Persuasive writing abilities in school-aged children, adolescents, and adults: Syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic attainments

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Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools







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Purpose: Persuasive writing is a demanding task that requires the use of complex language to analyze, discuss, and resolve controversies in a way that is clear, convincing, and considerate of diverse points of view. This investigation examined selected aspects of later language development in the context of persuasive writing. The purpose of the study was to obtain current information that could be used to design collaborative instruction involving speech-language pathologists and classroom teachers. In schools today, these professionals often work closely together to facilitate students’ language development, including their ability to write persuasively.

Method: Persuasive writing was investigated in typically developing children, adolescents, and adults (N=180) whose mean ages were 11, 17, and 24 years, respectively. Each participant wrote an essay on the controversial topic of animals being trained to perform in circuses. Following this, the essays were examined in detail, focusing on selected aspects of syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic development.

Results: Performance improved in each of these domains during the years between childhood and adulthood. Age-related changes included gradual increases in essay length; mean length of utterance; relative clause production; and the use of literate words, including adverbial conjuncts (e.g., typically, however, finally), abstract nouns (e.g., longevity, respect, kindness), and metalinguistic and metacognitive verbs (e.g., reflect, argue, disagree). In addition, older writers produced a greater number of different reasons in their essays and were more likely to acknowledge diverse points of view as compared to younger writers, thereby evidencing greater flexibility of thought.

Clinical Implications: The study offers useful implications for speech-language pathologists and classroom teachers working together to improve students’ persuasive writing skills. Suggestions are offered for ways to accomplish this by focusing on key aspects of later language development in the areas of syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.


The authors express sincere gratitude to the students who participated in this research project, to the parents who granted permission for their son or daughter to participate, and to the teachers and administrators who allowed the testing to take place at their schools. Appreciation is also expressed to Jamie Galapia, Cheryl Yoshida, and Elaine Jacques, graduate students who assisted with data collection and analysis. This project was partially supported by Grant 2P50DC02746-06A1 awarded to the first author from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, and by an Eberhardt Research Fellowship Grant awarded to the second author from the Faculty Research Committee at the University of the Pacific.