Focus on Expressive Language


How Can I Help My Teen Improve Expressive Language Skills?

Trying to communicate with your teenage child can be a challenging task to say the least. It’s very common for teens to be reluctant to engage in conversations with their parents. However, if your teenager has been diagnosed with a language disorder characterized by difficulties in the area of expressive language, this can make trying to communicate with your child an even more challenging and arduous task. Language disorders in adolescence are surprisingly common, but you can make real progress with the right combination of understanding and effort.

What Are Expressive Language Skills?

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) describes expressive language skills as a person’s ability to share thoughts, ideas and feelings completely. Teenagers who struggle with expressive language may have a wide range of difficulties when it comes to communicating. Below you will find descriptions of some common expressive language difficulties, as well as a few ideas to try at home in order to help your teen learn how to communicate more effectively.

Evidence of Expressive Language Impairment: Limited Vocabulary

Teens who have impaired expressive language often present with limited vocabulary skills. They may overuse basic describing words or have a limited range of adjectives to describe their emotions. For example, they may only be able to describe someone as good, bad, happy, mad, or sad. They may make nuanced based word mistakes and not understand the subtle differences in word meanings. For example, they might describe someone as being “jealous” but when you discuss the situation, it turns out they were “annoyed”.

Ideas for Expanding and Improving Vocabulary For Teenage Language Development

Play with Language
In order to widen your teen’s vocabulary repertoire and improve the variety of words they use to describe situations, create a culture of play with language in your home. Help your teen to find rich, descriptive words in the books they read. Explain and discuss the meaning and explore synonyms with the use of a thesaurus. After they discover these words (also known as “tier II words”), create a “word wall” in your home where you compile them in an ongoing list. Each time your teen finds an opportunity to use one of the words in their own speech, reinforce that and place a tally next to their name on the word wall. Discuss together and agree on a reward for when they reach a certain number of tallies. Some rich, expressive language examples include sullen, melancholy, or mournful rather than the overly simple and overused “sad.”

Explore and Discuss Word Nuances
Make a list of adjectives to describe an emotion or situation. Challenge your teen to come up with as many words to describe that emotion or situation as they can with the help of a thesaurus. Cut the words out and help your child rate and organize the words based on severity and degree on scale from 0 to 10. Discuss and debate the nuances and shades of meaning between the words. Some examples of good vocabulary words for this activity include words of frequency (such as often, rarely, continuous, ongoing and scarcely), adjectives to express happiness (such as joyful, pleased, ecstatic, happy, glad and content), and words to express anger (such as mad, frustrated, irritated and livid).

Evidence of Expressive Language Impairment: Lack of Cohesion

Teens with poor expressive language skills may also struggle using precise language when speaking and may have difficulty getting their point across in a clear manner. They may use lots of vague language to describe an object or event, overusing words such as “stuff” and “thing” or “this” and “that”. They may ask you, “May I have that thing over there so I can get the stuff for this?” When retelling a story or explaining how to do something, they may tell the events out of sequence or leave out crucial steps. They may talk in circles or struggle to use complete sentences to summarize an event.
Ideas for Improving Cohesion

Ideas for Improving Cohesion to Combat Expressive Language Delay

Play Word Games
Play “I Spy” or “Guessing Games” with your teen. You can play these games in many different contexts such as when riding in the car, while at the dinner table, when hanging out in the living room, or while looking at books that have a lot of pictures. Take turns describing the word while the other person guesses the word. Help your teen describe words by explaining the category it is in, the function it serves, the parts it’s made up of and what it looks like. Start with simple words and work your way up to more abstract concepts. For example, your teen would describe the word “book” by using specific and precise language so that you could be able to guess the word. They would say, “I’m thinking of something you can read, it’s made out of paper, it has words and sometimes pictures, and you use it to learn or just to be entertained.” Once you’ve guessed the word, come up with a clear definition for the word based on the descriptions.

Have Your Teen Be the Teacher
Have your teen choose an activity or game that they want to teach you how to play. Start with a game or activity that your teen is already familiar with and is relatively simple. Help them plan what language they would need to use in order to provide you with enough information in order for you to understand how to play. You can even practice having them tell you directions for how to get somewhere as you are driving in the car. If they don’t use specific and precise language, you won’t know where to turn and if they explain the directions in the incorrect sequence or leave out crucial information, you’ll not be able to reach your destination. That should be an interesting learning experience! Just keep your GPS handy.

Evidence of Expressive Language Impairment: Difficulty Answering Abstract Questions

Teens with expressive language difficulties often struggle answering abstract questions. They may able to effectively answer the more simple “who”, “what” or “where” questions, but struggle with the more abstract “why” questions. When asked a “why” question, they may struggle to provide a reason, or may mistakenly answer with a place or a thing instead of explaining why. They may divert the question or have a hard time asking for help if they don’t know how to answer.

Ideas to Improve Ability to Answer Questions

Start A Book Club with Your Teen
If you want to improve expressive language skills in your teen, you can start by talking with your teen’s teacher and have them help you find a book that is challenging enough for you both to enjoy reading. A quick Google search can also be an easy way to find a book that is both challenging as far as language use and themes, but is still age appropriate as far as content. Read the book daily either together or independently depending on the reading level your teen is on and then set aside 30 minutes a few days a week for “Book Club”. Make this a special event where your teen is getting one-on-one quality time with you. Or, you could even invite other friends and parents to join you and meet out at a coffee shop. As you discuss the book, review and discuss the reasons for the events that happen in the book. Reading the book together will provide many opportunities for your teen to practice answering “why” questions.

Talk to Your Teen
How simple is that? As situations occur and happen in your teen’s life, find the time to listen and talk to your teen. Make reflecting and discussing the situation with your teen a priority. Make sure they learn to value thinking back on situations and understand why things happened the way they did, as well as discuss and understand the reasons for their consequences. Give your teenager the opportunity to explain why they did the things they did or help them understand the why if they were unsure of the reason. This will help your teen learn to think critically when situations happen later in life and help them develop their own inner voice to be able to solve problems on their own and express the reasons for their actions.  Simply talking with your teen about their day is an important way for them to reach meaningful language milestones and develop their ability to understand complex situations and emotions. Once your child is comfortable talking with you about social situations that they have experienced, you will more quickly be able to help them understand them and express themselves properly.

Speech-Language-Pathologists are trained to help children build and strengthen receptive and expressive language skills. If you have concerns about your teenager’s expressive language skills, contact a local Speech-Language Pathologist or consult with your teen’s physician to see if an evaluation is needed.

Focus on Expressive Language

As a Parent, What Can I Do to Help My Teen?
Catherine Tintle, M. Ed. CCC-SLP

Catherine Tintle is a Speech-Language Pathologist. She works for Carolina Pediatric Therapy and is a blogger and creator of speech therapy materials. Find out more about her on her website,


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