Conversation and communication skills are one big thing many people want to know how to improve! It’s one of the critical social skills we work on. As SLPs, it’s important we know what works and how we can make it fun!
Communication Skills: Step By Step How To Improve
Some kids need a high level of structure and prompting when they are just getting started with communication skills and learning how to improve them.
Yuan and Chen (2020) identified the following components to teach:
- Initiating a conversation by asking a question
- Continuing a conversation by answering a question
- Continuing a conversation by elaborating on an answer
- Asking a reciprocal, or follow-up question
All group members need to use all of these steps in order to keep the conversation going.
In this study, the children who were taught these explicit skills with faded prompting over time, ultimately generalized their skills to novel peers and also showed greater interactions with their paired intervention peers, with less time spent alone!
Get peers involved!
Studies show that getting peers involved is a great way to work on conversation skills. This is especially effective with older students, like your middle school and high school students. We can pair up (willing!) typically developing peers with a speech student in need of some conversation support. The key to really making this happen is that the typically developing peers need to have some explicit coaching on what it means to have a conversation: how to initiate, how to continue, how to take turns, etc.
Best practice would be to create peer groups based on similar interests. Why would be targeting conversation about unpreferred topics? I don’t like to talk about things I’m not interested in. I guess I could do it if I had to, but why?
Keep Your Ableism in Check
One really important thing to remember with our autistic students is that neurodivergent individuals have different communication styles. Studies show that autistic people generally have satisfying interactions with other autistic people. The conflict or dissatisfaction in interaction usually comes from exchanges between neurotypical and neurodivergent people.
What does that mean? If you are neurotypical and your neurodivergent student is communicating or participating in conversation they way you want them to, don’t assume that your student is wrong. Don’t hold your students up against a neurotypical measure.
Do your students want to work on conversation skills that are more in line with neurotypical conversations? We can support that!
Otherwise, you can focus on facilitating mutually satisfactory conversations by finding opportunities for autistic people to engage in conversation about their special interests. We have to be careful that we aren’t reinforcing masking behavior and let our neurodivergent students learn to be comfortable with who they are.
Communication Skill Games Teach How to Improve
To help provide a structured way to introduce and reinforce these concepts, I created Let’s Talk! A conversation game that walks your students through the steps to initiate and continue conversation.
Why this game?
It imitates natural conversation while providing a visual and something tangible to help visualize the flow of conversation!
It provides practice asking questions, making comments, taking turns, and having a conversation about a variety of topics!
What does this game include?
-2 pages of ‘conversation cards’ (i.e.: ask a question, make a comment, make 2 comments, make a comment then ask a question)
-36 conversation topic cards & 9 blank cards for customization
How do I play?
Make two piles of cards: one for orange cards, one for blue conversation topic cards.
Have the dealer shuffle 6 blue cards to each player and flip over one orange (topic) card.
The dealer goes first. He or she should lay down one of his blue cards. See key below for examples:
Comment: I love summer!
Question: What season do you like?
Two Comments: I love summer. My family always goes to the beach.
Comment + Question: I love going to the beach. Have you ever gone to the beach?
Play/conversation continues in a clockwise fashion. The next player should lay down a blue card and respond to the first player appropriately.
If a player gets stuck or responds inappropriately, they have to draw another blue card from the pile and their turn is over.
The first person to get rid of their hand wins!
(or just play for fun!)
Speech Therapy Goals for Conversation Skills
As always, we want to have a way of measuring success with our interventions. Here are some of my favorite conversation goals featured in my goal bank:
- Given written or verbal cues, NAME will initiate a conversation with a peer, ask a question, and answer a question in 80% of observed opportunities.
- NAME will ask reciprocal questions of a therapist or peer in 4/5 opportunities across 3 consecutive sessions provided minimal verbal and visual cues.
- STUDENT will identify how to greet and initiate a conversation with a peer, and will appropriately initiate a conversation with a peer in 3/5 opportunities provided moderate cues.
- NAME will use conversation maintenance strategies (i.e. making comments to perpetuate the conversation, providing turn taking opportunities) in 70% of opportunities.
- Given a visual, NAME will demonstrate appropriate topic maintenance, as evidenced by taking 3+ turns per conversational topic, 3x per 30-minute session, across 3 consecutive sessions.
- Given a conversation with one other peer or adult, NAME will maintain a topic of conversation of the other person’s choosing by asking partner-focused questions and making comments for at least 3 conversational turns in 70% of opportunities.
Again, these might not be appropriate for your students, especially your neurodiverse students. Sometimes it’s our job to be educated about an area of communication and provide information on supports we can provide without necessarily creating a goal and working on it.
For more reading
If you have a membership to The Informed SLP, I highly recommend checking out their reviews on conversation skills. If you don’t, you might find the following research helpful!
Bambara, L. M., Cole, C. L., Chovanes, J., Telesford, A., Thomas, A., Tsai, S.-C., Bilgili, I. (2018). Improving the assertive conversational skills of adolescents with autism spectrum disorder in a natural context. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2018.01.002
Matthewman, H., Zane, E., & Grossman, R. (2021). Comparing frequency of listener responses between adolescents with and without ASD during conversation. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-021-04996-9 [open access]
Williams, G., Wharton, T., & Jagoe, C. (2021). Mutual (mis)understanding: reframing autistic pragmatic “impairments” using relevance theory. Frontiers In Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.616664 [open access]