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)