Teaching grammar to kids with DLD—tell them about it!

Children with developmental language disorder (DLD) commonly struggle with grammar skills. Many of our traditional approaches to treating grammar involve modeling (saying) or recasting (repeating correctly) targeted grammar forms and hoping the child catches on. Unfortunately, even long-term studies of these implicit approaches to teaching grammar produce only modest improvements (sigh). A new study by Finestack compared traditional implicit approaches to an explicit approach where children were directly told what the rule was for a certain grammar target.


Researchers taught three new morphemes to 5- to 8-year-old children with DLD. One group of children (implicit group) got lots of exposures to the morphemes, but no explanation; the other group (explicit group) also heard a rule for when to use the morpheme. Note that these morphemes were made-up, and children were told that they were learning an alien language. Clearly, don’t do this in therapy—we want our clients to use real morphemes from their real language! But the made-up morphemes were similar to real English morphemes like third person singular –s and past tense –ed, so we can cautiously extend these findings to real (non-alien) language intervention. And since children shouldn’t have heard these morphemes outside of the study, we can be confident that they learned them from the treatment and not from everyday language exposure or maturation.

After a short period of intervention, children who were explicitly told the rule for using the made-up morphemes used them more often immediately after treatment, after a short delay, and in new contexts. This adds to findings from other studies, like those testing the Shape Coding system, supporting explicit teaching of (real) grammar rules. And although the study treatment itself doesn’t resemble what we’d do in therapy, it implies that we should talk about the grammar rules we’re trying to teach to help students make more progress on their grammar goals.


Finestack, L. H. (2018). Evaluation of an explicit intervention to teach novel grammatical forms to children with developmental language disorder. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1044/2018_JSLHR-L-17-0339.