Throwback (2013): Improving expressive grammar skills in the real world

Carefully-controlled studies implemented by trained research assistants are great and all, but isn’t it awesome when researchers partner with practicing SLPs? Smith-Lock et al. did just that for this study testing an expressive grammar intervention.

The researchers recruited 5-year-old children with developmental language disorder (DLD) and average nonverbal intelligence and tested them on early-developing grammar forms (possessive –s, past tense –ed, pronouns “he” and “she”; examples in Appendix A). The study intervention was delivered for one hour each week in the classroom by real-life school-based SLPs, teachers, and teacher assistants. First, the SLP led a whole-class lesson on a grammar target (see example in Appendix B). Then, children split up into small groups of 3–6 (one grammar target per group). Each group completed three activities, rotating between the three professionals. Activities were all play-based and provided opportunities for children to hear and say the target. SLPs and teachers used these strategies:

  • Teaching the target directly

  • Modeling the target with emphasis

  • Prompting the child to use the target

  • Recasting the child’s errors on the target

  • Providing feedback on the child’s productions

After 8 weeks of this treatment, children were re-tested on all grammar forms. And the results were pretty great—children in the treatment group showed a stable baseline, then improved significantly after treatment compared to children in a control group. Children in the treatment group also showed more improvement on treated than untreated grammar targets. One caveat though—children were less likely to make progress when they had articulation errors that affected the sound or sound pattern needed to produce the targets (i.e., certain final clusters). 

This study tells us that group intervention in schools can work, and if we want to improve children’s use of a grammar form, we need to target it directly and make sure they can say it!


Smith-Lock, K. M., Leitao, S., Lambert, L. & Nickels, L. (2013). Effective intervention for expressive grammar in children with specific language impairment. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 48(3), 265–282.