Teenage Language Disorder

How speech pathology can help teenagers with language disorders

Teenage Language Disorder therapy Northern Sydney

Navigating the teenage years is hard enough, and the pace of life is hectic. When you have a teen with a language disorder, this is so much more challenging. Perhaps you don’t quite follow the instructions that a teacher gives, it’s not in the instructions but you’ll give it a go. You don’t quite understand what the author is getting at but you have a good guess. Maybe, you didn’t quite catch that joke, but you laughed anyway. You tried to explain it but it came out all wrong. You might have a teenage language disorder.

“It is estimated that around 16% of teenagers have a language disorder.”

“Although language difficulties in teenagers may be subtle it often leads to difficulties in school”

What is a Language Disorder and how is it different for teenagers?

Language development is a dynamic and lifelong process[1]. A language disorder means difficulty understanding or using written and spoken language[2]. Research shows that 3-in-10 children will struggle to develop appropriate spoken language. Therefore, this will have long-term effects on learning and achievements[3].
Teenagers with language disorders have difficulty learning and using spoken language. This means it impacts their ability to complete written and spoken tasks at school. This includes completing assignments, exams and learning new and complex concepts and vocabulary.
On the other hand, difficulties are also often seen in everyday conversation. Either as difficulty keeping up with the conversation. Or struggling to understand humour and sarcasm with friends and family.
Teenagers with language disorders often use general phrases “that stuff”, “like, you know”. This is a compensation strategy for difficulty with quickly thinking of the right words or ideas in conversation.[2]
Research shows adolescent language disorders impact social and emotional well being. And may also present as behavioural problems[1][4]. Teenager’s language difficulties are often attributed to a lack of interest or attention. While ongoing poor academic progress can result in disengaging from learning at school.
Difficulties with language during adolescence has been shown to impact social and emotional well being. As well as educational attainment into adulthood[3][4].

What causes it?

A teenage language disorder is not due to the effects of intellectual impairment, brain injury or sensory impairment (e.g. hearing loss)[1]. Rather a teenage language disorder is likely the result of a pre-existing language disorder from childhood. If a language disorder is not detected earlier in childhood it is often exposed by the increased written and spoken demands of high school education[4] and faster paced social dynamics during adolescence.

“Therapy will focus on understanding an increasing range of higher level language and participating in wider-life skills”

When to seek speech pathology

“We aim to work collaboratively with teachers and families to support teenagers with language disorders”

How can speech pathology can help with adolescent language?


During high school, there is increasing focus and expectation placed on written and spoken language as well as language comprehension. But teenagers with language disorders may also have difficulty following along with conversations, keeping up with topic changes and understanding humour, sarcasm and ‘in-jokes’ with their peers. Overall, even subtle language difficulties often cause difficulties in school[4].

A speech pathology assessment for a teenage language disorder will assess spoken and written language using standardised assessments and observations. Assessments will review your teenager’s everyday language skills including their ability to hold and maintain a conversation[4]. Measuring the functional impacts of their language skills enables us to develop an individualised therapy plan and goals


Therapy will focus on understanding an increasing range of higher level language. These are the skills needed for negotiation, ordering, requesting, striking up new conversations. These will help adolescents in wider life-skills. These may include working on interpreting interview questions for example, so they can know what an interviewer is looking for in an answer. This is an example of therapy being more functional at this older age to scaffold a teenager to communication success as they interact with their peers and the community.

Therapy also targets specific skill areas.

  1. Vocabulary:
    Teenagers with language difficulties require vocabulary enrichment that has a functional and curriculum specific purpose[5]. Within a high school classroom teachers regularly introduce specific vocabulary items for each new topic[3]. Recent evidence has shown that teaching children 10 new words a week could make a significant contribution to language and literacy abilities[6]. When targeting vocabulary development in teenagers targeting Tier 2 words has been shown to play an important role in vocabulary development. Tier 2 words are words that are found across a variety of topics (e.g. discuss, inhabitants) and are less likely to be taught explicitly to teenagers. Targeting these words and students ability to define, use and relate to other similar words has been shown to improve overall receptive and expressive language abilities across curriculum content[2].
  2. Written expression:
    Creating a written text is a major challenge for teenagers with language disorders. Their writing is typically shorter, poorly organised and contains more errors when compared to other children their age[3].
    Targeting both form and content of written language we support teenagers to develop strategies targeted towards planning, writing and revision across different text types. Specific strategies to improve written work include think-aloud planning, visual planners (visual organisers, mind maps) and editing[2].
  3. Reading comprehension
    High school students are required to read, analyse and interpret read information on a wide range of topics. Using a strategy based therapy teenagers are encouraged to develop their metacognitive skills (thinking about thinking) and metalinguistic skills (understanding and reflecting about reading)[2].
    Targeting a number of skills therapy often focuses on summarisation techniques and visual organisation strategies, deleting unnecessary information and thinking of topic sentences. These strategies have been shown to demonstrate significant comprehension improvements for teenagers[2].
  4. Working together
    At Talkshop we aim to work collaboratively with teachers and families to support teenagers with language disorders. Regular home practice is important to ensure the recall and retention of newly learnt skills. However in addition to this working collaboratively has been shown to reduce the negative effects of language difficulties by increasing the opportunities for engagement and achievement[6]. Working together with classroom teachers gives us the opportunity to specifically tailor therapy goals and language targets to support your teenager’s ability to understand and access the curriculum at school. In their 2011 article Starling, Munro, Togher and Arciuli identified five strategies to support teenagers access to the curriculum:[2]
    • Reduced complexity of teacher-created worksheets and assignments
    • Providing direct vocabulary instruction for new curriculum topics
    • Creating a range of visual planners, organisers and language scaffolds
    • Providing assistance in identifying appropriate keywords for internet research tasks
    • Teaching mixed learning style, memory, study and revision strategies

Teenagers with literacy difficulties may benefit from a support through our dedicated literacy services You can read about our Reading Clinic and how we help with literacy concerns

“Teenagers with language disorders have difficulty learning and using written and spoken language, which may impact their social and emotional well being”

Our FREE Discovery Session is ideal for anyone with any questions relating to speech, stuttering, language, literacy, social skills, swallowing, and voice.

This is an opportunity for us to give some information on how to monitor your concern and give you advice on how to start self-managing any issues immediately.

Discovery Sessions can help you understand if an assessment or therapy is needed, how Speech Therapy would work, and if appropriate, help you book in.


1 Starling, J,. Munro, N., Togher, L., & Arciuli, J. (2011) Recognising language impairment in secondary school student populations. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties. 16 (2) 145 – 158. Accessed 11 Jan. 2019.

2 Starling, J., Munro, N., Togher, L., & Arciuli, J. (2011) Supporting secondary school students with language impairment. Acquiring knowledge in speech, language and hearing. 13 (1) Accessed 11 Jan. 2019.

3 Dockrell, J. E., Lindsay, G. Connelly, V. (2009) The impact of specific language impairment on adolescents’ written text. Exceptional Children. 74 (4) 427 – 446 Accessed 11 Jan. 2019.

4 Joffe, V. L., Nippold, M.A. (2012) Progress in Understanding Adolescent Language Disorders Language Speech and Hearing Services In Schools 43(4):438-44 · July 2012 Accessed 11 Jan. 2019.

5 Ehren, B. J. E. (2002) Speech – Language Pathologists Contributing Significantly to the Academic Success of High School Students: A vision for professional growth. Topics in Language Disorders 22, 60 – 80. Accessed 11 Jan. 2019.

6 Beck, I. L., McKeown, M.G., & Lucan, L. (2002) Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instructions. New York: The Guilford Press Accessed 11 Jan. 2019.

7 Wong, B. Y. L. (1997) Research on genre-specific strategies for enhancing writing in adolescents with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Quarterly, 20, 140-159. Accessed 11 Jan. 2019.