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Understanding language and using it to express thoughts and feelings are two of the most crucial milestones in a child’s life. While children tend to develop new skills at different paces, most hit these milestones at their expected ages. But when a child’s language skills consistently fall behind his or her peers, it may be due to a developmental language disorder.  Indications that tweens and teens might struggle with their language can be apparent when they exhibit difficulties with their expressive, listening, reading, writing, vocabularygrammatical structures, and social use. Many middle and high schoolers also struggle with their executive function skills.

Language development in the adolescent years is often less studied than in younger children. This is likely because of the misconception that pre-teens and teenagers have already fully acquired speech, language, and communication skills. But this is, in fact, not the case.  Speech-language therapy for pre-teens and teens is essential as they are still developing their vocabulary. Likewise, pre-teens and adolescents are expected to use more sophisticated forms of grammar and social language at school and when interacting with their peers.

This process of language acquisition continues to develop throughout secondary school and even into adulthood. For parents and educators, the important thing to remember about language development in pre-teens and teens is that their speech, language, and communication skills must continue to improve because they are highly correlated with reading, writing, and social cognition. Read SPELLTalk questions and answers about the language literacy network– which represents normal reading and writing processes.

One such condition is Social Communication Pragmatic Disorder (SCPD). Learn more about social communication pragmatic disorder, its symptoms, causes, and strategies parents can employ to support their child with this disorder.

Although there is a lot of variability in language development, there are certain milestones at every age that allow language and communication specialists to gauge a child’s skills. In very young children, these milestones include babbling for infants and combining words and using an average of 200-300 words for toddlers.

In the book, Language Development: An Introduction, these milestones are broken down, from a child’s first words to acquiring language skills throughout adulthood. 


Pre-teens and teenagers continue to learn vocabulary in books, movies, social situations, and experiences.

In middle school, there is a shift for students to acquire more advanced literacy skills. Students are expected to read and review a wide variety of texts as well as accomplish different types of writing tasks. Hence, it’s important for students to have a strong literacy foundation as they build background knowledge and vocabulary.

At school, middle school students can learn an average of seven to 10 new words every day. They also practice writing longer sentences, submit lengthier written work, and use more advanced grammar and vocabulary when writing and speaking with parents, teachers, and peers.

Reading and writing demands begin to increase as students move up in school. Middle school students are exposed to a larger variety of expository texts. They must learn to describe, explain, define, or clarify unfamiliar concepts and understand academic language.

Academic language is also known as decontextualized language, which refers to language that does not rely on context clues or shared background knowledge. Instead, decontextualized language relies on the construction of the meaning of the language as opposed to depending on physical context to express or communicate ideas. Hence, it is crucial that students are able to use exact syntax, grammar, and vocabulary other than what is currently available in expressing themselves. This is essential for academic success because school-based learning is focused on events and concepts outside of the classroom.

When students have less context or background knowledge about a topic they are learning about, it can present learning challenges. This is particularly true for children with attention and language-based learning difficulties. Students who struggle with reading comprehension and writing will find it difficult to tackle material with unfamiliar vocabulary, complex sentences, and abstract and advanced concepts. In addition, students must rely more on making inferences and predictions. Cultural factors also play an important role in linguistics. This is because children tend to learn from their surroundings.

Read about Building Vocabulary With Critical Thinking Skills and Comparing Two Established Multimedia Approaches for Teaching Vocabulary to Students with and Without Disabilities.


Metalinguistic (awareness of language) plays an important role when learning figurative language (metaphors, similes, personification, hyperbole, and symbolism) expressions.

  • Idioms (mode of expression) are mostly used to add dynamism and expression during storytelling or special circumstances as it explains a large or abstract idea succinctly. 
  • Metaphors (figure of speech) help describe the object or action, which is not true in a literal sense but gives you the idea of making a comparison. It is mostly used in poetry and literature. A simile is a type of metaphor when something you compare appears to be like something else. 
  • Proverbs (well-known sayings) use figurative language to describe a feeling or an idea. 

At 13 years old, a student should be able to:

  • Understand and follow advanced spoken instructions that include a vast number of information, unfamiliar words, and complex grammar
  • “Get” common sayings in the right context
  • Identify and acknowledge a different point-of-view
  • Understands factual information but may still require support in processing information that requires inferring
  • Begins to acquire an understanding of sarcasm


Teens develop a better understanding of grammar, sentence structure, vocabulary, and social language use as their brains continue to develop. This also includes increased metalinguistic awareness and improved understanding of figurative language. 

Between the ages of 13-18, a teenager learns to use (orally and in text) and understand longer sentences while using more sophisticated grammar and sentence structure. Socially, they are learning to acknowledge and understand another’s point of view. 


Peer interaction plays a huge role in teen development. Teens are developing social language skills. For instance;

  • They understand sarcasm (irony or mockery) from peers.
  • They are more expressive verbally towards their emotions and feelings.
  • Teenagers tend to argue and persuade their parents and peers. 

According to Marilyn A. Nippold, teens can also suffer from language disorders frequently, but it is often overlooked. If a teenager has an underlying language disorder, a speech and language pathologist will need to examine the following:


  • Sentence length such as the use of low-frequency structure, i.e. from incomplete sentences to well-formulated utterances. It happens during the adolescence stage based on communication units (C-units) or terminable units (T-units). These units are ways speech-language pathologists can examine sentence length. 
  • Subordination helps increase sentence length by joining ideas within sentences. These include using subordinating conjunctions like “although,” “as if,” “whenever,” and “while.”
  • Cohesion devices are words or phrases which help to integrate information in the text. Examples of these are “in conclusion,” “however,” and “therefore.”



Vocabulary is subcategorized into two areas; 

  • Literate lexicon consists of words used in textbooks, lectures, and seminars, etc. For example, verbs such as “interpret”, “concede”, and “predict,” etc., provide contextual support. 
  • Figurative expressions are the use of similes, idioms, slang terms, ambiguity, sarcasm, metaphors, and proverbs. They are common in literature, newspapers, and magazines. 


Pragmatic Development 

Pragmatics refer to the use of appropriate language in different social situations. A teenager struggling with language and communication may sometimes find it difficult to switch language styles based on the peer groups’ expectations. 

They may find it difficult to comprehend:

  • Interpersonal negotiation to resolve any conflict among peers. Teenagers will handle each situation differently according to their level of understanding and interpretation, and they use their interpersonal negotiation strategies. 
  • Slang expressions such as “goat” are used casually. The use of slang expressions increases with developmental changes during adolescence. However, boys and girls have different knowledge and use of slang expressions. 

Adolescent language development is often overlooked. There’s a gradual and subtle shift and acquisition of more advanced spoken and written grammar, vocabulary, and social language use during teenage and even young adult years. Many teens who continuously struggle with reading, writing, and social skills might have undiagnosed language disorders. It’s important to have these teenagers’ linguistic skills evaluated by a licensed speech and language pathologist/therapist when working with a psychologist, who performs a neuropsychological evaluation. 

Here are some helpful links if you want to know more about developmental language disorders:

Raising Awareness of Developmental Language Disorder (RADLD) – Helpful resources that explain what a DLD is, its impact, and how to help raise awareness on the condition.

RADLD Youtube Channel

The Universal Indicators of Developmental Language Disorders: A Checklist for SLPs– The Universal Indicators of DLD Checklist.

Language Disorders in Children and Adolescents, by Dr. Joseph Beitchman and Dr. E.B. Brownlie, report that approximately 50% of language-based learning challenges go undiagnosed.

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