Want grammar skills to generalize? Load your therapy with “hard” verbs.

In this paper from ASHA’s special issue on Statistical Learning, Owen Van Horne et al. added additional data to an older study that helps us learn how to superpower our grammar interventions (specifically regular past-tense marking) by taking advantage of the statistical properties of language.


Kids tend to be most accurate with past tense -ed on verbs that they hear in the past tense a lot, that are easy to say, and that make a lot of sense in the past tense—words like played and jumped. Seems pretty obvious, yeah? We are good at stuff that is easy. And when your goal is early success for your clients, you follow a developmental model and pick the easiest targets to start with. But there’s another, less intuitive, school of thought that says: Hey, life is full of the easy verbs. To really learn how to mark tense, kids need to get the hard verbs too. Let therapy be the place where they hear the hard ones. (Think of the complexity approach for phonology; see here for a recent tutorial).

So here’s the gist of it—you want to concentrate on verbs that are more complicated in their past-tense-edness, in terms of:

  • Frequency: Kids hear them in the past tense less often;

  • Phonology: They take the more complex form of the past tense morpheme (–ɪd vs. –t/–d, as in “glided” vs. “hopped”); and/or

  • Semantics: They describe an action that’s ongoing or incomplete*

The authors tested this approach with 20 children (4–10 years old) with DLD and poor performance on regular past-tense probes. The children whose therapy targeted “hard” verbs first (all verbs came from the set analyzed in this paper) were more accurate with regular past tense in both structured probes (right after intervention) and in language samples (post-intervention and 6–8 weeks later).

How could this look in real life? You could take your go-to therapy tools (play sets, favorite books, etc.) and brainstorm some target words ahead of time to help you get started. Jot them down on a post-it and keep it right in the box. Always pulling out that farm set? Maybe the cow rested in the barn while the pigs wiggled in the mud.

*This part is the trickiest to wrap your brain around. It’s helpful to make a contrast with the kind of verbs we don’t want, the ones that have a clear endpoint implied. For example, “build.” Once you’ve built something, it’s done, you can’t keep doing it. Same with “eat” or “drop.” The linguistic term for this is telic (so verbs that are “endless,” like “breathe” and “feel” are atelic). That’s Greek, y’all. Again, you can refer to the source for this study’s word lists here for more examples.


Owen Van Horne, A. J., Curran, M., Larson, C., & Fey, M. E. (2018). Effects of a Complexity-Based Approach on Generalization of Past Tense –ed and Related Morphemes. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 49(3S), 681–693.