Complexity in language learning and treatment

Cynthia K. Thompson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalShort surveypeer-review

31 Scopus citations


Purpose: To introduce a Clinical Forum focused on the Complexity Account of Treatment Efficacy (C. K. Thompson, L. P. Shapiro, S. Kiran, & J. Sobecks, 2003), a counterintuitive but effective approach for treating language disorders. This approach espouses training complex structures to promote generalized improvement of simpler, linguistically related structures. Three articles are included, addressing complexity in treatment of phonology, lexical-semantics, and syntax. Method: Complexity hierarchies based on models of normal language representation and processing are discussed in each language domain. In addition, each article presents single-subject controlled experimental studies examining the complexity effect. By counterbalancing treatment of complex and simple structures across participants, acquisition and generalization patterns are examined as they emerge. Results: In all language domains, cascading generalization occurs from more to less complex structures; however, the opposite pattern is rarely seen. The results are robust, with replication within and across participants. Conclusions: The construct of complexity appears to be a general principle that is relevant to treating a range of language disorders in both children and adults. While challenging the long-standing clinical notion that treatment should begin with simple structures, mounting evidence points toward the facilitative effects of using more complex structures as a starting point for treatment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3-5
Number of pages3
JournalAmerican journal of speech-language pathology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2007


  • Complexity
  • Generalization
  • Treatment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Otorhinolaryngology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Speech and Hearing


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