Throwback (2012): One way to support your older students with DLD

If you serve students with developmental language disorders (DLD) in middle or high school, you’ve probably grappled with most of these problems: large caseloads, the impossible Tetris-game of scheduling pull-out sessions, a disconnect between therapy and classroom activities, time diverted to supporting missed or misunderstood class assignments, and difficulty connecting with general education teachers to co-plan or co-teach… to name just a few. So how do we navigate these hurdles to make meaningful changes for our students?

Back in 2012, Starling et al. took a novel approach to improving the language skills of a group of middle-grade students* (Australian Year 8, corresponding to the same grade in the U.S.) with language disorders: teaching the students’ teachers to modify their instructional language. This is taking a systemic approach to supporting students by targeting their environment and some of their most impactful communication partners—the ones delivering core academic instruction.

Teacher training addressed a few different areas, focusing on “practical and useable techniques”

  1. Modifying teacher’s written language in worksheets by breaking up large chunks of information, adding visuals, giving descriptions of vocab terms, and putting questions on the same page as the text they refer to.

  2. Modifying oral language by making directions explicit, giving extra processing time, rephrasing/repeating important points, and looking at the class when speaking.

  3. Visual strategies like lesson outlines, mind maps, and anchor charts/posters that the whole class participated in making.

  4. Vocabulary instruction techniques using the 3-tier system, adding extra opportunities to work with new words, and breaking down new words into roots and affixes.

Teachers met weekly individually or in small groups with the SLP for 10 weeks, and the SLP sat in on a few of each teachers’ lessons during that time to monitor how they put the strategies into practice. Click through to the article for specific examples of how lessons were modified based on the coaching process.

(An aside: We hear you, secondary-school SLP friends. This is WAY more access to gen-ed teachers than any of us are likely to have. Despite that, there are probably creative ways to implement something similar in your setting, even if you can’t follow the same schedule. If your school uses Professional Learning Communities, invests in peer coaching, or has other, regularly-occurring chances for professional development, you might be able to squirrel your way right in there! Administrators in charge of professional development stuff love coaching models—that’s how adults often learn best, after all—especially when they aren’t paying for an expensive outside consultant to deliver them.)


Compared to another school, randomly chosen to wait until the next term for the intervention, trained teachers successfully adopted the new strategies and kept up with them, even after the coaching was ended. Even better, their students with identified language disorders improved in a standardized measure of listening comprehension and written expression compared to the students at the other school, and maintained those gains after three months. Similar improvements didn’t show up in oral expression or reading comprehension, though. The authors acknowledge that this teacher-focused intervention isn’t enough for students with significant language needs—of course it’s not. Many (most… all…) of them will still benefit from individualized instruction in some areas. But this can be one layer in a “comprehensive model of service delivery in supporting secondary students with [language disorders].” And bonus? These kinds of teaching practices have benefits for ALL students, not just the ones with disabilities. If your school or district follows RTI/MTSS or Universal Design for Learning, SLP-delivered teacher coaching fits perfectly with those values.


*An important note: English learners were not included in the target student group.

Starling, J., Munro, N., Togher, L., & Arciuli, J. (2012). Training Secondary School Teachers in Instructional Language Modification Techniques to Support Adolescents With Language Impairment: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. doi:10.1044/0161-1461(2012/11-0066)

Writing and talking to master expository text


We all access written expository language. Whether it’s a news article, an assessment manual, or this research review, we look to expository text to learn information. For our students with language disorders, though, expository text can be intimidating. Taking high-quality notes and sharing back what they’ve read can improve students’ learning and retention, but many of our students need help with both of these skills!

In this study, fourth through sixth graders* were taught to “write to learn” and “talk to learn” using a procedure called Sketch and Speak, and were then compared to children not receiving the treatment. The intervention directly addressed those pesky note-taking struggles—directly copying text, not organizing it well, or including too much or too little detail. After just six sessions, there were noticeable differences in the students’ oral reports, like more full sentences and opening/closing statements from texts that were not used in treatment. In addition, the school SLPs who treated the students reported increased student confidence, oral fluency, and recall of the texts used in treatment.

Here’s how Sketch and Speak works. Each text was the focus of two, 30-minute therapy sessions, one-on-one or in pairs:

Session 1 (sketched notes → oral sentences → oral report): The SLP read a science article, stopping to let the child sketch important details with “quick and easy, just enough to remember” pictography. The student generated a full sentence in his or her own words for each sketch, then said the sentence again to remember it. Last, the student gave a full oral report based on their note sheet and practiced sentences.

Session 2 (oral report → oral sentences → bulleted notes → oral sentences → oral report): Students gave the same oral report again based on sketched notes. They then took each oral sentence and pared it down to “quick and easy, just enough to remember” phrases, which they wrote in bulleted form before expressing them back as a full oral sentence. Finally, the student gave the report one last time, referencing their bulleted notes and practiced sentences. 

If you’re trying to picture what the student products might look like for each of these steps, check out the supplemental material for examples of student work.

This approach has two pretty exciting things going for it:

  • Room to use our clinical judgment in pacing and scaffolding—because we know our kids and how best to support them! SLPs had the flexibility to use models, feedback, and support based on the student’s need in the moment rather than following a strict protocol. 

  • Manipulating information in a variety of wayswithout ever actually asking the child to write in full sentences—helps students learn useful tools without making the experience dreadful for all involved. Going through so many steps allowed the students supported practice using multiple strategies—in hopes that that they could more successfully access expository text outside of therapy as well. 

*Note that the students in the study had a variety of educational diagnoses: severe learning disability, speech–language impairment, and/or other health impairment (ADHD). Table 2 reports the special education services they received at school.

Ukrainetz, T. A (2018). Sketch and speak: An expository intervention using note-taking and oral practice for children with language-related learning disabilities. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in the Schools. doi:10.1044/2018_LSHSS-18-0047

You should collect persuasive language samples—we’ll convince you.

We’ve talked before about language sampling with older students, and how using narrative or expository (informational) tasks are better than conversation at aligning with academic expectations and eliciting complex syntax. But what about persuasive language? It’s important for school, sure, but also students’ personal interactions. For every time they need to lay out an argument in an essay or debate, they’ll have dozens of opportunities to convince a friend, parent, teacher, or someone else to see things their way. Talking a classmate out of risky behavior, explaining a situation to a cop… it doesn’t take too much imagination to see the potential importance of this skill. And when you’re speaking (or writing) persuasively, you have to convey complex ideas in a concise and clear way, requiring especially deft use of complex syntax.


The authors of this paper found that ninth-graders responding to a persuasive prompt (giving reasons why teens should or should not have jobs) used more complex syntax than in response to an expository one (explaining how a teacher can be a role model to teens). They also compared different modalities—written responses to expository prompts were more complex than spoken ones, but the results were mixed with persuasive samples. The researchers measured complexity (and you can too!) by the percentage of complex sentences and the average number of clauses per sentence. There were some specific differences in microstructure—types of verbs and clauses, for examples—between the two genres as well, that the paper lays out in more detail.  

So keep this in mind when you’re next assessing an older student: allowing a written response for an expository language sample will elicit more complex language, but with a persuasive prompt, you can go either way and maximize that complex syntax.


Brimo, D., & Hall-Mills, S. (2018) Adolescents’ production of complex syntax in spoken and written expository and persuasive genres. Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/02699206.2018.1504987

Writing informational text: Scaffolding our instruction

Do you work on writing with upper elementary students? If not writing, how about improving students’ abilities to describe, compare and contrast, or sequence information? Thought so. The authors of this study developed an intervention that addresses these skills that you need to write informational texta pretty complex task when you stop and think about it

Informational text writing requires students to read some sort of source material, connect the content with their background knowledge, organize their thoughts, and then write about it. What’s novel about the authors’ approach is bypassing the source material altogether. Struggling 4th and 5th grade writers (likely to also struggle with reading) read a condensed information set—called an “information frame”—rather than an entire excerpt or passage. For example, an information frame could look like this:

Copy of Structure_ SD (simple description) Topic_ Baseball Characteristics%2FFacts_ Sport played outside on a field Nicknamed “America’s Pasttime” Nine players play defense at a time One player bats at a time Players u.png

Next, students learned a set of strategies:

  • Pick your idea

  • Organize your notes

  • Write

  • Review

… which they applied when writing passages that were 1) descriptive, 2) compared and contrasted information, or 3) sequenced information. Students who received the intervention made gains in each of these informational writing areas at posttest—not bad for only 6 hours of intervention time. The appendices include a sample prompt and scoring rubric if you’d like to get a feel for the writing tasks. 

Although this particular intervention needs additional research, the ideas behind it make a lot of sense for writing instruction. Reducing the cognitive load (i.e., requiring that students read less material) allows space for focusing on writing, especially planning, organizing, reviewing, and revising. Since writing skills can be challenging for us to teach and for our students to learn, this article is worth a look for ideas on how to scaffold your instruction.


Hebert, M., Bohaty, J. J., Nelson, J. R., & Roehling, J. V. (2018). Writing Informational Text Using Provided Information and Text Structures: An Intervention for Upper Elementary Struggling Writers. Reading and Writing. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1007/s11145-018-9831-x

Oral narratives and writing: An intervention BOGO!

Here are a few things we know about writing:

  1. It’s a really complicated, difficult skill that’s very important for school success.
  2. Writing abilities are correlated with oral language skills.
  3. Writing falls within an SLP’s scope, but many of us feel unprepared to tackle it, or find it hard to fit into short treatment sessions, especially with younger students.

What if I told you there was a way to improve your students’ writing without treating it directly? 

I’ll wait while you do your happy dance.


Yes, friends, it’s true. This study found that 6 out of 7 first-graders who received a short course of small-group narrative language intervention (specifically Story Champs) “made clear and meaningful growth in writing quality… [and after] instruction, students included more story grammar elements in their stories, creating longer stories with complete episodes.”

Before you get too excited, keep in mind that this was a very small study*, and the children were not diagnosed with language disorders (although one had ASD and was on an IEP). We can’t necessarily assume the intervention would show the same benefits for kiddos on your caseload. Either way, narrative skills are something you’ll probably be addressing in therapy, so consider collecting writing samples to look for evidence of this *bonus* skill boost!

*A fun(?) aside: This study is an example of “action research,” where actual, in-the-wild, teacher/clinician-delivered interventions get the research-study treatment. This is what we all want—information relevant to what happens in the messy, wonderful, real world of teaching kids. Read the article to learn more about how the authors controlled aspects of the intervention to make it pass muster as an experimental study. Would you consider partnering with researchers to do something similar? ASHA gives grants for this type of thing!


Spencer, T. D., & Petersen, D. B. (2018). Bridging Oral and Written Language: An Oral Narrative Language Intervention Study With Writing Outcomes. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 1–13.