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Interesting Speech Topics for Teenagers




Interesting Speech Topics for Teenagers

By Eric Moll ; Updated June 25, 2018

Interesting Speech Topics for Teenagers

The ideal speech topic is interesting, engaging and above all, something that the speaker cares about. If the speaker doesn’t particularly care about what he or she is arguing, it will be very obvious. Topics for persuasive speeches can range from politics to social issues to music or art. Keep in mind that a good speech often acknowledges other points of view and considers that most provocative questions don’t have easy answers.

Topics in Technology and Science

Discuss whether social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and dating sites, are good or bad for teens. Do the same with cell phones, genetic modification or any other new technology. Argue whether or not NASA should be well funded, whether violent video games should be marketed to children, whether green energy research or military research is more important or whether young children should be allowed to use computers.

Topics in Politics

There are a huge number of potential topics in the field of politics. You can assess the career of a well known political figure: Argue, for example, whether Bush was an effective president or whether Malcom X’s tactics were justified. Alternatively, focus on one of the many hot-button issues in politics today, such as abortion, gay rights, climate change and other environmental issues, socialized health care, evolution, terrorism, corporate lobbying, animal rights, campaign finance reform, war, globalization or whether or not TV pundits like Glenn Beck improve the political dialogue.

Environmental Topics

Many of these topics are somewhat political in nature, but if done properly, their language will tend more toward informative scientific explanations and away from polemical or hyperbolic language. Topics include global warming, acid rain, deforestation, soil degradation, overpopulation, overfishing, poaching, whaling, endangered species or bad farming practices. You can also choose a much more specific topic, such as whether a copper mine should be built in a specific area, whether snowmobiles should be allowed in Yellowstone or whether hydroelectric dams are good because they reduce fossil fuel use or bad because they disrupt habitats.

Topics in Education

Most students have an opinion on how a school should be run. Topics include whether cafeterias should serve healthier food, whether students should be allowed to have smart phones in class, whether the school day should be started earlier or later or whether students should be allowed to leave school grounds for lunch. Have students find evidence to support their views about controversial topics in education and give speeches based on their opinions and findings.


  • Speech Topics Help: Advice and Ideas
  • Western Connecticut State University: 250 Potential Informative Speech Topics
  • University of Hawaii: Topic Selection Helper
  • Best Speech Topics: Persuasive Speech Topics for Teens

About the Author

Eric Moll began writing professionally in 2006. He wrote an opinion column for the “Arizona Daily Wildcat” and worked as an editor for “Persona Literary Magazine.” He has a Bachelor of Science in environmental science and creative writing from the University of Arizona.

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Developing the speech and language skills of teenagers with Down syndrome

Sue Buckley

This paper reports on the outcomes of a project designed to evaluate the effectiveness of language teaching for teenagers. The aim was to improve the structure of the language used by teenagers with Down syndrome. Twelve teenagers took part in the study, which involved them in a variety of experimental and practical teaching activities over the period of a year. All the teenagers benefited from the intervention, though there were large individual differences in how much and why they benefited. Teaching which capitalised on the visual perceptual and visual memory strengths of these teenagers, by making use of reading, was the most effective. A key reason for delay in language development appears to be limited auditory short-term memory span

Buckley, S. (1993) Developing the speech and language skills of teenagers with Down syndrome. Down Syndrome Research and Practice, 1(2), 63-71. doi:10.3104/reports.12


Teenage Language

The author’s own study of teenage development was the starting point for this
project ( Buckley and Sacks, 1987 ).
Information on all aspects of the development of 90 teenagers, born between 1967
and 1974, was collected from parents and teachers, including an assessment of their
speech and language skills.

Three of the teenagers, one girl and two boys, had no speech at all. For the 87
with speech, parents were asked about the length of utterance their children usually
used. While 70% of all the girls and the older boys (over 14 years) regularly used
utterances of five words or more, only half the younger boys did so. Conversely,
18% of the younger girls and 33 % of the younger boys were limited to communicating
in three word utterances or less, and 10% of the older children were equally limited.

The teenagers’ short utterances showed a lack of use of basic grammatical and
syntactical structures but were adequate for making themselves understood by those
who knew them as only 10% of the teenagers were described by their parents as often
unintelligible. However, their intelligibility when attempting to communicate with
strangers was not so good. Less than half the girls and less than a fifth of the
boys were able to be understood when they talked to people in shops, in restaurants
or on the bus.

These young people were reaching the end of their schooling and would soon be moving
towards adult life. Their ability to achieve any degree of meaningful independence
in the community was clearly going to be severely compromised by the poor intelligibility
of their speech. The problems were usually twofold – limited grammar and syntax
resulting in “telegraphic” utterances and poor articulation or phonology.

A number of other studies have produced similar findings.
Bray and Woolnough (1988) video-recorded 12 teenagers in three conversational
situations, with an adult, with peers at school and with the family at home. Nearly
50% of the sampled utterances consisted of single words. MLU (mean length of utterance)
ranged from 0 to 3.62 (as one boy was non-verbal). Two of the teenagers were able
to produce up to 9 word sentences showing more complexity at times. Intelligibility
was rated by speech therapists who had no experience of children with Down syndrome.
Only 2 of the teenagers were rated as mostly intelligible. Intelligibility was very
dependent upon the listener’s knowledge of context and all were perceived as
having difficulty in transmitting their message in the verbal medium.

The authors noted that sadly, those teenagers using more words in a sequence were
often at a disadvantage, as intelligibility decreased with increasing complexity
of syntax partly because the more able teenagers were more likely to initiate and
elaborate conversations so the listener had no starting cues to context from an
earlier speaker. They also comment on the range of speech production problems shown
by the group.

Fowler (1990) provides a detailed review of research
into the language development of children and adolescents with Down syndrome, confirming
the conclusions of the above studies – that most teenagers have immature language
skills and that their vocabulary skills are better than their grammatical and syntactical

Description without explanation

However, almost all of the research to date is descriptive, reporting on the language
skills achieved, with no information on the children’s past difficulties, experience
or interventions. Very few studies explore any of the possible reasons for the typical
language delays and difficulties except in hypothetical discussion. Few published
studies which report on the language skills of teenagers or adults contain any information
on their hearing status either at the time of the study or during early childhood.
Very few explore the links between language complexity and speech production difficulties.

Taking up the last point, Bray and Woolnough ‘s
study suggests that children with very poor production skills may have learned that
they are more likely to be understood if they only use one or two word utterances,
so this style of speech may not reflect their actual ability to produce complex
utterances. In addition, the speech production difficulties of such children may
well change the language behaviour of the adults who talk to them and result in
a tendency to ask closed questions, repeat, clarify and complete sentences for the
children. Such adult strategies, while useful in making the communications successful
in the short term, may hold back the development of longer utterances for the children,
as has been shown in the case of hearing impaired children (Wood et al., 1987).
There are many other possible reasons for delays in language learning, some of which
Fowler discusses but further research is needed to evaluate their actual role, if

Is remediation possible?

There are very few intervention studies, designed to see how much improvement can
be gained from teaching and most of these are single case studies. Many authors
seem to believe that the problems are not remediable as they may reflect biological
or cognitive limits imposed by the chromosome disorder. However there are a host
of other influences on language learning that could be explored, most with remedial
implications; the effect of impaired hearing and of poor auditory short-term memory
function for example (see Broadley and MacDonald, in this issue).

A number of studies show that the children have better acquisition of vocabulary
than grammatical and syntactical knowledge. It could be suggested that auditory
short term memory limits would have a greater effect on learning the rules of grammar
and syntax than on learning lexical items – as in order to process sentences for
meaning, the child needs to hold a number of words in auditory short-term store.

Intervention programmes for teenagers, if successful, would at least rule out the
possibility of a critical period for language learning ending at about 7 years,
or a “syntactic ceiling” as Fowler suggests
(1990). Intervention could be aimed at improving the speech production skills of
teenagers and at improving their comprehension and production of more complex grammar
and syntax.

The research reported here addresses the latter issue.

The Study

The present study was designed to investigate the delayed mastery of grammar and
syntax in the speech of some of the teenagers who took part in the 1987 study, addressing
three questions.

  1. Would intensive teaching improve both their comprehension and production skills,
    resulting in longer and more grammatically correct speech?
  2. Would the teaching produce a faster rate of progress than might have occurred naturally
    in a year without specific intervention?
  3. Would a teaching method which used reading to support the learning be more effective
    than one which relied on copying a spoken model only?

The students

Year 1. All the teenagers in our local district between the ages of 12 and 15 were
invited to participate and completed two standardised assessments of language comprehension,
The British Picture Vocabulary Test (BPVT) and the Test for Reception of Grammar
(TROG), at the beginning of the school year. They then continued with their usual
school curriculum for the year. They all attended special schools for children with
severe learning diificulties.

Year 2. The teenagers were reassessed at the beginning of the next school year on
the BPVT and the TROG. Twelve teenagers were selected to take part in the training
study in order to make six matched pairs, matched as closely as possible for sex,
age and comprehension of grammar on the basis of their scores on the TROG in Year
2. One of each pair was then assigned to each of the two training groups, I and
II. (see Table 1). None of the 12 had a hearing loss greater than 15dB at this time.
Accurate information on their hearing status in early childhood was not available.

At this point, the teenagers completed two more standardised assessments, the Coloured
Progressive Matrices as a measure of their non-verbal cognitive ability and the
Neale Analysis of Reading Ability to assess their reading skills (see Table 1).
Their ability to read the words to be used in the training programme was also assessed
by presenting them as a random list of the words to be read.

In order to assess their speech production skills they were tape-recorded completing
a test of Imitated Production using the sentences from the TROG (see Fig 3) and
in conversations with the author (to be reported in a future article). Once the
assessments were completed all the teenagers started on the training programme which
continued throughout the school year.

Year 3. The teenagers were reassessed at the start of the next school year on all
the assessments that they had completed at the start of year 2.

The training

The main training programme was designed to enable the effectiveness of two teaching
methods to be compared, one using reading to support the learning (SR method) and
the other not (S method), across a number of different grammatical and syntactical
sentence structures. The design allowed individual differences to be investigated
in case some students gained more from one method and others gained more from the
other. So for each sentence structure taught, one group received (S) training and
the other group received (SR) training, with the method alternating for each group
on each new sentence structure as illustrated in Table 2.

The materials

Materials were designed to teach grammar which could be assessed using the TROG.
All the teenagers passed the TROG blocks A to F on comprehension assessment so the
teaching began with block G, personal pronouns and the grammatical and syntactical
structures as illustrated in Table 2 were taught in complete sentence form over
the course of the school year.

For each structure, twelve different sentence examples were used during the training.
Teaching cards were prepared with a picture to illustrate each sentence example.
The same sentences and pictures were used for both the training methods, speech
only (S) and speech plus reading (SR), but for the SR method the sentences were
written under the pictures.

The Procedure

The training procedure was designed to ensure the two methods would be comparable,
with the amount of teaching and practice the same. For each sentence, there were
three teaching trials and one test trial as follows:

  1. Imitated production – teacher says the sentence and then student attempts to reproduce
    the sentence correctly while they look at the picture (S) or picture plus sentence
    (SR) prompt.
  2. Imitated production – exactly as the first trial.
  3. Spontaneous production – student attempts the sentence while looking at the picture
    (S), or picture plus sentence (SR) without a model from the teacher.
  4. Spontaneous production – student attempts the sentence while looking at the picture
    only in both methods as Trial 4 was used to assess the student’s ability to
    generate the spoken sentence without any spoken or written prompts.

Table 1 . Students’ age-equivalent scores (in months)
on the pre-training assessments (Year 2) and their digit-spans tested one month

CA TROG BVPT Matrices Neale
1 Brenda 187 51 49 60 5 2
2 Nora 180 69 71 84 92.3 41 3
3 Chrissie 172 63 70 96 84 20 3
4 Miles 191 57 60 96 56.7 19 3
5 Gary 190 63 83 93 2
6 Robert 160 66 39 90 7 2
Group 1 Mean 180 61.5 62 86.5 38.8 15.3 2.5
1 Mary 174 51 61 93 2
2 Glenda 175 66 88 72 87.3 33 3
3 Jane 169 66 83 96 79 17 4
4 Steven 190 54 53 48 79.6 16 3
5 Mark 188 63 66 96 3
6 Daniel 167 60 81 84 86.3 30 3
Group 2 Mean 177.2 60 72 81.5 55.4 16 3
Total Sample Mean 178.6 60.75 67 84 47.1 15.6 2.75

At the start of the study the intention was to continue with training sessions in
this way until the student mastered the sentence structure completely. However this
proved impossible as it quickly became apparent that some students were never able
to repeat the whole sentence correctly after the teacher in the speech only, (S)
method, so would never reach the criterion set.

At this point, a few weeks into the training, the digit spans of all the teenagers
were assessed as it appeared that some were being adversely affected by limited
auditory short term memory spans. This was indeed the case as can be seen from Table 1 where these scores are included. The teenagers with
digit spans of 2 were the ones having the greatest difficulty with the speech only,
(S) method. All the students were finding the speech plus reading, (SR) method easier,
even those who were non-readers at the outset, much to the surprise of the author.

Table 2. Design of training programme showing training method for the groups
on each sentence type.

Sentence Type Group 1 Group2
Personal/Plural pronouns S SR
Prepositions SR S
Comparatives S SR
Passives SR S
Post modified subject S SR
X but not Y SR S
S = speech only method
SR = speech and reading method


Since the overall aim of the project was to try and produce lasting improvements
in the teenagers everyday speech skills, the strict training procedure was continued
for the introduction of each new structure and data tape-recorded for the 4 training
trials for each of the twelve sentences. After that all the students moved on to
training materials with the written sentences and then to making books using examples
of the structures to describe events and activities which they could participate
in during the school day. The students were photographed acting out examples for
the sentences using a Polaroid instant camera which they found great fun. They glued
the photographs in their own books and wrote or copied the sentences underneath.


Comparing training methods

The results achieved using the two training methods are illustrated in Figure 1
which shows the mean percentage of words produced correctly by each group on the
test trials for each sentence structure. The graphs show that the teenagers made
more progress with the reading (SR) method on every structure.

Figure 1. The comparison of speech and speech plus training methods

Figure 1
* indicates significant differences between methods (p<0.05)
Wilcoxon Matched Pairs Test, 1 = Group 1, 2 = Group 2

The difference between the two methods was statistically significant for 3 of the
6 structures. Group 1 found the (S) method more difficult than group 2. The overall
performance of group 2 was enhanced by learning to use the articles, auxiliaries
and some prepositions while learning the first sentence structure with the (SR)
method and transferring this learning to the rest of the sentences.

Individual differences

While all the students learned more with the (SR) method there were large individual
differences in the extent to which they benefited, as can be seen in Figure 2. The
gain in performance was measured by subtracting the mean % correct score on the
test trials for the three sentence structures learned in the (S) method from the
mean % correct score on the test trials (Trial 4) for the three sentence structures
learned in the (SR) method.

Figure 2. Reading gain

Figure 2. Reading gain

The two teenagers who showed the greatest gains from the (SR) method, Brenda and
Robert, were almost non-readers at the start and both had digit spans of 2. Neither
was able to score on the standardised reading assessment though they both were able
to read a few of the words used in the sentences correctly during the pre-training
assessments (see Table 1 ). The other two teenagers with digit
spans of 2, Mary and Gary, showed only small gains from the (SR) method, perhaps
because they had no sight vocabulary at all at the outset and so made little use
of the written words. The only other student with no sight vocabulary at the start,
Mark, did show a 2% gain overall form the (SR) method. Jane, who showed very little
benefit, had a digit span of 4 and was able to do very well with either method.

Imitated production

The teenagers were assessed for their ability to imitate production of all the sentences
used in the TROG at the start of years 2 and 3, pre and post training. The imitated
production was tape recorded each year after the students had completed the TROG
in the standardised way as a test of comprehension of grammar. By the end of year
3 all students had been benefitting from a variety of teaching activities using
reading as described above.

Specific effects on production

Figure 3 illustrates the mean scores for the whole group of twelve teenagers on
each sentence structure of the TROG. While production ability has improved for every
sentence structure, the gains are less than 10% for 7 of the 13 structures. However,
of the 7 structures specifically trained during the year, blocks G, I, M, P, K,
L, N, and O (see Table 3 ) 5 show gains of more than 10% and
2 gains of more than 20%. The pre- and post-training conversation samples are still
being analysed.

Figure 3. Individual differences graph

Figure 3. Individual differences

Figure 4 illustrates the improvements in imitated production scores made by individual
students and shows considerable variation. The 3 students who made gains of 20%
or more, Brenda, Mary and Miles, had the lowest pretraining scores. The four with
the highest pretraining scores, Glenda, Jane, Chrissie and Mark, show only small
gains if any. With pretraining performance 80 to 90 % correct these four were able
to imitate almost correctly sentences that they failed to comprehend correctly at
the start of Year 2.

Figure 4.

Figure 4.

Specific effects on comprehension

The student’s scores on the TROG at each assessment illustrate that the training
did improve their comprehension of grammar. Table 3 shows the number of students
passing the comprehension tasks each year for the structures trained in year 2.

Table 3 . Number of children passing the block at each test

TROG Comprehension scores for the structures taught
Year 1 Year 2 Year 3
4 8 12
6 8 11(+1)
Prepositions M
2 4 10
0 0 4(+2)
K 2 3 8(+3)
L 0 0 8(+2)
Post – modified
N 1 1 1(+6)
X but not Y O 0 0 1(+6)
Figure in bracket is number of children
passing 3 out of 4 sentences for that block

To pass the block the student must pass on all 4 examples. The figures in brackets
indicate the number of students who passed 3 out of 4. Note the number of students
who were able to reliably comprehend comparative absolute and reversible passive
sentences after being specifically taught.

Table 4 illustrates the gains in BPVT and TROG scores during the baseline year and
the training year. From the BPVT scores it can be seen that the mean gain of almost
six months in vocabulary comprehension was the same for both years. However the
improvement in comprehension of grammar in the second year as indicated from the
TROG scores shows a very significant training effect.

Table 4. Mean improvements in vocabulary and comprehension age (in months) over
two years.

Yr 1-2 Yr 2-3 Yr 1-2 Yr 2-3
Girls 4.8 3.2 3.0 18.0
Boys 6.5 8.0 5.5 11.0
All 5.7 5.6 4.25 14.5
Mean gains expressed in months – based on test age norms

Table 5 illustrates the mean difference in age scores obtained on the BPVT and TROG
at each assessment point. In year 1 and year 2, grammar age lags behind vocabulary
age and the gap is growing, but in year 3 after specific teaching, grammar age is
now in advance of vocabulary age. (The difference between the scores for the boys
and the girls in years 1 and 2 in this table are largely due to one individual,
Robert, who had grammar scores way ahead of vocabulary scores on each occasion due
to unusually poor vocabulary scores).

Table 5. Difference between BPVT and TROG ages (in months) each year.

Year 1 Year 2 Year 3
Girls -6.7 -9.3 +6.66
Boys -0.8 -3.2 +1.16
All -3.75 -6.25 +3.92
Minus sign indicates TROG age is lagging behing BPVT age

Why does reading enhance performance?

All the students found the training materials with the written sentences easier
to learn from, even though they were not taught the sight vocabulary before the
training started. The words that were not in their sight vocabulary were learned
during the sentence training.

The words that the students were omitting from the sentences in spontaneous production
before training began – and in the (S) speech only training – were the articles,
auxiliaries and prepositions. For example, “man sitting chair” or “they
ride horse” were typical responses for “the man is sitting on the chair”
or “they are riding on the horse” at the beginning of year 2.

The sight vocabulary which the students needed to learn so that the (SR) materials
could prompt correct production of the sentences was repetitive accross many of
the sentences – particularly the articles and auxiliaries – so easy to learn as
the training progressed.

The benefit of the reading method could be explained in two ways:

  1. that it provided a visual clue to each word that was stored in visual memory and
    used to help recall,
  2. that in the (SR) method, the students production on the 3 training trials was much
    nearer to 100% accuracy because they quickly learned to read the sentences. In the
    (S) method, the accuracy of repetition on the training trials was much less for
    most of the students.

To try to establish the role of visual memory, a further sentence structure (plurals)
was taught using a “shadowing” procedure. The student repeated the sentence
with the teacher – shadowing each word. This enabled 100% accurate practise for
the training trials in both methods. One group used the (S) materials, the other
the (SR) materials. The mean % of words correct in the test trials for the two methods
with shadowing were (S) 58.4% (for group 1) and (SR) 75.8% (for group 2). This difference
is significant (p<.05 Wilcoxon Matched Pairs) and these figures are very similar
to those for the two methods accross all the sentence structures as can be seen
in Fig 1. Shadowing had no effect on performance, suggesting the gain in the (SR)
method is due to visual memory – the student is storing the visual image of the
word and using this to aid recall.

This explanation is consistent with other evidence reviewed by Pueschel (1988) showing
visual perception and visual memory are less impaired than auditory processing and
auditory memory in children with Down syndrome.

Why the individual differences?

Several factors may be affecting the large individual differences in progress illustrated
in the results including auditory short-term memory span, motivation, previous experience
of failure, reading ability, age and speech production difficulties.

Auditory short-term memory span would seem to be a significant variable. The two
students who showed the greatest benefit of the (SR) method during the training
sessions, Brenda and Robert (see fig 2), each had digit spans of 2. The student
who showed the least benefit of the (SR) method, Jane, had a digit span of 4. She
could manage near perfect production in both training methods.

Brenda and Robert experienced the (S) training first, and found it extremely difficult
and not enjoyable, once the novelty of being audio-taped had worn off. Brenda became
increasingly uncooperative in the sessions but when she moved to a new sentence
structure and the (SR) materials the effect was dramatic from the first trials.
She realised at once that the words were a clue which would help her succeed though
no attention was drawn to them by the teacher. Her face “lit-up” and she
put her finger on the words. Her whole attitude to the teaching changed from being
difficult and unmotivated to being enthusiatic and interested. She had no reading
ability as measured by the Neale test at the start of the training year. She was
the last child the author expected to benefit from the reading.

Brenda found the digit span testing aversive – as she seemed to realise she was
having great difficulty. When it came to the final “shadowing” experiment,
she was in the group to use the (S) materials and flatly refused to participate,
insisting on the (SR) materials which she knew must exist so her results were left
out of the analysis. Her teachers reported that her success on the language programme
produced a noticeable change in her motivation to learn in the classroom.

Robert was enjoying the individual attention the teaching gave him and tried to
please in the (S) method despite finding it hard. He too showed surprising enthusiasm
for the (SR) method – though also a non-reader – and his attitude and progress in
the classroom improved. Robert lived in a children’s home which may explain
his low vocabulary score. He may have received less individual attention in the
care setting than the other students who lived at home with their families.

The other two students with digit spans of 2, Gary and Mary, did not show the same
gain from the (SR) method. They had different problems and personalities. Gary disliked
school and expected to fail at everything. He had failed to learn to read and reading
was aversive to him. He treated the sessions as an escape from the classroom and
enjoyed hearing himself on tape, especially if he was allowed to be a pop-star during
breaks from the teaching, but his concentration on the training was poor. He made
no real effort to learn the sentences, this was typical of his attitude to learning
at the time.

Mary was a very timid, quiet, withdrawn student who suffered from severe arthritis
and could only move with difficulty. She hardly talked at all during the day – and
then only in a faint whisper. Much patient encouragement was required to persuade
her to speak loud enough to even be recorded. She rarely used more than single word
utterances to communicate. Despite these difficulties, she did make some progress
and showed a gain in comprehension age of 12 months on the TROG at the end of the
intervention year, as did Brenda. Robert and Gary each showed 6 months gain on the
TROG at the end of the year.

Reading ability

Of the six students with the most reading ability at the outset, Nora, Chrissie,
Glenda, Jane, Stephen and Daniel, only two showed gains of over 15% on the (SR)
method. These two, Chrissie and Daniel had speech production problems and poor intelligibility
at the outset. It is possible that the reading method increased their confidence
as both were more intelligible when reading.

Daniel’s production benefited considerably from reading, as he had a severe
stutter when speaking spontaneously which disappeared when he was reading. During
the year, the students kept ‘conversation’ diaries in which they wrote their
news at school and at home, to share with family and school friends. Daniel enjoyed
keeping this diary, as he had found difficulty in sharing his news with the others
in the usual morning news session in the class because of his stutter. Once he began
to write the news down he could tell his friends fluently by reading it aloud to
them. This had a noticeable positive effect on his self-confidence and self-esteem.
Daniel gained 24 months on the TROG comprehension test in the training year compared
to 9 months in the previous year.

While these six more able readers did not make such large gains in production ability
over the year – at least as reflected in their imitated production or training scores
– they did make significant gains in comprehension of grammar and syntax. Their
mean gain in TROG comprehension score for year 2 was 20.5 months compared to a mean
gain of 14.5 months for all twelve students. At the beginning of the year their
mean TROG score was 63 months and their mean BPVT score 74.3 months compared to
total group means of 60.75 and 67 months respectively. Their vocabulary age is significantly
higher than that of the non-readers at the start of year 2, but not their comprehension
of grammar age. Perhaps their reading ability has given them an advantage in exposing
them to a wider range of vocabulary than is encountered in everyday speech.

However, their vocabulary ability alone does not explain their TROG comprehension
gain as the three students with the lowest vocabulary scores, Brenda, Stephen and
Robert with a mean BPVT age of 47 months, showed a mean gain during year 2 of 11
months on the TROG and the two highest scorers on the BPVT, Glenda and Gary, with
scores of 88 and 83 months respectively, only gained 6 months each on the TROG in
year 2 and ended the year with BPVT scores 21 months and 10 months ahead of their
TROG scores. No other students had such a large vocabulary advantage at the end
of year 2. Nora and Miles were still 7 and 6 months ahead respectively on vocabulary
age and Stephen just 1 month ahead. The 7 other students had TROG scores ahead of
their BPVT scores after training by 1 – 29 months (mean difference for the 7 was
13.1 months).

So, it seems to be reading ability rather than vocabulary knowledge that is the
key to the large comprehension gains made by the six best readers, but they needed
the specific teaching of grammatical and syntactical structures as well as the reading
ability, as in the baseline year their mean TROG gain was 4 months (compared to
a total group mean 4.25). In the baseline year their BPVT gain was 6.2 months and
in the training year 6.3 months. At the end of the training, the six readers had
a mean TROG score of 83.5 months and a mean BPVT score of 80.6 months – so their
grammar and vocabulary comprehension skills are now approximately equal and equivalent
to those of the average 7 year old. The mean age of the six readers was 175.5 months
and their mean score on the Matrices was 83.5 months at the start of year 2 so they
were not older or more able in the non-verbal cognitive domain than the remaining
six students.


The intervention was effective

The large gain in comprehension of grammar and syntax over the training year compared
to the baseline year, for the whole group, shows the teaching was effective and
the students were capable of significantly increasing their understanding of language
structure at this age. Their mean on the TROG after the training was 75.25 months
or 6yrs 3mths, (range 63 – 108 months, 5yrs 3 mth – 9 yrs).

No evidence of ‘ceilings’

These results suggest that two of Fowler’s hypotheses for delayed language development
in teenagers with Down syndrome in her 1990 review are incorrect.

These students, aged 13yrs 3 mths to 15yrs 9 mths at the start of the training year,
were able to improve considerably therefore providing no support for her `critical
period’ hypothesis which predicts little progress after 7 years of age. The
progress the students made in learning complex sentences also questions the likelihood
of a ‘syntactic ceiling’.

Chapman et al.
(1992) reported findings which support those of the present study. They collected
narrative and conversational samples from 49 children with Down syndrome aged 5
to 20 years and compared them with those of normally developing children matched
for mental age and socio-economic status. The narrative samples produced longer
MLU (mean length of utterance) output from the children. They found no evidence
of ‘critical period’ as MLU’s continued to increase right through the
teenage years. They also found complex sentences with more than one clause in the
language of the teenagers with Down syndrome refuting the view that there is a ‘syntactic
ceiling’ arresting development at the simple sentence level. They did find evidence
of difficulties with grammatical morphology and noted that all the words the young
people with Down syndrome omitted were from closed class grammatical categories.
These findings are entirely consistent with those of the present study.

What produced the gains?

If teaching can produce improvements, what has been causing delay? The scores for
the non-verbal cognitive ability of the students in this study at the start of year
2 showed that their language skills were lagging some 18 months behind this measure
of cognitive ability as many other authors have reported. This suggests that language
learning is being delayed by factors over and above any cognitive delay.

The importance of memory

This study suggests that one important influence may be poor auditory short-term
memory span. Most children learn language from listening. Poor auditory short-term
memory skills may have a particularly detrimental effect on learning the rules for
the structure of the language and less effect on vocabulary acquisition.

The links between language skill and auditory short-term memory are complex, and
likely to lead to a vicious circle without intervention. Poor progress with speech
may itself be preventing memory strategies such as ‘rehearsal’ from developing.


The benefit of being able to read may be because reading can overcome the memory
limit. Print can be perused for as long as is necessary to work out the meaning
conveyed by a sentence that is too long to hold in a limited auditory memory store.
In English and in most languages, the structure of the written form is the same
as the spoken form, so that what is learned from reading can be transferred to speech.
All children learn new vocabulary and new structures as they become skilled readers
and read more and more widely. They then use this knowledge in their speech (see
Garton and Pratt (1992) for further
discussion of the inter-active relationship between speaking and reading for all

There is also the possibilty that multi-sensory input is helping these young people.
Words in print become tangible and can be handled, moved to illustrate syntactical
rules, morpheme changes can be seen – maybe this type of multi-sensory reinforcement
is needed by children with Down syndrome. It has been shown to help other children
with learning difficulties (see Hulme, 1987 ).

Reading may help comprehension in these ways and it may also improve production.
The students who can read can practise speaking longer, more complex and grammatically
correct sentence structures when they read them than they can generate spontaneously
in their speech. Limited speech production over the years – in terms of total quantity,
length and complexity of utterances – means that most teenagers with Down syndrome
have had much less practise at talking than normally developing children. This lack
of practice alone could account for some of their speech production difficulties
– as for all children speech intelligibility improves with practise in their early

Many children with Down syndrome are now learning to read in early childhood and
have reading ages equivalent or ahead of their chronological age. Further research
is needed to ascertain the effect of this reading skill on their language skills.

Language environment

In the U.K. the majority of these reading youngsters are being educated in mainstream
schools. The mainstream classroom will provide a much more stimulating language
environment – so reading ability will not be the only influence on their language

The author’s impression, based on teachers’ reports and school visits, is
that these mainstreamed readers are making extremely good progress and have speech
and language skills at 8/9 years, way ahead of the teenagers who took part in this
study. A sample of mainstreamed pupils will be studied in detail in the next school

The students in this research project were in school with other students with equal
or greater language impairments. Their social lives were extremely restricted (see
Buckley and Sacks, 1987 ). Most
of their time was spent in the company of school friends in school and family out
of school. They had very little opportunity to communicate outside this circle in
order to learn how to do better.

Their early hearing status was largely unknown and they did not have the opportunity
to benefit from sign teaching.

Implications for the future

In the author’s view, the interventions which will produce the greatest gains
in language development for children with Down syndrome are:

  1. continuous awareness of and treatment for hearing loss,
  2. appropriate remedial language teaching including signing from the first year of
  3. normal language experience throughout life by being educated in mainstream classrooms
    and Included in the ordinary social world,
  4. teaching which takes account of auditory short-term memory limitations, and
  5. learning to read and to write, beginning in the preschool years.


The author would like to thank all the teenagers who worked so hard on this project
for a whole year and the teaching staff of the Hampshire special schools for their
enthusiasm and support.


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    of Grammar
    (TROG). Manchester: Chapel Press.
  • Buckley, S.J. and Sacks, B. (1987)
    The adolescent with Down syndrome – life for the teenager and for the family.
    Portsmouth, U.K.: Portsmouth Polytechnic.
  • Chapman, R.,
    Schwartz, S.E. and Kay-Raining Bird, E. (1992) Language production of older
    children with Down syndrome. Paper presented at the 9th World Congress of the International
    Association for the Scientific Study of Mental Deficiency.
    Australia, August 1992.
  • Bray, M. and Woolnough, L. (1988)
    The language skills of children with Down syndrome aged 12 to 16 years. Child Language
    Teaching and Therapy
    , 4, 311-324.
  • Dunn, L.M. and Dunn, L.M.L. (1982)
    British Picture Vocabulary Test (Short form) NFER-Nelson.
  • Fowler, A. (1990) Language abilities
  • Garton, A. and Pratt, C. (1989)
    Learning to be literate: the development of spoken and written language
    . Oxford:
  • Hulme, C. (1981) Reading retardation and multi-sensory
    . London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Neale, M.D. (1966) Neale Analysis of Reading
    2nd Ed. London: Macmillan Education.
  • Pueschel, (1988) Cognitive and learning processes
    in children with Down syndrome. Research in Developmental Disabilities,
    8, 21-37.
  • Raven, J.C. (1962) Ravens Coloured Progressive
    , London: Lewis & Co. Ltd.

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