Language in juvenile offenders: The importance of sampling expository discourse

This study gives a powerful reminder of a population seriously underserved by SLPs: young people involved in the criminal justice system (or at risk of becoming so).

We already know that a large proportion of juvenile offenders have Developmental Language Disorder (see article background for even more studies). What we don’t know is if there is something in particular about kids who get in trouble with the law, or if it has more to do with other overlapping risk factors, like a low-SES background, inconsistent school attendance, or nonverbal intelligence. This study addressed this question by comparing the language skills of a group of teenage offenders in the UK with a matched group of non-offenders from low-SES schools. In particular, they looked at expository discourse skills, or the ability to express technical and factual knowledge of a subject. (The article gives a lot of great information about the importance of expository skills, and the benefits of measuring them. Turns outs, it’s an important skill to have if you’re involved in the justice system.) To get a sample of expository discourse, they used the expository language sample task and scoring scheme from SALT, where you explain the rules of a game or sport, given some planning time and a rough outline to follow.** They also gave two subtests of the CELF-4 and looked at other stats from the language sample, like syntactic complexity, MLU, number of different words, total number of words… all that good stuff.

So how did the language skills of juvenile offenders compare to those of non-offenders?

  • They scored lower than the non-offender group across the board, to the extent that lower-performing individuals on each measure were 1 to 5 times more likely to be an offender.
  • 95% of the offenders scored 2 standard deviations or more below the norm on their expository language sample, compared with just 36% of the non-offenders.
  • Depending on how conservative a criterion you use to determine DLD, 44–81% of the offenders would meet it, compared to 13–37% of the non-offenders.

Remember that the group comparison controlled for nonverbal IQ, SES, and amount of time spent in school, so we’re seeing a significant difference here, that’s not well explained by other social factors. Now, the authors do point out some potential influences of their recruitment methods on their results, but the numbers are still striking.

Now, this is the mind-blowing part: When they recruited their subjects, the researchers excluded anyone who was currently working with an SLP, in case it would skew test performance. But it turned out that NONE of the adolescents in the offender group had EVER had speech-language therapy. NONE OF THEM. Most of them (44 out of 52) had been special education students, mostly for an emotional or behavioral disorder and some with moderate learning disabilities. We could make many informed guesses as to why these kids weren’t getting therapy (e.g., it’s, “…possible that the language needs of this group were hidden behind the emotional [behavioral] difficulties that were more overtly displayed and attended to by professional services.”). But any way you slice it, it’s a problem. The authors conclude: “It is… important that all children and young people who are either in contact with the [youth justice system] or are considered at risk of doing so are screened for DLD and provided with the appropriate support from [SLP]s.”

Language in juvenile offenders.png

So, all you SLPs who work in buildings or districts with an at-risk population (or with actual offenders), and who want to advocate for increased screening, evaluation, and intervention services? Read further, and bring this information to your teams. And anyone working with middle- and high-school students, remember the importance of expository language skills, and think about adding it to your evaluation repertoire. This particular study doesn’t talk about intervention, but a logical extension may be to make expository discourse a focus of language therapy, too.

** If your New Year’s resolution was to recommit to quality language sampling, this is a great resource to use with teenaged students/clients.

Hopkins, T., Clegg, J. & Stackhouse, J. (2017) Examining the Association between Language, Expository Discourse, and Offending Behaviour: An Investigation of Direction, Strength, and Independence. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders. Advance Online Publication. doi: 10.1111/1460-6984.12330.