Speech, Language, and Communication Milestones for Teens

Many people don’t realize just how much growth in communication is expected during the teenage years. This phase of life brings a lot of changes, from school and academics, to extracurricular activities, to a more independent social life. Teens are faced with a variety of situations in which they need to communicate clearly and effectively. 

If a high schooler is struggling with communication, this can present challenges in their academic or personal lives. But it’s not too late for a teen to benefit from speech therapy. In this article, we explain the communication skills and milestones to look for in your high schooler. We share insights from speech therapists who work with teenagers and explain how speech therapy can help teens.

Clear speech and articulation

By the time a child is in kindergarten, they should be pronouncing all speech sounds correctly. However, sometimes problems with articulation can persist into the high school years.

A teenager can have trouble with any speech sounds. However, some of the trickier errors that can linger if not properly treated earlier in childhood occur with the /r/ and /l/ sounds, as well as the /s/ sound, which can be known as a lisp.

Teens are likely giving more presentations at school. They may be interviewing and working at a job, or getting ready to start college. Clear speech is important in all these situations.

It isn’t uncommon for some teenagers to have mumbled speech, or speech in which the words run together. Parents and caregivers may notice this before their teen does. Speech therapy can help with this as well. Kelsey Stauffer, M.S., CCC-SLP, a speech therapist with Expressable, explains, “Working on pausing and breathing appropriately while talking, over-articulating words, and slowing down the pace of speech can help in these cases.”

Expressive and receptive language

Teenagers should have a variety of expressive and receptive language skills. Let’s break these down:

  • Receptive language is a person’s ability to understand what is spoken to them.

  • Expressive language is a person’s ability to make their wants, needs, and ideas known through clear communication.

Teens should be able to follow and understand questions asked in conversation and in the classroom. They should also be able to follow detailed, multi-step directions–for example, “Turn in your essay, then turn to unit 2 in your history book. Start reading through the first two chapters.”

If a teen has difficulty with receptive language, they may have problems understanding vocabulary or following the structure and exact meaning of sentences.

If a teen has difficulty with receptive language tasks, this could be due to issues with following the structure and exact meaning of sentences, or difficulty understanding vocabulary terms being used. The receptive language demand only increases as a teen makes their way through high school, begins interacting with more people, and takes more difficult classes. 

If a child in this age range has problems with expressive language, it may be hard for them to put together clear sentences that make sense. They may even misuse words if they’re struggling with vocabulary.

Another tricky area of expressive language development is the ability to tell a story or retell an event. Let’s say your teen is telling you about something that happened at baseball practice. If their speech is hard to follow, and the story they’re telling stops and starts several times, this could be a sign of an expressive language delay.

If it’s hard for you to understand what your teen is trying to say, or the general flow of conversation feels off, expressive language issues may be present. 

You can also watch for issues with expressive language in your teen’s overall conversational skills. If it’s hard for you to understand the whole picture of what they're trying to say, or the general flow of conversation feels off, then expressive language issues may be present. 

Overall, any challenges with clearly communicating thoughts and needs is a sign that speech therapy may be needed.

Pragmatics, or social communication

This is a major area where some teens need speech therapy support. Social pragmatics refers to the social aspect of language and communication. This includes social rules such as:

  • Maintaining eye contact during a conversation

  • Not standing too close to the person with whom you’re speaking

  • Staying on topic in the conversation

  • Having a two-way, rather than a one-sided, conversation

  • Using emotional intelligence–understanding how others are feeling and responding as necessary 

Even the ability to understand sarcasm and figurative language can be a challenge for teens who struggle with pragmatics. These aspects of language aren’t always so straightforward. And social rules apply to the world of texting as well, such as the time and frequency of sending messages.

If you know what to say, but don’t know how or when to say it, or if you’re not always sure how to respond in conversation, your communication may not come across the way it’s intended! 

Think of social language as the “icing on the cake” of being a good communicator. If you know what to say, but don’t know how or when to say it, or if you’re not always sure how to respond to your conversation partner, your communication may not come across the way it’s intended! 

Speech therapy for social communication is extremely beneficial for high schoolers and teenagers struggling in this area. Strong social skills are needed in so many situations–meeting a new student or teacher at school, working on a group project, interacting during a music or sports practice, even dating. Teenagers may also be interviewing for jobs or college. Good social language skills will help them be confident and successful in all of these situations.

Stuttering and fluency

Teenagers can typically speak smoothly, without stuttering. Stuttering is the disruption of normal, fluent speech sounds and movements. It can sound like a person stammering over the first sound in their sentence, or repeating a word over and over. There can even be instances of “blocks,” where a person appears frozen and has trouble making the mouth movements to continue what they’re trying to say.

It’s best to start stuttering therapy as soon as stuttering is observed. For some teenagers, this may be an issue they’ve dealt with all their life. But sometimes, stuttering can occur later in childhood or adulthood. Speech therapy can teach your teen techniques to manage their stutter. It also helps them learn to advocate for themselves and build confidence in the way they speak.

How to start start speech therapy for your teen 

If you’re thinking your teen may benefit from speech therapy, rest assured that it’s never too late to start! Beginning now is so much better than never starting at all. You’re getting your teen the support they need as they navigate high school and prepare for their adult life. 

It’s important to know that issues with speech and language can impact academic performance. If a child has trouble following directions or understanding what’s said in class, has speech problems that affect reading or spelling, or has trouble expressing their thoughts verbally or in writing, all of these things can make school much harder. So start the process now! When your child receives the right support, not only will you likely see improvement in their communication, but in their schoolwork as well. 

To find a speech therapist for your teen, first talk with their doctor or school about getting them a speech evaluation. This assessment will determine whether your child needs speech therapy and in what areas they need help.

Talking to your teen about speech therapy

Speech therapists know that in order to make progress, kids in this age group need to be motivated to participate. It’s sometimes easier said than done, but it’s helpful if your teen is as “bought in” to speech therapy as possible. 

Your child might feel overwhelmed, embarrassed, or hesitant to start therapy sessions. Talk with your high schooler about what they’d like to work on in speech therapy. Your child’s speech therapist will likely talk with them about this, too. Perhaps your teen wants to have smoother conversations with peers, be more easily understood, or speak more confidently in front of others. No matter what it is, try to find out what’s important to them. And keep encouraging them that with consistent work, they can reach their personal goals. 

Speech therapy helps improve a teen’s confidence

No matter what your teen’s specific goals are, many speech therapists will work on overall confidence during communication and interactions. Everyone can grow in this area, and often, improving confidence can help interactions go more smoothly as a whole. Speech therapist Kelsey Stauffer says this can be addressed by targeting “confidence in what they’re saying, how they’re saying it, or overall confidence in themselves. In therapy, the client and speech therapist will often talk about their strengths and understanding their self-worth in order to grow their confidence.”

"Being able to let others know what they need is vital–and empowering for them!”

Jamie Gentry, M.S., CCC-SLP, an Expressable speech therapist, recognizes the importance of self-advocacy in this age group. She sees it as a vital part of speech therapy for teens. “Teenagers are becoming more and more independent at this stage. Being able to let others know what they need is vital–and empowering for them!”

Your teen might need to advocate for accommodations in their classroom or their job, such as asking for written directions or more time to complete tasks. They may need to ask the person they’re speaking with to repeat themselves. Or they may need to explain that they need more time to get their words out. Their speech therapist can guide them through the steps for doing this.

If you have concerns about your teen’s speech and language, contact us for a free consultation call with a speech therapist. The time and energy you put into your teenager’s development will serve them well as they enter important new stages of life.

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