Goal: Improve Conversation Skills

A lot goes into learning how to have a conversation.  The first part of conversation is often the initiation piece which we covered in a previous topic page.  Click Here to Read about Initiating Interactions.
But what do you do once the conversation has been initiated?  How do you keep it going?  What are the unwritten rules of conversations with others?  These are the things that often allude our children with speech and language impairments.  This guide will help you teach a wide variety of conversational skills to both younger and older children.

Sample Goal:

The goal that you choose for conversation skills will depend greatly on what the child is having trouble with.  Here is a generic sample goal that you could modify by adding the particular skill needed: 

During a 10-minute conversation with a peer, Client will improve communication skills by ____<be specific here, something like “respond to the other person’s comments/questions with a related comment/response”>_____ on 80% of observed opportunities.

Therapy Phases:

While conversation skills can be taught in any order, here is a general order of some basic conversation skills that may be helpful when working with a client who has not addressed conversation skills before.  Feel free to modify this or pick and choose which skills the client needs to address.

  1. Teach to Respond and Take Turns: Client will respond to a peer’s question or comment during conversational speech and take appropriate conversational turns.
  2. Teach to Stay on Topic: Client will respond during a conversation with a peer will remain on topic for at least __ number of turns unless a topic shift has been announced.
  3. Teach How to Keep the Conversation Going: Client will use a visual choice board to choose something to say to continue a conversation with a peer.
  4. Teach Conversation Repair: Client will identify when a communication partner is confused and repeat or rephrase as necessary on 80% of observed opportunities.
  5. Teach Conversational Rules: Student will be able to list and describe several different rules of conversation and identify when a rule has been violated in a scenario.

Resources by Skill:

Responding and Turn-Taking:

Here’s the most basic aspect of a conversation: the back and forth turn-taking.  Some children will need you to focus on teaching them to respond as they are not cued into the fact that a response is expected from them.  Those children will need prompts to listen and respond when spoken to.  

Other children will need you to help them understand that someone else should be allowed to speak besides themselves.  These children will need reminders to stop and listen.

I like to do this by having an actual visual cue that says “it’s my turn” that can be handed to the person who is speaking.  We usually start this by using the visual aid during a simple game that requires turn taking.  We pass the visual around to whoever is taking their turn in the game.  

Once they understand this idea, we can pass the visual during an actual conversation and talk about how everyone gets a turn, just like in a game, though it doesn’t always go in order like it does in a game.

Here are some resources for this skill:

Topic Maintenance:

Now that the child knows to take turns, let’s make sure those turns stay on topic.  Some children will do this automatically, other children will need to be taught this explicitly.  Here are some resources on how to do this for younger or older children:

Continuing the Conversation:

Ok so we’re taking turns and we’re on topic!  Great!  Now, what the heck do I say to keep the conversation going?  

Many of our children are able to get started but then run out of gas before it’s socially appropriate to end the conversation.  This is particularly true of our children with autism.  They tend to simply drift away from the conversation whenever they lose interest.  For this step, we’ll need to specifically teach the children the types of things they can say to keep the conversation going.

Here are two visuals you can use to show children the kinds of things they can say to keep the conversation going.  In the beginning, you’ll want to have them practice each type of interaction with you during staged conversations.  Provide a lot of feedback on how they’re doing.  Make sure they’re comfortable with all of the interaction types. 

Once they can do that, you’ll move to using this as a visual aid in regular conversations with peers.  With younger children, you can go into the classroom during free play and hold the visual up for the child when the conversation lulls.  Ask the child to pick a strategy to keep the conversation going.  For older children, it’s less socially appropriate to follow them around and hold up a visual cue so you’ll probably want to do something like encourage them to reference it if they need it and self-evaluate after a conversation on if they remembered to use any.

Here are our resources for continuing conversations:

Repairing Communication Breakdown:

Once we get the conversation going, it’s important that we help our clients understand how to repair it when it breaks down.  This is particularly important for older children as they may continue to have some sort of communication problems throughout their lives.  We must help our clients understand how to know if the conversation has broken down and practice strategies they can use to repair it.

Here are our resources for communication breakdowns:

Teaching Conversation Rules:

For older children who are working on conversational skills, it is important to talk about the actual rules of conversation.  For most of us, these rules are unwritten but everyone knows them.  For example, you don’t stand two inches from the person’s face when conversing.  You don’t shout when the person is only a few feet away.  You let other people talk as well.  We all know these things and we all get annoyed when the rules are violated.  

However, our students may not know these rules intuitively and may need to have them written out for them. Here is a great video on how to run a social skills group for older children to uncover these unwritten rules of social interactions and make them more tangible for our children with social language deficits:

Webinar Recordings:

Check out our hour-long webinar recordings on this topic:

Resources, Tools, and Training for Speech-Language Professionals

*** The SLP Solution is for informational and educational purposes only and does not provide medical or psychological advice.  We provide general resources but cannot tell you exactly what should be done for a specific client.  Every client is different and your clinical judgement should be used when making decisions about specific individuals.


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