To help teenagers with language challenges, we need to go beyond words and sentences

To help teenagers with language challenges, we need to go beyond words and sentences

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Many norm-referenced, standardised language tests for teens focus on word- and sentence-level tasks. But, for social and academic success, teenagers need to communicate with family members, teachers, friends, and others at the discourse level

Discourse skills refer to a teen’s use of language to communicate for a particular purpose (e.g. to inform, entertain, or persuade) in a particular place and time (e.g. in class, during an exam, on the sporting field, or at a party).

Outside of conversations, in social and academic contexts, teenagers need to learn how to speak, read and write four main genres of texts:

  1. Recounts: Giving people descriptions of events, often personally experienced, e.g. by recounting what happened at a party, on a family trip, or at school.
  2. Narratives: Telling stories to others where a character encounters a problem and works to resolve it through a series of events.
  3. Expositions: Conveying information about the world to others, e.g. by explaining things learned in school subjects like science, or about current events, and explaining how to do things like driving or using technology.
  4. Persuasive discourse: Convincing other people to perform an act for you (e.g. to give you a job) or to accept your point of view (e.g. in a school essay or debate).

Usually, recounts and narratives are event-based. They are organised chronologically, and contain time, cause/effect, and other logical relationships. Narratives often use a structure called story grammar.

Expositions and persuasive discourse are topic-based. Often, they are more demanding than recounts and narratives and involve fact-based and abstract content. Competence depends, in part, on the person’s general knowledge of the topic and exposure to fact-based texts.

When we assess and help teens with language challenges, we should include discourse level tasks, including spoken and written expositions and persuasive discourse tasks. 

Main source: Hill, E., Whitworth, A., Boyes, M., Ziegelaar, M., & Claessen, M. (2021). The influence of genre on adolescent discourse skills: Do narratives tell the whole story? International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 23: 475-485.

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David Kinnane
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