Expressing Higher Level Pragmatic Language Skills

expressing gratitude

Have you ever had students whose pragmatic language skills weren’t quite right, but you couldn’t exactly put your finger on what was wrong? You ask them questions, trying to probe their knowledge, and they always give you the right answer, but when it comes time to use these skills, they often fall short.

These students are difficult to treat, aren’t they?

            The problem is not necessarily in their understanding of pragmatic language. The problem is with their ability to USE pragmatic language. And I’m not just talking the use of obvious, easy-to-measure social skills like participating in greetings. I am talking about higher level skills such as expressing sorrow, gratitude, complements, regret, and empathy. And of course, it’s not just about saying the right words, but using the correct nonverbal communication too. When students don’t use these skills, they are not effective social language communicators.

            Using these higher-level communication skills is called affective expression. These skills are difficult for individuals who struggle with pragmatic language, because it goes beyond just expressing wants and needs. Affective expression helps you to truly connect with your communicative partner on a deeper level. Read on if you want some ideas to help you teach these complex skills.

Step 1: Create a Buy In to the Learning Process

            So, how does one go about teaching these extremely complex skills? Well, we start by giving our students a reason to buy into this learning process. You can do this by having your students make a list of their loved ones, and talk about why that person is special to them. Explain that when we care about people, we want to make them feel good, and if we hurt them, we want to make it right. Help your students understand that when they use these social skills, it will make them feel better and it will make the people they care about feel better too.

Step 2: Teach the Vocabulary

            Introducing the vocabulary is always an important step in the learning process. So, take a moment and exclusively explain each concept: sorrow, regret, gratitude, compliments, and empathy. Make sure your students have a solid understanding of each concept before you move on.

            I know a lot of us like to use videos to introduce new concepts, so, I found some videos that you might like to use as you teach these skills. But just a heads up-I would definitely recommend using these with kids who are a little older (middle school and up) and have typical or almost typical receptive language abilities. You probably will want to watch them to decide if they will work for your students.

Giving Compliments:

I like this first video because it talks about the nonverbal communication aspect of a giving compliments. The actors do have an accent, so it might be hard for your students to tune their ears to it at first.

This video talks about the different types of compliments which I really liked and found helpful, but the speaker does speak a little fast, so he might be hard for some kids to follow.

Expressing Gratitude:

This video talks about why you should be expressing gratitude and how to do it in four steps. The content is really good, but the speaker is an older man, so some of your students might have a hard time finding him relatable or engaging.

This video shows different students expressing gratitude.

Expressing Empathy:

This video does a nice job of explaining what empathy is and it gives for steps to remember when expressing empathy.

Expressing Regret/ Apologizing

This video just has text going across the screen. The content is good, but it might not be good for students that struggle with reading.

This video goes over 5 steps to giving a good apology.

Expressing Sorrow/Emotions

This video talks about why it is important to express emotions. The content is interesting and good, but be cautious showing this video because it is very wordy, and it uses some higher level vocabulary that might not be ideal for students with language disorders.

Step 3: Create a Script

            Individuals with pragmatic language difficulties can have a hard time knowing what to say in social situations, we know this. Scripts are a tool we can use to help them know what to say. Basically, a script is a formula of words that work for a specific situation. For example, if you wanted to give a compliment, you could use the following script:

Step 4: Structured Practice

            After your students understand how to use the script, practice using it. You can do this by giving them pretend scenarios and determining how to use the script in different situations. Practice in a structured environment until you feel like your student is proficient.

Step 5: Real World Practice

            Help your student practice expressing affective pragmatic language in the real world. This is the most important step, the longest step, and the hardest step. This step is important, because these skills are not mastered until they can be done the majority of the time. Independently means the real world and not the speech room. This step is the longest, because, let’s be honest, opportunities to practice some of these skills don’t come up every day. This step is the hardest, because, well, generalization of new skills is always hard.

            So how do we do this step? The way I see it, there are 3 options.

  1. Push in to the classroom. This is my least favorite option because, like I said earlier, you can’t fabricate skills like expressing sorrow. These opportunities don’t occur often, and the chances of them occurring during your (maybe) 30-minute time block is slim.
  2. Train the student to look for opportunities to practice these skills. Once the student is back with you, have him/her reflect on their performance. Did they follow the script? What did they do well? What can they improve next time?
  3. Caregiver support. If you have supportive caregivers, this is the best way to help students practice in the real world. Enlist their help in finding scenarios to practice these skills. Teach them how to look for practice opportunities and guide their student through the learning process. After all, the caregivers are probably going to be the ones who are with the students as they encounter these situations in daily life, so let’s use them to our advantage!

If you want to learn more about this topic…

Go read this article. It discusses evaluation of pragmatic language skills, particularly trying to find concrete a way to evaluate pragmatic language so that students who struggle with these not-so-obvious skills can receive treatment in the areas they need to improve. It’s a great read!

How do you like to teach complex social language skills? Leave comment so everyone can get some new ideas!