Strategies to Improve Syntax & Word Order in Language-Impaired Students


Students with a speech-language impairment that affects word order and syntax, such as dyslexia, can become frustrated with the classroom environment as they struggle with expression and reading comprehension. If the student’s disorder has been diagnosed, the student likely has an Individualized Education Program that the teacher can consult to adjust curriculum and classroom goals. In addition to the IEP, teachers can follow general strategies to help language-impaired students maximize their potential.

Help with Syntax

  • Syntax refers to the rules that underlay the construction of sentences. Incorrect syntax can obscure the meaning of a sentence, and language-impaired students often misunderstand or misuse the spoken cues that guide syntax. While many students naturally follow syntactical rules through the recognition of speech patterns, language-impaired students benefit from direct, explicit syntactical instruction. Teachers can present students with examples of paragraphs with both correct and incorrect syntax, and explain the differences. Once students have a basic understanding of general rules, such as subject-verb agreement, the teacher can have students practice mapping and outlining sentences of their own.

Word Order Strategies

  • Students who struggle with word order may suffer from a shaky grasp of syntax, or they may have semantic limitations. Semantics refers to the meaning of words and their relationships with each other. Language-impaired students often have limited semantic memories, which can lead to problems with word order, retrieval and categorization. Teachers can help students develop semantic memory through exercises in associative linkage, in which a student describes aspects of a given object, and instruction in synonyms and antonyms. Analogy exercises can be particularly helpful, as they allow the student to develop both connotative and denotative links between words and render them in a tightly ordered system.

Classroom Adjustments

  • A few simple classroom adjustments can aid students with syntax problems and help teachers implement learning strategies. The teacher can seat language-impaired students at the front row and adjacent to the teacher’s desk. This allows for non-disruptive, individualized instruction where the teacher can clarify misapprehensions of syntax and word order as they occur. The teacher can also establish a system of non-verbal signals, so students can quickly request help if struggling with verbal expression. As for general classroom organization, a teacher can divide the students into small groups. This allows for direct communication with language-impaired students in an unobtrusive manner, and enables the teacher to ensure participation.

Communication Skills

  • Teachers who wish to better serve language-impaired students can make adjustments to their own communication skills. Teachers should allow students to finish their sentences and work through thoughts, even if they struggle with correct syntax or word order. The teacher can have students clarify their communication through pointed, direct questions that students can answer with brief, yes or no answers. If the student’s language impairment manifests in speech, the teacher can determine whether he or she can communicate more effectively in writing. Lastly, it is important for teachers to model supportive behavior toward students with language impairments, especially within integrated classrooms.

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