What is Functional Communication?

Have you ever wondered “What is functional communication?” SLP’s (such as myself) throw that word “functional” around a lot. It is an important word, so I want to take a minute today and make sure that you are really understanding what it means.

what is functional communication?

Dictionary.com defines functional as “designed to be practical and useful, rather than attractive”

Functional communication is words, gestures, or any other kind of communication that is THE MOST practical and useful.

If you have a late talker, you may be thinking, I just want my child to talk. ANY word must be a good word, right? Well, yes and no.

I will never say that any word or type of communication is bad. But there are some words that are more practical and useful than others.

Here is an example. Imagine you are traveling to a country where you don’t speak the language. Would it be more helpful learn a few random words such as the days of the week, colors, and animal names? OR would it be more helpful to learn words you might frequently use while traveling? Words such as “help, eat, drink, and bathroom”.

You probably chose the more helpful words. That is because they are more functional. They can be used to communicate important things, in many different situations. These are the first kinds of words that we want to teach our children as they are learning to talk. However, even as they age, what is functional for a child changes depending on their age and level of ability.  

For the earliest talkers, functional communication usually includes verbs such as “eat, want, help, more, all done, go”.

These kinds of words might also be called core vocabulary.  

If your child is slower to speak, spend some time thinking about the most functional or helpful words for your child. Sometimes these words take longer to learn because they are “harder” words. They can’t just be memorized; they need to be understood before they can be used.

You can easily teach functional communication at home by doing language-rich activities with your child. You can also use routines and play to teach functional communication.

Words I do not consider functional for toddlers and late talking preschoolers…

I want to say this in the KINDEST and most SUPPORTIVE way possible. I have seen many well-intentioned caregivers spend their precious time teaching these skills. I am not here to judge or say that these skills are not important. Many parents simply don’t know where to start. (Which is OK, you aren’t an SLP!) I love the enthusiasm and dedication these parents have for their children.

I want you to have the knowledge you need to focus your time as strategically as possible. So, here is a list of words that are not as functional for toddlers or preschoolers with emerging language skills.

  1. Days of the Week
  2. Numbers
  3.  Letters
  4. Months
  5. Random Nouns that don’t mean anything to the child/family

When you are trying to decide if a word is functional, consider if that word is “practical and useful” as our definition stated. Once your student has learned many functional words, then start adding in those fringe words.

**Quick Disclaimer: The ideas shared in this post are meant to educate and help caregivers feel more confident implementing speech therapy-type activities at home. They are not intended to be a substitute for speech therapy with a licensed SLP, as each child has unique needs.**

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