic phrases that most people learn by adulthood. Future research should
examine multiple-month interventions allowing presentation of more exemplars in context
along with a range of context-interpretation strategies, to see whether such a longer-term and
more multi-faceted intervention could have more success at teaching generalizable idiom
interpretation strategies. Given that teaching hundreds of idioms on an individual basis
could be very burdensome and time consuming, one goal for therapy should be to teach
strategies that the children can use to figure out the figurative meaning from contextual
semantic, narrative, and nonverbal clues. Other longer term intervention strategies, such
as integrating idioms into individualized speech language therapy sessions at school,
might also be successful at teaching children strategies they can use to abstract the
meaning of idioms from general conversations and contexts (with the focus on trying to
teach strategies that can be used to generalize learning to new phrases).
One of the limitations of the current study is that the sample size was small, as a result of
being able to observe the intervention in only one community-based after school program. A
control group was not available because of this small sample size and because we were
conducting applied research in an existing program that works with these children year-
round. Fortunately, the nature of this type of language research allowed participants to serve
as their own controls, through within-participant control items built into the testing.
Inconsistent attendance owing to the nature of the program was also a potential problem,
with children attending an uneven number of intervention sessions. However, even with
these limitations, the data with this small group of children in this community
intervention setting are promising, because all children made at least some gains in
learning the intervention idiom phrases on days on which they attended.
In conclusion, the present study demonstrates the effective teaching of idioms to children
with autism spectrum disorders in a group setting. Gains on idiom understanding for taught
items were far higher than for matched, untaught control items. This was achieved through a
treatment procedure that included language challenges for all children and consisted of a
combination of highly engaging techniques implemented by the staff of a community-based
social skills training program. Children with very low pre-intervention idiom skills advanced
significantly in idiom knowledge, which holds promise for further development of effective
procedures for teaching idioms and other figurative expressions to children with autism and
other language impairments. In future work, an important priority is to build and evaluate
refined interventions that include procedures sufficient to support both the learning of
some new idioms and the acquisition of generalized awareness of idiomatic language
and interpretive strategies that are applied when new idioms are encountered in varied
contexts.
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Appendix 1
Idiom pre-test and intervention example items for the idiom ‘out of the blue’ (figurative
meaning: happening suddenly, or unexpectedly).
Pre-test item: ‘Max thought that his best friend wasn’t going to come over this
weekend. Later, Max heard a knock on the door. His friend decided to come by out of
the blue.’
Intervention paragraph read to children: Adam’s class was going to take a field
trip to the beach. When he got to school, it was sunny and warm outside. Adam’s
teacher said that it was supposed to be nice outside all day. However, after they got to
the beach, big rain clouds appeared and it started pouring down rain. The whole class
was surprised, and all their stuff got wet. Adam said ‘It looks like that rain came from
out of the blue.’
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Appendix 2
The 26 idioms from the pre-test and delayed post-test were divided between treatment,
matched controls, and supplemental (not matched with treatment) items.
Treatment items Matched control items Supplemental items
Let the cat out of the bag Climb on the bandwagon Face the music
Out of the blue Out of thin air Hit the sack
Fit as a fiddle Keep a level head Hold your horses
Talking a mile a minute Take it with a grain of salt Pull someone’s leg
Break the ice Play it by ear Under the weather
Skate on thin ice Tip of the iceberg Cost an arm and a leg
Go against the grain Get the picture In seventh heaven
Fish out of water In a pickle With flying colors
Raise the roof Be on cloud nine
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... Children with DLD achieve significantly lower scores on idiom skill testing than TD children of the same age (Whyte et al. 2011, Stothard et al. 1998, Vance and Wells 1994 and difficulties in this area persist throughout adolescence (Rinaldi 2000, Qualls et al. 2004. Although studies involving children with DLD are limited in number and by study sample size, the sequence of Investigating the effectiveness of idiom intervention for 9-16-year-olds with DLD 3 idiom interpretation and explanation skill development in DLD appears to be similar to that of TD children with interpretation skills developing before explanation skills (Grunwell and Kerbel 1998, Norbury 2004, Abrahamsen and Smith 2000. ...
... Other intervention studies detailed in Table 1 have involved different clinical populations: autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (Whyte et al. 2011), moderate learning difficulties (MLD) (Ezell and Goldstein 1992), TD children with weak reading skills (Lundblom and Woods 2012), and both children with MLD and ASD (Mashal and Kasirer 2011). Key findings from these other studies are given in Table 1 and these are discussed below. ...
... Previous studies have used tests of idiom interpretation (Ezell and Goldstein 1992, Whyte et al. 2011, Lundblom and Woods 2012, Kasirer and Mashal 2011 and explanation (Whyte et al. 2011, Abrahamsen andSmith 2000) to measure the effectiveness of idiom skill interventions and they have produced positive results (Table 1). No previous studies have involved assessments of idiom identification or use. ...
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Background: Idiom skills are essential for children to access age-appropriate media, curriculum resources and teaching. Children with developmental language disorder (DLD) require support to develop the ability to understand and define idioms. However, research investigating one-to-one and classroom-based idiom skill intervention for children with DLD is limited. Aims: To investigate the effectiveness of one-to-one speech and language therapist (SLT) and classroom-based interventions to develop and maintain progress of the idiom skills of 9-16-year-olds with DLD. Methods & procedures: Forty-nine 9-16-year-olds from a specialist school for children with DLD received 20 intervention sessions to develop idiom skills during two school terms. Following a baseline period, 24 participants (aged 11-16) received ten 30-min one-to-one SLT intervention sessions once per week for the first term and classroom-based intervention for the second term. A total of 25 participants (aged 9-16) received the same intervention in the reverse order. Classroom-based intervention was delivered collaboratively by English teachers and SLTs during English lessons. All participants were assessed on their ability to identify, interpret, explain and use idioms 3 months before, directly before and after each intervention and 3 months post-intervention, using a bespoke assessment including 48 idioms randomly assigned to three sets: one-to-one intervention, classroom-based intervention and control idioms. Outcomes & results: Participants made significantly more progress during the intervention blocks than during the baseline period (block 1: d = 1.91; block 2: d = 1.01) and post-intervention levels were maintained 3 months post-intervention. Idiom skills showed significant progress when targeted through both one-to-one (d = 2.18) and classroom-based intervention (d = 0.91) but one-to-one intervention was significantly more effective than classroom-based intervention (d = 0.63). Examination of the specific idiom skills targeted revealed that although idiom identification and interpretation skills did not progress significantly more during intervention blocks than the baseline period, idiom explanation (block 1: d = 1.02; block 2: d = 0.97); and use did (block 1: d = 0.94; block 2: d = 0.81). One-to-one intervention was more effective than classroom-based intervention for developing idiom explanation (d = 1.32) and use (d = 0.65). Progress on control items was not significantly different during intervention blocks than during the baseline period overall or for any of the individual idiom skills. Conclusions & implications: Both one-to-one SLT and classroom-based intervention are effective (although one-to-one is more effective) for teaching and maintaining idiom skills, particularly explanation and use. This means that SLTs and English teachers can help children to develop idiom skills which may enable better access to the curriculum and popular media.
... Children with DLD achieve significantly lower scores on idiom skills testing than TD children of the same age (Whyte et al., 2011;Stothard et al., 1998;Vance and Wells, 1994) and difficulties in this area persist throughout adolescence (Rinaldi, 2000;Qualls et al., 2004). Although studies involving children with DLD are limited in number -22 -and by sample size, the sequence of idiom interpretation and explanation skill learning in DLD appears to be similar to that of TD children with interpretation skills developing before explanation skills (Grunwell and Kerbel, 1998;Norbury, 2004;Abrahamsen and Smith, 2000). ...
... In their paper, familiarity is defined (on page 250) as "the frequency with which a listener or reader encounters a word and the degree to which the word meaning is well known or -46 -understood." Following publication of their paper, the use of "idiom familiarity" became the favoured term across the literature (e.g., Grunwell and Kerbel, 1996;Abrahamsen and Smith, 2000;Nippold and Taylor, 2002;Qualls et al., 2004;Mashal and Kasirer, 2011;Whyte, Nelson and Khan, 2011;Lundblom and Woods, 2012). A further example taken from a paper by Huber-Okrainec and Dennis (2003) that investigated the ability of six to 17 year-olds to comprehend familiar idioms showed that idiom familiarity was defined as "the frequency of which an idiom is encountered" (Huber-Okrainec and Dennis, 2003 page 188). ...
... As previously stated, it is important that idiom skill assessment items are relevant to the age and locality of those being tested. Some researchers have therefore chosen to use idiom items that were collected and rated locally to study participants so that the assessment was relevant to them (Whyte et al, 2011) then inserted these into standardised assessment designs. The FLTA idiom subtest provides functional -58 -information on the ability of participants to explain the meanings of idioms identified as relevant in America in 1986 but may not be considered a relevant and functional assessment of the ability of English teenagers in the present day. ...
Thesis
Introduction: Nine to 16 year olds with developmental language disorder (DLD) tend to have significant difficulties with understanding and using idioms. However, research investigating methods to assess or improve these skills has been limited. Aims: 1. Examine idiom skills in Typically Developing (TD) children and children with DLD. 2. Investigate the effectiveness of idiom skills intervention delivered through 1:1 SLT and classroom-based sessions for children with DLD. Methods: Seventy-two TD children attending mainstream schools and fifty-eight children attending a specialist school for children with DLD completed a bespoke idiom skills assessment. Forty-nine of the children with DLD (aged nine-16) then received twenty idiom skill intervention sessions during two school terms. Following a baseline period of one term, twenty-five participants (aged 11-16) received 1:1 intervention for one term and classroom-based intervention for the next term. The other twenty-four participants (aged 9-16) received classroom-based followed by 1:1 intervention. Classroom-based intervention was delivered collaboratively by English teachers and SLTs during English lessons and 1:1 intervention by the participants’ usual SLT. Intervention was the same for both delivery methods involving a prescriptive powerpoint presentation and worksheet alongside discussion. All participants were assessed on their ability to identify, understand, explain and use idioms before and after each intervention, using a bespoke assessment including 48 idioms which were randomly assigned to three sets: 16 idioms targeted in 1:1 SLT, 16 targeted in classroom-based intervention and a control group of 16 idioms that were not targeted. Results and Conclusions: TD participants achieved higher scores than DLD participants on all aspects of testing. Both 1:1 SLT and classroom-based delivery methods were effective for improving idiom skills but there was not sufficient evidence to show that idiom skills generalised. Intervention can be effective for improving the idiom skills of nine-16 year olds with severe DLD. More research is required to investigate methods to generalise idiom skill components, especially receptive idiom skills.
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... Some studies indicate that people with ASD can learn certain idiomatic expressions and use them appropriately in social situations (Whyte et al. 2013). With the exception of some idiomatic phrases and conventional metaphors, figurative language and the speaker's intention remain, largely, areas of the utmost difficulty for autistic readers. ...
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... Thus unless a word learning impairment is restricted to idioms, it seems unlikely that these meanings would not have been learned. However, children with autism were able to improve their performance on an idiom definition task after two weeks of targeted intervention in which they were explicitly taught the meanings of idioms [76]. In addition, it is also not likely that the deficit reflects a difficulty with processing multiple meanings of words. ...
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