Secondary school

As your child who has Down syndrome becomes a teenager, there will be different challenges to face. Speech and Language is often still a concern, but growing up, changing school, becoming more independent and communicating in the wider community all need to be considered.

Receptive language

At this stage, your teenager is likely to understand more than they are able to communicate, which can be frustrating for everyone! It’s important to keep developing language though, and, as school becomes more complicated, your child will need to be specifically taught new vocabulary ahead of class topics. As vocabulary expands, new words need to be integrated into existing language. Discussion, visual materials and mind-mapping will help.

Tenses are still likely to be difficult to understand and to express. Use written language to support understanding. Use pictures of your family at various ages and talk about them using past tense. Find pictures of places you will be going in the future and talk about them. Make books about planning what is going to happen as well as what has already happened. Highlight the difference between the key words. It may be difficult for your teenager to hear the difference between walk and walked, but they will be able to see the difference.

There is no evidence of a plateau in learning language, so it’s definitely worth persisting. Remember, it doesn’t matter how quickly or slowly your child is learning, as long as they are still learning!

Expressive language

Narrative and sequencing of ideas is important to practice, as language is a tool for expressing thoughts and ideas, and these usually need to be in some kind of order.

Focus on topics of interest or practical use. Encourage your child to take photos of meal preparation or travel. These can be printed and used for sequencing and as a visual support to help your child to remember and talk about what happened. They can also be made into a set of books of recipes or journeys which can be used to prepare the next time.

For school, take photos of key information and make it into PowerPoint presentations for retelling.

Tech tip: If you type the subject into Google with .ppt at the end, your search will find any available PowerPoint presentations. These will need to be differentiated further but may be a good starting point.


There’s no evidence of a plateau in learning language in the teenage years, so it’s definitely worth persisting!

It’s very important that your teenager has something to communicate. Give choices (and respect the answer!). Don’t jump in too soon if your teenager is struggling to communicate something; give them a chance to try to get the message across.

Make sure that you’re not unintentionally restricting your child’s communication opportunities. It may be much healthier to take a packed lunch to school every day, but if everyone else is using the canteen or going into town, the packed lunch may not be the best way to support inclusion and communication.

This article written by DSI’s SLT Advisor Nicola Hart and then Education Officer Patricia Griffin outlines the importance of choice for developing communication skills and life skills which you may find useful. The article appeared in our DSI Member Magazine.


Speech difficulties can persist into adulthood, and can restrict social, educational and employment opportunities. Life can be hard when you are misunderstood, so it’s definitely worth persisting to get clearer speech. The most important aspect is whether the messaage can be understood. Speech doesn’t have to be perfect, but it needs to be functional.

Rehearsal of speech ahead of time can help. It helps if your child plans what they are going to say, whether it’s about making a presentation to the class or ordering food in a restaurant. Role playing situations, writing down what they need to say, even recording their best production and listening to it can all be helpful strategies.


People who have Down syndrome may learn some aspects of language better through reading than listening. Professor Sue Buckley, one of the leading researchers in this area, often says: ‘Teach the child to read to speak’. Teaching reading is one of the best ways we know of developing spoken language abilities in school age children who have Down syndrome, and there is evidence that focusing on literacy helps spoken language development even in older teenagers and adults.

Literacy will continue to develop throughout the school years and into adulthood, though at a slower pace. It is important that the teenager’s books be age appropriate, simplified versions of the mainstream materials, rather than primary school books.

There are some differentiated materials available on this website, to help teachers understand what is needed.

Identifying the key concepts and teaching your teenager to read the words connected with these concepts is important. Using PowerPoint can be a good strategy. It encourages a focus on a few key points and gives your child a way to present information that they have learned.

It is important that we recognise and support all the other ways of developing and practising literacy, too. Sending a text message, checking in with a friend on Facebook, looking up cinema times on Google, checking sports news to see if your team won… these are all valid ways of practising literacy skills!


There are lots of things to remember when navigating your way around a second-level school. This may seem daunting, but with some initial support, many teenagers with Down syndrome can successfully find their way around and learn where they need to go.

Most teenagers who have Down syndrome will have relatively good visual memory, (and this helps with navigating around the school) but their verbal memory and working memory can be poor. Remembering verbal information and learning from listening can be especially difficult.

Working memory is how we hold information in our minds for a short time in order to do something. If you walk into a room but forget why, it’s your working memory that is at fault!

Impairment in working memory means that children with Down syndrome learn and remember skills and information in a different way to other children, and this needs to be taken into account at home and in the classroom.

Poor verbal memory is one of the things that can impact speech, and can also make reading unfamiliar words using phonics difficult. (Pre-teaching new vocabulary ahead of time, including teaching the written word, is essential!)

As memory difficulties can be persistent, it’s important that your child learns coping strategies. Remembering things in groups or categories is easier than remembering individual items. Writing a list is even better.

Memory does improve with practice and familiarity. It’s easier to remember words that we use every day. It’s also easier to remember things we have seen and experienced rather than things we have just heard about. This means that repetition and learning through seeing and doing will be very important for your teenager.

Your teenager won’t remember things they didn’t see or hear properly in the first place, so be alert to hearing and vision issues, and seek advice if you are concerned.


Pragmatics is about how we use our language every day to communicate. We use language to connect with other people, to get something we need, to express like or dislike, to let people know we want something (or don’t!). We use language to get information, to draw attention to something, or to think out loud.

At second level, it is unlikely that your son or daughter is using Lámh as their only means of communication, as the restricted vocabulary is probably not enough to meet their needs. Lámh signs or gestures may still be used though, and it’s important that this method of communicating is valued.

If your child can’t make themselves understood by talking, then additional methods of communication should be explored. This could be as simple as learning to write things down if people don’t understand, or it could be some form of assistive technology. Don’t be afraid if a communication aid is suggested. It’s important to be able to successfully communicate using whatever supports are necessary. Successful communication is rewarding, and is likely to encourage further speech development rather than inhibit it.

Social communication is very important for your child to learn. Social awareness is usually a relative strength for people who have Down syndrome, but social language and communication skills may still need support. Your teenager is likely to learn best by watching and listening to other teenagers in the class. Learning to take turns, to pay attention to an activity or topic, to join in a game or discussion; these all involve social use of language and can all be improved with practice!

Try to encourage age-appropriate social behaviour at all times. This means accepting the bad as well as the good aspects of communicating with a teenager. You’re unlikely to be told everything that happened in school, and it would be a bit strange if you did!

Work on problem solving and coping strategies, so that your child knows how to get help if they need, and knows when they need to speak up.

Mobile phone use is part of being a teenager now. This has many advantages, such as being able to call for help, or let someone know where you are. There are built in tools, like timers, calculators and reminders which can really help promote independence. It would be naive not to recognise that there are some disadvantages though, and your teenager (like all other teenagers) needs some firm rules around phone and computer use.

Total communication

Total communication is about using and accepting all methods of communicating, not just speech. We can communicate using body language, facial expression, sign, gesture, sounds, words, pictures and objects.

A total communication approach encourages you to value all the ways your teenager can get a message across. Sometimes parents think that signing or using communication aids may reduce the need to speak. Actually, the reverse is true. People who can successfully get their message understood are more likely to keep communicating.

It’s vital that you focus on the message that’s being communicated and value all of your teenagers attempts, whether these are spoken words, signs, gestures or a communication aid.

If your teenager doesn’t have clear spoken language, people can underestimate his or her ability to learn. Encourage teachers to have high, but realistic expectations. Push for an IEP for each subject studied, identifying some key concepts that will be taught over the course of the year, and ways of demonstrating learning that don’t depend on spoken language. (See DSI differentiation project)