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)

And more...

  • Accardo and colleagues provide an overview of effective writing interventions for school-age children with ASD. Most interventions took place in the classroom and used mixed approaches, combining “ingredients” like graphic organizers, video modeling, and constant time delay—a prompting strategy borrowed from ABA. Within the review, Tables 1 and 2 give an idea of what each one looked like, so check that out.

  • Baker & Blacher assessed behavior and social skills in 187 13-year-olds with ASD, intellectual disabilities (ID), or both. They found that having ID along with ASD was not associated with more behavior problems or less developed social skills as compared with ASD only.

  • Cerdán et al. found that eighth graders who had poor comprehension skills correctly answered reading comprehension questions more often when the question was followed by a rephrased, simplified statement telling them exactly what they needed to do.

  • Curran et al. found that preschool-aged children who are DHH and receive remote microphones systems in their homes have significantly better discourse skills (but no better vocabulary or syntax skills) than otherwise-matched children who don’t get those systems.

  • Facon & Magis found that language development, particularly vocabulary and syntax comprehension, does not plateau prematurely in people with Down Syndrome relative to people with other forms of intellectual disability. Language skills continue to show growth in both populations into early adulthood. (We’ve previously reviewed specific interventions that have resulted in language gains among older children and teens with Down Syndrome. )

  • Hu et al. suggest that computer-assisted instruction (CAI) can improve matching skills in school-age children with autism and other developmental disabilities. Although techy and exciting, CAI on its own isn’t enough—evidence-based instructional strategies like prompting and reinforcement have to be programmed in, too. This CAI used discrete trial training, and was more efficient (fewer prompts and less therapy time were needed for mastery!) than a traditional, teacher-implemented approach with flashcards.

  • Lim et al. found that the literacy instruction program MULTILIT was effective with school-age children with Down syndrome. MULTILIT combines phonics and sight word recognition instruction, geared toward children with students who are “Making Up Lost Time in Literacy” (MULTILIT; get it?). The program was implemented 1:1 for 12 weeks, and the students made gains in phonological awareness, word reading and spelling. MULTILIT has been investigated by the developers, but this is the first time it’s been studied by other researchers—and with kids with Down syndrome in particular.  Note: This article wasn’t fully reviewed because the training (provided only in Australia) is not available to the majority of our readers.

  • Muncy et al. surveyed SLPs and school psychologists and found that, in general, these professionals are underprepared to assess and treat children with hearing loss and other, co-occurring disabilities, and that they lack confidence in this area. Participants reported many barriers to valuable collaboration with other professionals, like audiologists (hint: there aren’t enough of them!), and that they want more training in this area.

  • Schlosser et al. found that 3–7 year old children with ASD accurately identified more animated symbols than static symbols. The animated symbols represented verbs; for example, depicting a person turning around versus a still line drawing of “turn around.” It makes sense to see action verbs—well—in action; however, researchers acknowledge we can’t make grid displays full of animated symbols since that could be overstimulating. The next step is to test the effects of animation on symbol identification with other more well-known symbols sets like PCS.

  • Scott et al. used science books and a signed dialogic reading program with an 11-year-old Deaf student, and found increases in the student’s ability to answer comprehension questions.

  • St John et al. found that 92% of their sample of children and adolescents with Klinefelter syndrome also had a communication impairment. Pragmatic, language, and literacy impairments were common, and the researchers described some speech impairments as well. Establishing a comprehensive communication profile for this group is important because we’re still learning about Klinefelter syndrome, which is caused by one or more extra X chromosomes.

  • Updates on PEERS, a structured social skills program for adolescents and young adults we’ve discussed before! Wyman & Claro used the school-based version of PEERS both with adolescents with ASD (the target audience) and those with intellectual disabilities (ID; an overlooked group in social skills research who may benefit nonetheless). Both groups of students improved their social knowledge, and the ID group (but not the ASD group) increased social interactions with friends outside of school. Meanwhile, Matthews et al. found that speeding up the traditional, clinic-based PEERS program, by offering it in 7 weeks (twice weekly sessions) instead of 14, didn’t reduce its effectiveness.

Accardo, A. L., Finnegan, E. G., Kuder, S. J., & Bomgardner, E. M. (2019). Writing Interventions for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Research Synthesis. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 1-19. doi:10.1007/s10803-019-03955-9

Baker, B. L., & Blacher, J. (2019). Brief Report: Behavior Disorders and Social Skills in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Does IQ Matter? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi:10.1007/s10803-019-03954-w

Cerdán, R., Pérez, A., Vidal-Abarca, E., & Rouet, J. F. (2019). To answer questions from text, one has to understand what the question is asking: Differential effects of question aids as a function of comprehension skill. Reading and Writing. doi:10.1007/s11145-019-09943-w

Curran, M., Walker, E. A., Roush, P., & Spratford, M. (2019). Using Propensity Score Matching to Address Clinical Questions: The Impact of Remote Microphone Systems on Language Outcomes in Children Who Are Hard of Hearing. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. doi:10.1044/2018_JSLHR-L-ASTM-18-0238

Facon, B., & Magis, D. (2019). Does the development of syntax comprehension show a premature asymptote among persons with Down Syndrome? A cross-sectional analysis. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. doi: 10.1352/1944-7558-124.2.131

Hu, X., Lee, G. T., Tsai, Y, Yang, Y., & Cai, S. (2019). Comparing computer-assisted and teacher-implemented visual matching instruction for children with ASD and/or other DD. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi:10.1007/s10803-019-03978-2

Lim, L., Arciuli, J., Munro, N., & Cupples, L. (2019). Using the MULTILIT literacy instruction program with children who have Down syndrome. Reading and Writing. doi:10.1007/s11145-019-09945-8

Matthews, N. L., Laflin, J., Orr, B. C., Warriner, K., DeCarlo, M., & Smith, C. J. (2019). Brief Report: Effectiveness of an Accelerated Version of the PEERS® Social Skills Intervention for Adolescents. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi:10.1007/s10803-019-03939-9

Muncy, M. P., Yoho, S. E., & McClain, M. B. (2019). Confidence of School-Based Speech-Language Pathologists and School Psychologists in Assessing Students With Hearing Loss and Other Co-Occurring Disabilities. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. doi:10.1044/2018_LSHSS-18-0091

Schlosser, R. W., Brock, K. L., Koul, R., Shane, H., & Flynn, S. (2019). Does animation facilitate understanding of graphic symbols representing verbs in children with autism spectrum disorder? Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. doi:10.1044/2018_JSLHR-L-18-0243

Scott, J. A., & Hansen, S. G. (2019). Comprehending science writing: The promise of dialogic reading for supporting upper elementary deaf students. Communication Disorders Quarterly. doi:10.1177/1525740119838253

St John, M., Ponchard, C., van Reyk, O., Mei, C., Pigdon, L., Amor, D. J., & Morgan, A. T. (2019). Speech and language in children with Klinefelter syndrome. Journal of Communication Disorders. doi:10.1016/j.jcomdis.2019.02.003 

Wyman, J., & Claro, A. (2019). The UCLA PEERS School-Based Program: Treatment Outcomes for Improving Social Functioning in Adolescents and Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Those with Cognitive Deficits. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi:10.1007/s10803-019-03943-z

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

And more

Bent & Holt found that 5- to 7-year-olds’ ability to recognize words was significantly lower when the speaker had a nonnative accent (Japanese). When background noise was added, the children struggled to understand both the native Japanese speaker and a British English speaker, compared to an American English speaker.

Girbau found that bilingual (Spanish/English) children with language disorders and normal nonverbal intelligence had difficulty understanding long distance animate direct object pronoun sentences. What the heck is that, you ask? A sentence like this: “The ant explains that the snakes from the green jungle are scaring her with the strong hissing.” It might be useful to include “long distance” pronouns like this in therapy.

Klein-Tasman et al. administered the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) to children with Williams Syndrome who spoke at least in three-word phrases. They found a high risk (about 1 in 3) for ASD in this population. They also identify which particular social and repetitive behaviors are common in Williams Syndrome generally and which may point to a comorbid ASD diagnosis.

Mandak et al. found evidence through systematic review that literacy interventions (sight-word based, phonological, or combined) are effective at helping individuals who use aided AAC improve their word-reading abilities. They encourage clinicians to consider a combined approach, incorporate evidence-based prompting strategies such as time delay, and to be mindful of the tasks used to measure word knowledge.

O’Neill et al.’s meta-analysis reminds us that interventions that include aided input have been highly effective in improving expression and comprehension among people who use AAC. The majority of participants in studies included in the meta-analysis were preschool- or elementary-aged children with developmental disabilities.

Thistle et al. found that preschoolers without disabilities selected symbols on AAC display more quickly when the locations were consistent, rather than variable. The authors remind us that we need to replicate these findings with children with disabilities, but in the meantime the study provides evidence we can use to remind our co-workers about the importance of consistency in motor learning.

Reeves et al. studied the effect of Early Talk Boost (ETB) intervention on language scores in 3-year-olds, and found that children who received ETB intervention (in 20 minute group sessions 3 times/week for 9 weeks, delivered by teachers) improved significantly compared to children in a control group. Note: this article wasn't fully reviewed because it's not available to the majority of our audience, with training only provided in the UK. We hope to see further research and expanded training opportunities in the future!

Stark found that anxiety is the strongest predictor of the development of selective mutism in bilingual children. Bilingual status itself did not predict selective mutism. However, the family’s orientation to the mainstream culture was positively associated with children’s speaking behavior in preschool. 

Zemlock et al. found that practice with any kind of handwriting (letters OR numbers!) led to improvements in letter recognition in preschool- and kindergarten-aged children.


Bent, T., & Holt, R. F. (2018). Shhh… I Need Quiet! Children’s Understanding of American, British, and Japanese-accented English Speakers. Language and Speech. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/0023830918754598

Girbau, D. (2018). Direct object pronoun sentences processing in Spanish-English children with/without Specific Language Impairment and adults: a cross-modal priming study. Journal of Communication Disorders, 72, 91–110. doi: 10.1016/j.jcomdis.2018.01.003

Klein-Tasman, B.P., van der Fluit, F. & Mervis, C.B. (2018). Autism Spectrum Symptomatology in Children with Williams Syndrome who have Phrase Speech or Fluent Language. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1007/s10803-018-3555-4

Mandak, K., Light, J., & Boyle, S. (2018). The effects of literacy interventions on single-word reading for individuals who use aided AAC: a systematic review. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 1–13. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/07434618.2018.1470668

O’Neill, T., Light, J., & Pope, L. (2018). Effects of Interventions That Include Aided Augmentative and Alternative Communication Input on the Communication of Individuals with Complex Communication Needs: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. doi: 10.1044/2018_JSLHR-L-17-0132

Reeves, L., Hartshorne, M., Black, R., Atkinson, J. Baxter, A., & Pring, T. (2018). Early talk boost: A targeted intervention for three year old children with delayed language development. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 34(1), 53–62.

Stark, A. (2018). Effects of anxiety, language skills, and cultural adaptation on the development of selective mutism. 74, 45–60.

Thistle, J. J., Holmes, S. A., Horn, M. M., & Reum, A. M. (2018). Consistent Symbol Location Affects Motor Learning in Preschoolers Without Disabilities: Implications for Designing Augmentative and Alternative Communication Displays. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. Advance online publication. doi:10.1044/2018_AJSLP-17-0129

Zemlock, D., Vinci-Booher, S., & James, K. H. (2018). Visual–motor symbol production facilitates letter recognition in young children. Reading and Writing, 31(6), 1255–1271.

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.

Perspectives & Tutorials

Beyond Social Skills: Supporting Peer Relationships and Friendships for School-Aged Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Clinical Implications for Working with Nonmainstream Dialect Speakers: A Focus on Two Filipino Kindergarteners

This clinical focus piece is a useful resource on the features of Phillipine English, a variety of English spoken by many Filipinos and influenced by Tagalog (with English, the other official language of the Philippines). The authors discuss two case studies and give some general recommendations for working with nonmainstream dialect speakers, so it’s worth a look even if you don’t have any current clients from this background.

Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition From Novice to Expert

This is a really good paper. No extra description needed… just go check it out! And it’s open-access (party, party!)

Illustrating a Supports-Based Approach Toward Friendship with Autistic Students

Individual differences in children’s pragmatic ability: A review of associations with formal language, social cognition, and executive functions

A Multilinguistic Approach to Evaluating Student Spelling in Writing Samples

A lot of SLPs don’t feel confident addressing our kiddos’ writing and spelling needs. But… yeah—we need to go there. This clinical focus piece describes a system for assessing spelling that capitalizes on our skills analyzing spoken language samples to classify subtypes of spelling errors that are either phonological, orthographic, or morphological in nature. The informal method they describe would be useful for describing skills, setting goals, and tracking progress.

The Place of Morphology in Learning to Read in English

Promoting Conditional Use of Communication Skills for Learners with Complex Communication Needs: A Tutorial

Stepping Stones to Switch Access

Feel clueless when working with switch users? Get stuck in “cause-and-effect” land? In this piece from ASHA’s SIG 12, switch-access expert Linda Burkhart lays out a progression of switch skills and possible target activities from the very earliest stages of learning (I hit a button and a thing happens!) all the way to building automaticity with two-switch scanning. This is one to keep handy if you have clients with complex communication needs.

Teaching text structures to boost comprehension: What makes for a good intervention?


If your work brings you into contact with the Common Core standards, you probably know that they majorly up the ante for students to read and interact with expository (so, informational, not narrative) text, starting as early as kindergarten. A popular strategy to help students understand these texts is to teach the structures: cause-and-effect, compare/contrast, problem/solution, etc. The idea is that knowing the underlying organization of the information helps us create a working model of it in our minds, leading to better understanding and recall.

This article is a meta-analysis of expository text structure intervention research, meant to figure out, overall, if teaching text structures looks like a helpful approach for comprehension (for students with and without a learning disorder), and what characteristics of interventions give the biggest bang for their buck. They looked at 21 peer-reviewed studies from 1970 on that: a) used a targeted text structure intervention, b) provided data for students with LD, and c) looked at some measure of comprehension as an outcome.

Big Picture: Teaching text structures had a large, positive impact on reading comprehension.

The Finer Points: What made for a particularly good intervention?

  • Scaffolding of instruction, either by students gradually taking more ownership over the use of strategies, or gradually increasing the complexity of the passages
  • Focusing on just one or two structures, especially the ones that are easiest to recognize, like cause-and-effect and compare/contrast (but watch out: which structures work best might vary by content area…)
  • Intervention delivered by adults who understand text structures well themselves, as well as the treatment strategies. Seems like a no-brainer, but interventions that were led by researchers rather than less-specifically trained teachers were more successful.
  • The younger the student, the larger the improvement, as measured by standardized reading tests. So, think early elementary school. Students with learning disabilities showed the biggest benefits.
  • Treatments of 11–20 hours were more successful than either shorter or longer ones.

It’s important to note that some of these specific findings are preliminary, or need to be taken with caution, just because of the fairly limited pool of evidence they are coming from. Even keeping that in mind, teaching expository text structures is definitely good practice for a range of learners. The authors specifically recommend that we:

  • Explicitly describe text structures and teach associated signal words
  • Model uses of the strategy
  • Consider using graphic organizers
  • Turn over responsibility for the strategy to students over time

Pyle, N., Vasquez, A.C., Lignugaris/Kraft, B., Gillam, S., Reutzel, D.R., Olszewski, A… Pyle, D. (2017). Effects of Expository Text Structure Interventions on Comprehension: A Meta-Analysis. Reading Research Quarterly, 52(4), 469–501.