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Title: Teaching little kids big sentences: A randomized controlled trial showing that children with DLD respond to complex syntax intervention embedded within the context of preschool/kindergarten science instruction
Abstract Background

The language of the science curriculum is complex, even in the early grades. To communicate their scientific observations, children must produce complex syntax, particularly complement clauses (e.g.,I think it will float;We noticed that it vibrates). Complex syntax is often challenging for children with developmental language disorder (DLD), and thus their learning and communication of science may be compromised.


We asked whether recast therapy delivered in the context of a science curriculum led to gains in complement clause use and scientific content knowledge. To understand the efficacy of recast therapy, we compared changes in science and language knowledge in children who received treatment for complement clauses embedded in a first‐grade science curriculum to two active control conditions (vocabulary + science, phonological awareness + science).

Methods & Procedures

This 2‐year single‐site three‐arm parallel randomized controlled trial was conducted in Delaware, USA. Children with DLD, not yet in first grade and with low accuracy on complement clauses, were eligible. Thirty‐three 4–7‐year‐old children participated in the summers of 2018 and 2019 (2020 was cancelled due to COVID‐19). We assigned participants to arms using 1:1:1 pseudo‐random allocation (avoiding placing siblings together). The intervention consisted of 39 small‐group sessions of recast therapy, robust vocabulary instruction or phonological awareness intervention during eight science units over 4 weeks, followed by two science units (1 week) taught without language intervention. Pre‐/post‐measures were collected 3 weeks before and after camp by unmasked assessors.

Outcomes & Results

Primary outcome measures were accuracy on a 20‐item probe of complement clause production and performance on ten 10‐item unit tests (eight science + language, two science only). Complete data were available for 31 children (10 grammar, 21 active control); two others were lost to follow‐up. Both groups made similar gains on science unit tests for science + language content (pre versus post,d= 2.9,p< 0.0001; group,p= 0.24). The grammar group performed significantly better at post‐test than the active control group (d= 2.5,p= 0.049) on complement clause probes and marginally better on science‐only unit tests (d= 2.5,p= 0.051).

Conclusions & Implications

Children with DLD can benefit from language intervention embedded in curricular content and learn both language and science targets taught simultaneously. Tentative findings suggest that treatment for grammar targets may improve academic outcomes.

What this paper addsWhat is already known on the subject

We know that recast therapy focused on morphology is effective but very time consuming. Treatment for complex syntax in young children has preliminary efficacy data available. Prior research provides mixed evidence as to children’s ability to learn language targets in conjunction with other information.

What this study adds

This study provides additional data supporting the efficacy of intensive complex syntax recast therapy for children ages 4–7 with Developmental Language Disorder. It also provides data that children can learn language targets and science curricular content simultaneously.

What are the clinical implications of this work?

As SLPs, we have to talk about something to deliver language therapy; we should consider talking about curricular content. Recast therapy focused on syntactic frames is effective with young children.

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Journal Name:
International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders
Medium: X Size: p. 1551-1569
["p. 1551-1569"]
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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