On the development of metalinguistic syntax intervention to improve sentence and reading comprehension in Danish Grade 5 students

Rikke Vang Christensen, University of Copenhagen
Martin Hauerberg Olsen, University College Copenhagen
Mads Poulsen, University of Copenhagen


This study presents the basic ideas and piloting results behind a sentence level syntax intervention for middle school students with mild to severe language difficulties.

The intervention study is part of a larger research effort to understand to what extent children’s reading comprehension depends on their syntactic comprehension proficiency, i.e. their skills in extracting literal sentence meaning from syntactic cues, especially word order in Danish. The final intervention study is intended to directly test the effects of syntax intervention on sentence and reading comprehension.

The intervention is based on the metalinguistic approach Shape Coding where syntactic information is made available for inspection through extensive visual coding of language structures with colors, arrows and geometrical shapes (Ebbels, 2007).

Shape coding was developed for children with developmental language disorder (DLD). Studies have shown that the system can improve the syntactic proficiency of these children (see Balthazar, Ebbels & Zwitserloodd, 2020). However, previous studies have focused on specific language outcomes, e.g. coordinating conjunctions (neither nor, not only but also) (Ebbels et al., 2014), they have been small-scale, and they have only involved participants with severe language disorder (e.g. Ebbels, van der Lely & Dockrell, 2007).

The intervention is intended for Grade 5 students with performance below the 25th percentile on tests of syntax and text comprehension are invited to participate. We expect that some participants will have a DLD whereas others will not meet ordinary criteria for having language or reading difficulties.

Rather than targeting specific syntactic outcomes, we will use the Shape Coding system to address general syntactic characteristics: 1) that phrases filling semantic roles can be both simple and complex, and 2) that word order varies according to construction type or speaker focus. In the presentation we will show examples of included sentences to illustrate why the awareness of these general syntactic characteristics could be important for children’s sentence and text comprehension.

The intervention study will have implications for our understanding of individual differences in syntactic proficiency as a bottleneck in children’s reading comprehension. It also has practical implications by providing insights into the potential of using an explicit metalinguistic approach for teaching syntax to Grade 5 students.



Balthazar, C. H., Ebbels, S., & Zwitserlood, R. (2020). Explicit Grammatical Intervention for Developmental Language Disorder: Three Approaches. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 51(2), 226-246. https://doi.org/10.1044/2019_lshss-19-00046

Ebbels, S. (2007). Teaching grammar to school-aged children with specific language impairment using Shape Coding. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 23(1), 67-93. https://doi.org/10.1191/0265659007072143

Ebbels, S. H., van der Lely, H. K., & 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(5), 1330-1349. https://doi.org/10.1044/1092-4388(2007/093)

Ebbels, S. H., Marić, N., Murphy, A., & Turner, G. (2014). Improving comprehension in adolescents with severe receptive language impairments: a randomized control trial of intervention for coordinating conjunctions. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 49(1), 30-48. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1111/1460-6984.12047

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