Tech Tuesday: Summer Study Series #1, Morality as Language? - MindWing Concepts, Inc.

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Tech Tuesday: Summer Study Series #1, Morality as Language?

by Sean Sweeney May 24, 2021 3 min read

Welcome to 2021’s Summer Study Series!

From now through August we will be featuring digests of recently published articles that relate to assessment and intervention in narrative and expository language. Falling under the Tech Tuesday purview, these will also feature a spin on how to apply the info using tech tools.

Morals Word Cloud

This month we look at Investigating Adolescent Discourse in Critical Thinking: Monologic Responses to Stories Containing a Moral Dilemma (Wallis, Westerveld, Wallis & Snow, 2021). Notably published in ASHA’s Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools and characteristically practical, this one sure grabbed my eye! The investigators sought to assess older and younger adolescent language performance in response to a moral dilemma task. Following the presentation of several prompts, the subjects were asked to state their thinking about the situation and their samples were rated on form, content and use; use specifically looked at evidence of critical thinking.

A foundation of the article is its focus on looking at the development of autonomy among adolescents, and the connection between maturity and moral development, specifically growth in thinking such that “judgments of action and motivation are guided by principles such as justice and equality” rather than simple rules.

The authors note the connection between morality and critical thinking, and by extension, language: “investigation into the ‘language skills’ required to competently express one’s thinking and reasoning has received limited attention.”

Critical Thinking Triangle®Some way-cool connections are made here between syntax, semantics and discourse and the bridge from critical thinking to decision making: the growth in adolescence of longer and more complex sentences, the use of mental-state verbs (hello, Critical Thinking Triangle®) and abstract nouns, and the ability, therefore, for teens to express more complex ideas more efficiently. The authors also link these areas to social cognition: “Connecting with others through skills and behaviors such as sharing emotional experiences, empathy, interpersonal negotiation, and social problem solving are underpinned by developments in language and cognition.”

The study itself sampled language from 44 typically developing teens in Australia forming two subgroups: younger (YA) at 12-14 and older (OA) 16-17 years old. The researchers modified scenarios from Kohlberg (I remember him from a high school religion class!) who placed teens at a “conventional” stage where moral judgments tended to align with societal expectations, before moving on to a “post-conventional,” more abstract, greater-good kind of approach.

Students were presented with two scenarios, including this one, excerpted here: Judy was a 14-year-old girl. Her mother promised her that she could go to a special rock concert coming to their town if she saved up money from babysitting and lunch money to buy a ticket to the concert. She managed to save up the 100 dollars that the ticket cost plus another 20 dollars. But then, her mother changed her mind and told Judy that she had to spend the money on new clothes for school. Judy was disappointed and decided to go to the concert anyway…

Asked simply, “What do you think about that?” and provided with allowable prompts, the students’ responses were transcribed. Results indicated little difference in the form of responses comparing YA and OA (similar length of utterance, complexity, etc.), but some differences in content (greater range of emotional vocabulary among OA). The authors interpret this as greater ability to understand and “sympathize with the emotional context behind decisions to disobey.”

Most notable were differences in what this study looked at as use—or levels of thinking aligning with Bloom’s Taxonomy (coding system and examples provided in article)—defined here as: “Level 1 (L1), data gathering (remembering and understanding); Level 2 (L2), data analysis (applying and analyzing); and Level 3 (L3), conclusion drawing (evaluating and creating).” The OA used significantly more statements characterized as L3 than did the younger group, reflecting that growth in critical thinking.

Problem Soving imageSo, implications and tech twists for intervention? Well, problem solving is important, and we can present contexts to work on that area, especially since our students may not be equipped with the linguistic skills of those studied here. A few years back (blog link), we discussed the connections between Story Grammar Marker® and problem solving, and tools such as MindWing’s Digital Icons can be used to scaffold problem solving in many contexts (e.g., a conundrum a character faces in a chapter book). For specific materials beyond books, you can look at resources such as Teachers Pay Teachers (using keywords we might not have thought to use, such as morals), which provides much digital content that is compatible with Google Slides or their own Easel tool for presentation and discussion.

Sean Sweeney
Sean Sweeney

Sean Sweeney, MS, MEd, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist and technology specialist working in private practice at the Ely Center in Needham, MA, and as a clinical supervisor at Boston University. He consults to local and national organizations on technology integration in speech and language interventions. His blog, SpeechTechie (, looks at technology “through a language lens.” Contact him at

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