The Pragmatics Revolution 1975-2000

Around 1975 emphasis began to shift from defining language in terms of form (syntax and phonology) and content (semantics) to defining language in terms of its use. This shift originated in speech act theory, first proposed by the language philosopher John Austin in 1962 (Austin, 1962), and after him, by John Searle in 1969 (Austin, 1962). The theory emphasized the instrumental aspect of communication, what Lois Bloom and Margaret Lahey called "language use" (Bloom & Lahey, 1978).

The early work in pragmatics involved identifying the functions of the first communicative attempts by children. Researchers classified children's earliest communicative gestures and utterances into functional groupings such as requests, comments, greetings, etc. (Dore, 1974, 1975; Halliday, 1975); (see also (Chapman, 1981) for a detailed summary of these studies). These groupings of single communicative acts, later called or communicative intents or communicative functions, were used in the design of assessment tools aimed at discovering whether children with suspected language learning difficulties used the same types of intents as normal language learners and if not, how their intents differed (Coggins & Carpenter, 1981; Prizant & Duchan, 1981). Efforts were also made to discover the intents underlying unconventional behavior such as echolalia in children with autism (Prizant & Duchan, 1981) and nonverbal aberrant behavior in those with severe communication disabilities (Donnellan, Mirenda, Mesaros, & Fassbender, 1984).

Once clinicians had in hand a way to discover a client's problems in with language use, they began developing ways to remediate those problems. Some programs involving elicitation and modeling of specific intents were designed to teach children single intents such as requesting (Olswang, Kriegsmann, & Mastergeorge, 1982) others, using similar methods were designed to teach variety of intent types (Masters & Pines, 1992, Reichle, Halle & Johnston, 1993). Added to the indirect stimulation techniques developed in the early 1970s were sabotage techniques in which clinicians blocked children presumed goals, tempting them to request or protest so that they could get on with what they were interested in (Duchan & Weitzner Lin, 1987)

Speech act theory served to establish pragmatics as a separate area of clinical focus. It was seen as residing outside structural linguistics yet being part of communication. Once the door was open there was a rush to include other areas of communication that did not fit squarely into traditional sentence-based linguistic analyses. The other areas of pragmatics included conversation, discourse genres, social interaction, and event participation. In combination, these areas changed clinical practice so dramatically that their combined additions into assessment and intervention began to be called a "pragmatics revolution" (Duchan, 1984).

Conversation, prior to its incorporation into the pragmatics fold, was treated as a "carry over phase" of therapy. When individuals were able to show newly acquired abilities in highly constrained clinical contexts, they were asked to use their abilities in more free-wheeling conversational contexts. If they were successful, they had accomplished the final stage of therapy--that of carrying over their learnings into "connected speech." In the late 1970s and early 1980s conversation lost its previous low status as an afterthought of therapy and came to be regarded as an important communication domain that had its own learning and performance requirements. Clinicians reasoned that in order to become a competent conversationalist, clients needed to develop a variety of different conversational skills. They needed to learn how to participate actively in conversational exchanges (Bedrosian & Prutting, 1978; Fey, 1986), to master turn-taking skills (DeMaio, 1982), to initiate and maintain conversational topics (Bedrosian, 1985; Brinton & Fujiki, 1989), and repair exchanges following a conversational breakdown (Brady, McLean, McLean, & Johnston, 1995; Davis & Wilcox, 1985; Gallagher & Darnton, 1978) Assessment approaches were designed to identify areas of a client's deficiency in these areas of conversation and conversation intervention programs were designed to provide clients with the skills needed to improve in identified areas deficient areas.

Conversation is but one of many types of discourse. While conversation was the first to grab the attention of research and clinicians, narrative was soon to follow (Graybeal, 1981, for one of the first). Particularly salient in this narrative work was the implementation of Stein and Glenn's notion that narratives that were understood and created by children were made up of specific, consistently ordered story elements (Stein & Glenn, 1979). Stories were judged abnormal unless they had a setting, an initiating event that set up a problem, an attempt or action by the protagonist to solve the problem, an subjective (internal) response by the protagonist to the problem, and a consequence or outcome of the attempted resolution (Johnston, 1982). These elements were said to make up a "story grammar" and they became one of the models used to assess and teach narratives (Klecan-Aker, 1993; Merritt & Liles, 1987; Roth & Spekman, 1986).

Therapies designed to aid children in their construction, understanding, and telling of narratives included a whole language approach as well as training in specific narrative skills (see Gillam, McFadden, & van Kleek, 1995 for a comparison of whole language and a specific skills approach). The whole language approach treated narratives as gestalts, and provided children with experiences and encouragement to understand and produce them. The skills approach focused on teaching the prerequisite psycholinguistic skills that went into the understanding and production of narratives.

Also to emerge in the 1980s were research and clinical methods for analyzing the ways all discourse is organized. At first the focus was on linguistic relationships between adjacent conversational turns (Gallagher & Darnton, 1978; van Kleek & Frankel, 1981). Later, the cohesion devices identified by Michael Halliday and Ruqayia Hasan (Halliday & Hasan, 1976) became incorporated into research and clinical practice. Halliday and Hasan identified a variety of linguistic structures that served to create ties between elements of the discourse. They showed how interclausal connectives, referring expressions, and ellipsis aided discourse by tying components (sentences) of the discourse together. Betty Liles (Liles, 1985, 1987) and Michele Mentis and Carol Prutting (Mentis & Prutting, 1987), borrowed Halliday and Hasan's list of cohesion devices and examined whether and how those with language difficulties used them in their discourse. They concluded that some clients did have trouble with discourse cohesion and recommended therapy. Such therapy might be exemplified by Norris and Hoffman who recommend teaching cohesive ties in written narratives by having the teacher point back and forth from the pronouns to original referent in the text to illustrate textual relationships among elements (Norris & Hoffman, 1993, p. 243-244):

When the text indicates that the baby monster is a girl through the use of the pronoun "she," the adult points to the word in the text that shows where she is getting the information about the referent and associates it with…previously established…concepts by pointing back and forth between the pronoun and the original referent (p. 243)

In these early years in clinical pragmatics clinicians followed the traditional view that communication problems resided in the person with the disability and that thir job was to remedy their client's knowledge or processing problem. The traditional view also was founded on the notion that communication consisted of information exchange between communication partners. By the 1980s assumptions underlying the information processing view began to erode. Of special importance was the new understanding that all participants in a communication interaction have an effect on what happens (Sonnenmeier, 1993).

Prior to the 1980s the communication partner was virtually invisible to the clinician carrying out the assessment or intervention program. An important impact of the pragmatics revolution and one that contributed to its revolutionary impact was that it forced the communication partner out of the closet. Speech-act theory required that clinicians consider the partner's interpretation of the acts and whether the participants in interactions engaged in joint activities and joint attention (Prizant & Duchan, 1981; Wetherby & Prizant, 1990). Also tucked inside the thinking of speech act research and clinical practice was the notion that there were acts designed to achieve instrumental ends (getting objects) and others that were more social in focus (getting attention of others)(Wetherby, Prizant, & Hutchinson, 1998).

Just as for speech act approaches, the new conversational turn taking focus allowed clinicians to appreciate the role of partners, in this case the partners were portrayed as active in negotiating turn exchanges and conversational repairs (Gallagher & Darnton, 1978). Similarly, the work on child directed talk required that the clinicians see the communication partner as having responsibility for whether communications succeed and as having an effect on the direction and speed of communication development in children (Lyon, 1989; Manolson, 1992)

Focusing on the interactional partner has resulted in the emergence of what has come to be called social or interactional or social approaches to assessment and intervention (Simmons-Mackie & Damico, 1995). Some social interactional approaches resemble traditional information processing approaches in that they place the emphasis on social skill building in the person with the disability (Goldstein & Gallagher, 1992). Other social interaction approaches focus more on the interaction itself (McDonald & Caroll, 1992).

The interaction-based focus included new terminology, drawn from the academic literature, as well as the creation of new clinical domains for assessment and intervention. New terms were coined by academics such a social reciprocity (Bruner, 1977), emotional or social attunement (Stern, 1985), and intersubjectivity (Trevarthen, 1979) and were used to describe how well partners work together to achieve a common end. New assessment and intervention domains included social reciprocity (Snyder-McLean, Solomonson, McLean, & Sack, 1984) social attunement (Manolson, 1992), and frequency and quality of social interaction (Gallagher, 1991).

The shift in clinical emphasis to social interaction is exemplified in the following criteria to evaluate the effects of intervention developed by MacDonald and Carroll in their social partnership model (MacDonald & Carroll, 1992). These authors/clinicians ask whether members of a play interaction:

1. Are active together

2. Engage in play focusing on the same things

3. Do about as much as each other

4. Play and communicate like one other

5. Share directions and decisions in play

(McDonald & Carroll, 1992, p. 115)

The social interaction approach meshes nicely with another more recent focus in pragmatic intervention-that of event participation. While social interaction approaches emphasize the partner's interrelationships, event participation examines what the partners are doing together. The event, situation, or activity in which the participants are jointly engaged becomes a co-constructed activity. The event is a well-established, long-held, and well-used anthropological idea. Anthropologists studying other cultures typically focus on what people do and how and why they do it-they focus on how participants interact in everyday events. This is consistent with an ethnographic approach has been described in detail by Del Hymes (Hymes, 1962). Assessment approaches built around events and social participation involved observing and supporting individuals in their "natural habitats." Clinicians might observe children's success with different events in classrooms or with adults participating in family or community events.

The contribution of events to the design of clinical therapies was bolstered by research and theorizing about what have Roger Schank and Abelson (Schank & Abelson, 1977) first called scripts. In 1981 Katherine Nelson and Janice Gruendel built upon Schank and Abelson's notion of script, hypothesizing that scripts arise from generalized event representations (Nelson & Gruendel, 1986). These conceptual representations are used by communicators to remember, understand, talk about, and engage in everyday events (Nelson, 1986). These event representations are equivalent to Schank an Abelson's scripts. Other scholars such as Jerome Bruner and Courtney Cazden after him, argued that commonly occurring scripts (called "routines") such as peekaboo are foundational to language learning (Bruner, 1975; Cazden, 1979).

Communication therapy approaches that explicitly emphasize event learning came into being in the late 1980s. They involved direct teaching of scripts (Constable, 1986; Sonnenmeier, 1994), developing curriculum-based therapy programs (Nelson), designing event-based methods that promote school inclusion, (Calculator & Jorgensen, 1994) using joint action routines (Snyder-McLean et al., 1984) and scaffolding or providing models and prompts to support the learning of events (Nelson, 1995; Sonnenmeier, 1994).

One way clinicians have treated the newly developed components of pragmatics is to add them to already available assessment and intervention approaches. This has resulted in what some have called "the fragmentation problem" (DeJoy, 1990-1991; Kent, 1990; Siegel, 1990). DeJoy elaborates: "Our approaches to therapy seem to focus on the "what" of therapy rather than the "how" of therapy. As a result, the person with the communication problem goes our of focus" (DeJoy, 1990-1991, p. 17).

Another way of handling the new domains of the pragmatics revolution is to take people's everyday lives as the point of departure for assessing client needs and for providing ways to support them as they engage in everyday life events (Calculator & Jorgensen, 1994; Duchan, 1995; LPAA, 2000). Included in life-related approaches to intervention are efforts to fit the therapies to life goals of clients (Duchan & Black, 2001) and attempts to reduce or overcome social and environmental barriers to an individual's social participation (Beukelman & Mirenda, 1992). The role of the clinician as interventionist is altered, in this life participation approach. Rather than teacher or coach, the clinician becomes the service provider who works collaboratively with clients, family members, and teachers to identify and achieve life participation goals. (For a stunning British version of this life participation approach see Beyond aphasia: Therapies for living with communication disability by Pound, Parr, Lindsay, & Woolf, 2000).