Stephen Ford ICAN Sheffield Springs School0019

Dr Sarah Spencer, lecturer at the University of Sheffield shares some ideas about how to assess teenagers’ language skills

I’ve heard on the grapevine that some people are a little reluctant to work with teenagers with language disorders.  As one respondent to a questionnaire about speech and language therapy for teenagers said: ‘‘I think people are scared of [teenagers]…Young children are fun, adults are self-motivated, adolescents are unknown. It is the hardest population to reach”1. I was so surprised when I read this: surely the great thing about working with teenagers is that they are both fun and self-motivated? They can feel a little ‘unknown’ though; there are fewer language assessments, language intervention programmes and research findings for teenagers with language disorders when compared to younger children.

So how can we ensure that we design good assessment profiles for teenagers? Here are some ideas about how to assess teenagers’ language skills (most of these apply to pre-teen ‘older children’ too):

  1. Ask them what they think.

Many teenagers have excellent insights into what aspects of talking and understanding that they find difficult. I usually ask ‘what’s your talking like?’ and ‘do you need any help with understanding talking?’ and use this as a starting point for an informal interview. Often teenagers’ own perceptions will guide the rest of the assessment and can be used to set and discuss targets2.

  1. Don’t assume that a teenager doesn’t need a full assessment if they do OK during chats.

Of course, many teenagers with language disorders will have the same types of difficulties as younger children which may be noticeable during conversation (such as difficulties with speech sounds, word finding, syntax within simple sentences, turn taking and topic maintenance). However, some teenagers with language disorders may cope well in informal conversations but still have significant language difficulties that are a barrier to participation in education and social activities.  For example, they might struggle with using and understanding more complex sentences and utterances, such as those involving relative clauses (e.g. the boy that kicked the big old donkey wore a hat)3. Or they might find providing and understanding detailed explanations difficult4. Therefore, detailed assessment is needed; assessment which examines advanced language skills and which is designed to be functional and relevant to each individual.

  1. Get skilled up on language sample analysis.

Analysis of a language sample can give great insights into teenagers’ expressive language skills and can often inform target setting.  I often ask a teenager to describe how to play their favourite game and write down their response exactly as they report it. There is lots of information available about how to analyse such language samples– in terms of the syntactic structures used, length of utterances in relation to normed expectations, analysis of any errors and overall structure and coherency5.

  1. Use specific assessments to measure progress.

When you are working with teenagers with language disorders, you will need evidence that they are making progress – for motivating the young person, justifying service provision, and monitoring the impact of your support. Teenager language development can be subtle and standardised tests are unlikely to be specific enough to chart change following intervention.  To do this, you need to design an assessment which measures the teenagers’ performance on your targeted language skill in detail. Susan Ebbels recently published a paper which evaluated interventions for all teens within one school over a term. She did this by designing specific (and comparable) outcome assessments for each teenager and the paper has some great ideas about how to do this6.

There are of course challenges to assessing teenagers’ language skills. Many challenges arise from the close associations between language and other factors during the teenage years. Functional language assessment might mean examining language in relation to mental health, relationships, classroom performance, exam attainment, cross-curriculum knowledge, employment skills, behaviour, access to technology, use of public transport and so on.  Functional language assessment might mean scrutinising how a teenager understands language use in many different contexts and styles, as well as examining how a teenager reads, writes, spells, learns and uses words, explains, summarises, jokes, reasons, defends, narrates, reports, hypothesises, thinks about language and reflects on thinking. A functional language assessment profile often needs to include lots of elements such as standardised tests, observations, interviews with the young person and sometimes people around them, informal assessment, dynamic assessment and analysis of language samples and written work. It often means working closely in multidisciplinary teams so that language is considered clearly in relation to wider social, emotional, educational and vocational outcomes.

While creating and completing a functional language assessment profile with a teenager can be daunting, the power of a decent communication profile can be huge. A good language assessment report (and the resulting support and intervention, of course) has the potential to have an impact on everything from the teenager’s romances and exam results to wellbeing and tweeting. How fun and self-motivating is that?


Further reading:

For more information, I recommend Chapter 11 Assessing Students’ Language for Learning and Chapter 13 Assessing Advanced Language in Paul and Norbury 2012. These are two extremely detailed and practical chapters, including lists of published assessments for older children, guidelines for dynamic and curriculum-based assessments, and instructions on how to perform detailed analysis of language samples.

About Sarah:

Dr Sarah Spencer is a speech and language therapist who currently works for the University of Sheffield as a lecturer in developmental language disorders. She has previously worked in the NHS and third sector, supporting older children and young people with language disorders. Sarah has research interests in language assessment and interventions with older children. She is also working with colleagues at the University of Sheffield (Judy Clegg, Suzanne Duffin, Alex Peng, Miguel Nunes and Carla Rohde) to develop an online training tool for professionals working with young people with language disorders. This tool (called Teen Talk) will be available soon and will involve training units on how to assess language abilities and difficulties in young people. Sarah is also editing a textbook on how to support teenagers with language disorders, which is detailed here. For more information about Sarah’s work, please email her at:

1 Hollands, van Kraayenoord & McMahon 2005: 125

2 Spencer, Clegg, & Stackhouse, 2010

3 Zwitserlood, et al 2015

4 Ward-Lonergan, Nippold, & Scott 2010

5 Nippold & Scott 2010

6 Ebbels et al 2016


Ebbels, S. H., Wright, L., Brockbank, S., Godfrey, C., Harris, C., Leniston, H., Neary, K., Nicoll, H., Nicoll, L., Scott, J. and Marić, N. (2016), Effectiveness of 1:1 speech and language therapy for older children with (developmental) language disorder. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders. Early view online here.

Hollands, K., van Kraayenoord, C. E., & McMahon, S. (2005). Support to adolescents experiencing language difficulties: A survey of speech-language pathologists. Advances in Speech Language Pathology, 7(3), 113-129.

Nippold, M. A., & Scott, C. M. (2010). Expository discourse in children, adolescents, and adults: Development and disorders. Taylor & Francis.

Paul, R., & Norbury, C. (2012). Language disorders from infancy through adolescence: Listening, speaking, reading, writing, and communicating. Elsevier Health Sciences.

Spencer, S., Clegg, J., & Stackhouse, J. (2010). ‘I don’t come out with big words like other people’: Interviewing adolescents as part of communication profiling. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 26(2), 144-162.

Zwitserlood, R., Wijnen, F., Weerdenburg, M., & Verhoeven, L. (2015). ‘MetaTaal’: enhancing complex syntax in children with specific language impairment—a metalinguistic and multimodal approach. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 50(3), 273-297.

Ward-Lonergan, J. M., Nippold, M. A., & Scott, C. M. (2010). Expository discourse in school-age children and adolescents with language disorders: Nature of the problem. Expository discourse in children, adolescents, and adults: Development and disorders, 155-189.