Adolescent Language


Gameplan is passionate about working with and supporting teenagers! Following on from our last blog about expressive language interventions for primary school children, the team delved further into the components of language acquisition, appropriate therapy measures and the current evidence for working with the secondary school population.

What is expressive language in adolescents and how is it different from child language?

As defined in our last blog entry, expressive language is our ability to ‘output’ and express our thoughts and ideas via a verbal or a written format. This is opposed to receptive language which is concerned with understanding and comprehending language.  Language learning in adolescence is gradual and multi-faceted; it consists of a continuing development of language abilities, literacy skills, abstract thinking and metalinguistic (thinking about language) competence.

Why is this area important?

Targeting language impairments throughout adolescence is essential; particularly as the academic aspect of a teenagers’ life becomes significantly more challenging. Furthermore, the demands on social interactions and the specialised language required to effectively and appropriately engage with others carries great importance at this stage. Thus, the ability to communicate and produce language effectively in a range of situations is of critical importance as teenagers move towards adulthood.

Adolescent language has begun to draw the attention of researchers as it has been estimated that as many as one in five Year 9 students in Australia have a specific learning disability and a significant proportion of these students have other co-existing impairments (Snow et al., 2013). Sadly, childhood language disorders often translate into difficulties in adolescence. As well, skills learned in childhood don’t necessarily equate to higher level language skills and competence. As such, Gameplan believes this is an area that requires a much greater focus in research and the education system.

What is the evidence for intervention?

In comparison to the wealth of information and research seen for child language; the evidence of best practice therapy in adolescence is sparse. This is partly due to the fact that language use in this population is so broad and complex. As well, intervention services have traditionally been aimed at primary aged students. Additionally, the nature of language disorders changes over time between childhood and adolescence and therefore similar therapy techniques cannot always be applied or continue to be effective.

Interesting findings from articles

Ebbels and colleagues (2012) found that a small amount of semantic therapy can lead to significant results in secondary students with severe language difficulties.

Semantic therapy refers to explicit instruction in understanding the meaning and appropriate use of single words, phrases, sentences and even longer units. Therapy developing knowledge of categorisation, attributes, definitions and associations between words has been linked to improving word finding skills in secondary students with severe language difficulties.

  • Word maps (mind maps) can assist to guide discussion and be used as a visual outline of information. Students can refer back to mind maps to consolidate understanding.
  • Repetition, repetition, repetition. Evidence has shown that frequent exposure and use of vocabulary in a variety of contexts can assist the student to generalise new vocabulary.
  • The use of visuals in conjunction with written and verbal language can assist students’ word finding skills, as the information can be retrieved faster through multiple pathways. (Ebbels et al., 2012)
  • Ebbles and colleagues (2014) further showed that using Shape Coding therapy for four hours, helped adolescents make significant gains on comprehension of specific coordinating conjunctions. These changes were maintained after 4 months.
  • Adolescents with language difficulties frequently have difficulty with complex grammar such as ‘coordinating conjunctions’ (e.g. <neither … nor …>, <not only … but also …>, <… is … but not …>). Shape coding is a therapy technique which uses visual symbols and drawing onto sentences to show how they are structured.
  • Students with language difficulties often need more time to process verbal information. When discussing important details with your child, allowing extra time for them to listen to, think about, and form their own thoughts about the information. This way they will get a chance to form and express their ideas.
  • Evidence supports increasing mainstream teachers’ use of modification techniques to allow students with language and learning difficulties to better access the information (Starling, et al., 2012).


  • Use of graphics and visuals to support text

  • Providing descriptions of academic vocabulary. For example, discuss definitions of words such as “identify”, “analysis” and “evidence”.

  • Prioritising essential vocabulary for a given topic and teaching it through the use of mind maps and class discussions.

  • Speak with your child’s teacher to see what modifications can be made to help your child achieve success at school.

  • Use graphic organisers that show the structure and the relationships between concepts for a particular piece of work e.g. persuasive writing. Graphic organisers are useful because students are able to visually learn about a concept which means they are more likely to remember and correctly use the concept.


Unsure what typical adolescent language should sound like? Then check out these websites:

An information manual that helps identify spoken language difficulties in teenagers:

Gameplan advocates the introduction of RTI in Australian schools.

Please contact us if you would like more information about any of these areas.