Throwback Pub (2007): Comparing semantic and syntactic treatment for young teens with language disorder

There are two types of SLPs: the ones who get a little nervous around ditransitive verbs, elaborated noun phrases, passive participles, and other grammatical nitty-gritties, and then there are the ones who consider diagramming sentences a special treat (hi, friends!). If you’re one of the second kind, come sit here by me. You’re going to like this.

If you’re among the syntax-wary, hang in there anyway, because this article describes, in detail, what we’re all looking for: interventions that WORK for persistent, tricky challenges we see in our older students with language impairment. Specifically, for difficulties with verb argument structure.

These are errors that we hear, that sound “weird,” but can be difficult to describe, especially in a layman-friendly eval report or IEP objective. Things like:

The lady is filling sweets into the jar.

The lady is wiping the crumbs.

In the first example, the problem is a misunderstanding of the patient of the verb (the thing that the verb is happening to); the sweets aren’t being filled, the jar is. In the second, an obligatory argument of the verb (an extra prepositional phrase like off the table, indicating where the crumbs are being wiped to) has been left out. Some of the complexity has to do with whether the patient of a particular verb moves (like the water in “he pours the water into the glass”) or changes (like the house in “he decorates the house with lights”). Some verbs can go both ways, like “wipe”, where you can wipe crumbs off the table (move the crumbs) or wipe the table with a cloth (change the table by cleaning it). The interventions in this study addressed argument structure for all three types: the movers, the changers, and the both-ways-ers.

Fast Facts on the Study:

  • 27 students, 11–16 years old, all monolingual with diagnosed language disorder
  • Random assignment into one of three treatments groups: a syntactic–semantic treatment, a semantic treatment, and a control group (unrelated language intervention)
  • Each student received nine 30-minute weekly sessions of intervention, focusing on nine different verbs = 4.5 hours total (Hey! That’s actually a realistic amount of intervention!)

So what do the interventions involve? Both of the target interventions are theoretically motivated: they’re based on rich theory about how children learn to use verbs, and which parts of the process are affected by language disorder. This is key; while there (unfortunately) isn’t always good experimental evidence for a particular therapy approach, having a solid theory behind what you’re doing is a good place to start.

The first, syntactic–semantic treatment is based on the shape coding system*. Visual maps of the verb argument structure are used, to explicitly discuss how these look for different types of verbs. Parts of speech are color-coded; phrases, like the “where” phrase missing from the second example above, are drawn in different shapes, so you can see what’s needed and what’s missing. There’s a focus on putting the patient of the verb in the direct-object position. The second, semantic treatment, didn’t get into syntax at all, but involved the therapist and student co-creating detailed definitions of the target words, and using those definitions to discuss and compare the different verbs. The article gets specific enough about how both types of treatment sessions were conducted that you’d be able to recreate them with some prep.

And so? The results? Both types of therapy resulted in significantly improved performance, as compared to the control group (who got language therapy, but not on these skill sets). There was no significant difference between the two therapies, meaning that you, as the therapist, could reasonably choose either approach (or use a combination of the two!).

Better yet—the effects generalized to non-treated verbs and the improvements were maintained for three months. They did lessen over time, pointing to a potential need for ongoing or longer treatment to make permanent changes. Note that this study did not measure any change in the students’ use of verbs in their everyday discourse, so we can’t say for sure whether the effects generalized outside of a structured task.

So if you have clients with these types of verb errors, read this entire paper. Not only will you learn an effective therapeutic approach, you’ll gain the background knowledge you need to understand the why behind the what, making your intervention even stronger.

And remember, if you’re in a situation where you’re being pressured not to provide services to older kids with language needs, having research like this in your pocket—research that shows effective, direct therapy interventions for that population—is great ammunition for those tough conversations with colleagues and administrators.

*To learn more about Shape Coding, see here:


Ebbels, S. H., van der Lely, H. K. J., & Dockrell, J. E.. (2007). Intervention for Verb Argument Structure in Children with Persistent SLI: A Randomized Control Trial. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 50, 1330–1349.