Most of the interventions on language in the developmental age are aimed at the preschoolers or, at most, in the first years of schooling. Much less, however, are the studies that concern the enhancement of language in adolescence.

In 2017, a systematic review by Lowe and colleagues [1] compared several studies on enhancing expressive vocabulary in teenagers who proposed:

  • a semantic approach
  • a comparison between phonological and semantic approach
  • a semantic approach combined with the phonological approach

Despite the small number of studies (13), the generally not high quality and the heterogeneity of the interventions and the measurement systems, the authors have nevertheless reached interesting (partial) conclusions.

Semantic interventions

The results of this type of intervention are limited. Only one study out of the four considered [1] led to significant improvements. The treatment proposed in the study in question (a randomized controlled clinical trial on 54 boys between 10 and 15,3 years) was based on:

  • categorization of words through mind maps
  • use of synonyms, antonyms, polysemic words and definitions

The treatment lasted 6 weeks, with 2 sessions of 50 minutes per week. The control group received treatment based more on narrative aspects (story structure, storytelling and understanding with inferences). Both groups, in the end, showed significant improvements and partial generalizations to untrained words.

Comparison between semantic and phonological interventions

Two studies have compared phonological and semantic interventions for the improvement of expressive vocabulary.

The study by Hyde Wright and colleagues [2], carried out on 30 children aged between 8 and 14 for a period of 5 weeks (3 times a week), compared:

  • phonological interventions: presentation of the stimulus followed by phonological questions (e.g. is it a long or short word?)
  • semantic interventions: presentation of the stimulus followed by semantic questions (e.g. can you describe this image?)
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According to this study, the semantic intervention proved more effective in generalization in untrained words (however, the duration of the semantic treatment sessions lasted about twice that of the phonological treatment).

In a study with a very similar design, Bragard and colleagues [3] found that:

  • children with phonological difficulties responded better to semantic treatment
  • children with semantic difficulties responded better to phonological treatment

Combined phonological and semantic interventions

The seven studies examined, apart from some specific differences (individual or small group treatment), all show significant improvements.

The approach used is generally that of creating mind maps and posters with the new words learned; phonological intervention is described in few studies, but often concerns activities such as bingo with phonological clues related to new words learned.

The duration of the interventions varies between 6 and 10 weeks with meetings of 30 to 60 minutes for one, two or three times a week.

Combined phonological and semantic interventions

Despite the small number of studies (and their overall quality) it was possible for the authors to conclude:

  • an intervention on expressive language even in adolescence can lead to significant improvements
  • a combined phonological-semantic approach seems to be preferable to only phonological or semantic approaches

[1] Lowe H, Henry L, Müller LM, Joffe VL. Vocabulary intervention for adolescents with language disorder: a systematic review. Int J Lang Commun Disord. 2018;53(2):199-217.

[2] JOFFE, VL, 2006, Enhancing language and communication in language-impaired secondary school-aged children. In J. Clegg and J. Ginsborg (eds), Language and Social Disadvantage: Theory into Practice (Chichester: Wiley), pp. 207-216.

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[3] HYDE WRIGHT, S., GORRIE, B., HAYNES, C. and SHIPMAN, A., 1993, What's in a name? Comparative therapy for word-finding impairment using semantic and phonological approaches. Child JLanguage Teaching and Therapy, 9, 214–229.

[4] BRAGARD, A., SCHELSTRAETE, M.-A., SNYERS, P. and JAMES, DGH, 2012, Word-finding intervention for children with specific language impairment: a multiple single-case study. Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 43 (2), 222–232.

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Language disorder and dysorthography