Pragmatic Language Evaluations

Pragmatic Language Evaluations

What is your favorite thing to do as an SLP? Do you have a specific age group you like to work with or a specific area you enjoy teaching?

My favorite thing to do is evaluate and treat pragmatic language. I even like to write the reports. *gasp*

Try not to judge me too harshly though, because I want to share my method for pragmatic language evaluation with you. I am hoping it will save you time, and maybe help you enjoy writing those reports a little bit more. (Hey don’t look at me like that, I said maybe).

First, I want to take a moment to discuss what ASHA says indicates an area of concern when it comes to social communication.

According to ASHA, “Social Communication includes 3 major skills…using language for different reasons, changing language for the listener or situation, and following rules for conversation and storytelling”.

Nonverbal communication such as understanding/ using gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, proxemics, and eye contact all fall within that last section- “following rules for conversation and storytelling”.  (To read more about what ASHA says, click here).

So if you are like me you might be thinking, “Whoa…that is A LOT of really complicated things to evaluate, how do I do this in a methodical way that will get me all the information I need so I can write good strong goals (and a parent friendly report)”? Well, keep reading my friend, and I will tell you how.

Parent/Teacher Report

As with all evaluations, I start my assessment process by sending out checklists and questionnaires to the parents and the teachers. I have created some that specifically ask questions regarding the areas outlined by ASHA. I created them to be a rating scale, because I have found most student’s rarely fall into a “they always do it” or “they never do it” category with these skills. In my experience, parents and teachers find rating scales easier to fill out, and I find they give me more useful information.

Student Observation

The next step- try and observe the student in his or her natural habitat…or the lunch room, or recess, or centers…you get my point. Students act different for us in one-on-one settings, so watching them interact with other children in less-structured settings can give you a wealth of information. Even though I know this takes a lot of time out of your day, I strongly advise not skipping this step if possible. To keep me organized during this step, I use a checklist to remind me to try and observe #allthethings.  If you are in a position where you cannot observe the student, you will have to rely on the parent/teacher rating scales.

The rest of the evaluation takes place in my room. I like to give the student structured tasks that revolve around those ASHA guiding principles. Personally, I find that I get more/better data from my own personal evaluation than I have gotten from a formal assessment. I know those assessments have their place, but I personally find them too rigid and not quite as thorough as I would like them to be.

Nonverbal Communication/ Theory of Mind

This is probably my favorite area of the evaluation because you never know what is going to come out of the student’s mouth. I just love getting a glimpse into their little brains.

So just a quick reminder, theory of mind is “the ability to understand the desires, intentions, and beliefs of others”, and typically develops between 3-5 years of age. It is well documented that students who have Autism and/or social language deficits often struggle in this area, so it is extremely beneficial to evaluate this area.

I evaluate theory of mind and nonverbal communication together because you can’t have one without the other. Think about it. What strategies do you use when you are trying to guess what someone else is thinking or feeling? You look at their facial expressions, body language, gestures, eye contact…AKA their NONVERBAL LANGUAGE!

To evaluate both areas at the same time, I show my student a picture of someone displaying an emotion. I have the student identify what the person is feeling and then they have to tell me two things the person in the picture might be thinking. I like to show pictures depicting both basic emotions and more complex emotions. (To read more about complex emotions click here). Usually my students do a good job identifying simple emotions, but asking them to tell me what the person in the picture is thinking (AKA theory of mind) is much more challenging. I have even had students tell me “How am I supposed to know what they might be thinking?!”

Story Telling

Since ASHA states that deficits in storytelling accompany social language disorders, I definitely want to assess that area. I like to give my students a prompt, then, as they tell the story I listen for the following skills:

  1. The story is on topic
  2. The story contains details
  3. There is a clear beginning middle and end
  4. The student uses nonverbal communication to enhance the story

As for what kind of prompts I like to give, I usually use the following hierarchy:

  1. How to do a familiar task (i.e how to do a chore)
  2. A story about a personal event (i.e. a time the student got hurt/felt scared—these are usually easy for the student to remember)
  3. Retelling a familiar story (i.e. fairy tales or summarizing a book)
  4. Creating a new story (i.e. “Tell a story about a time a boy went to outer space”)

Conversation Skills

When I evaluate conversation skills, I look to see if the student does the following: initiates a conversation, stays on topic, asks questions, makes comments, takes turns speaking, and ends the conversation appropriately. I try to let the student lead the conversation as much as possible so that the student has the opportunity to use these skills. Usually though, I find that the student needs to me to lead the conversation.

Jokes/Humor/Idioms/Figurative Language

Even though ASHA does not explicitly outline deficits in these areas as a potential indicator of social language disorders, I still like to take a look at some of these skills. This is because in order for an individual to understand humor or figurative language, they must be able to take on someone else’s perspective (which they do by utilizing those nonverbal communication and theory of mind skills).

Let Me Save You Some Time

If you like this method of completing informal pragmatic language evaluations then I have some good news for you! I have already created an informal pragmatic language evaluation resource that follows this method of evaluation. I personally use this resource for all of my evaluations and I have found it to be very helpful.

This resource contains everything that I talked about in this blog post: a parent/teacher rating scale, an observation checklist, plus stimuli for evaluating theory of mind and nonverbal communication, conversation prompts, story prompts, and jokes and idioms to help you evaluate figurative language.

Click the image below if you would like to learn more!

If you’re interested in upping your pragmatic language therapy/evaluation game then you have come to the right place. Let me share my tips and tricks with you so that you can approach this tricky area with confidence. Click here and we can start learning together–I even want to give you a free pragmatic language evaluation checklist so you can sample my work. If my style isn’t your cup of tea, you can unsubscribe at anytime 🙂

Click the image if you want some help keeping yourself organized!

How to Teach Conversation Skills

Conversation Social Story
How To Have A Conversation: Social Story Activity

Me: “Hi! Welcome to Speech, I am Mrs. Davault and I am going to be your speech teacher.”

Student: *mumbles incoherent response while avoiding eye contact*

Me: When you come to speech, you are going to be working on goals that will teach you ways to be a better friend.

Student: “I don’t have any friends.”

Me: That’s ok!  We have a goal for learning how to make friends! We also have a goal for learning how to have a conversation.

Student: “Oh yeah, I don’t know how to do that either.”

This is summarized version of an actual conversation I have had with one of my students. (We went into his goals a little bit more in depth, but you get the idea).

Conversation skills…what are they exactly? How do we teach them? More importantly, how do we help our students learn them?

As with all good lessons we start the bottom of the ladder and scaffold our way up to the top. Teaching conversation skills is no different…but what is the bottom of the conversation ladder?

Step 1: Teaching the Vocabulary

Since many of my students struggle with language delays and disorders, I always want to make sure they have a nice, firm, grasp of the vocabulary they will need to know in order to be successful with the skill we will be practicing.

When teaching conversation skills, I like to focus on two main vocabulary words: conversation and topic.

I explain to my students that a conversation is what you do when you talk to people and that the topic is what you are talking about. Then, we brain storm all the different topics we could talk about. We identify topics the student likes to talk about and we identify topics that other people might like to talk about. Common topics I like to review are family, friends, games, books, pets, chores, school, recess, etc. I especially want my students to understand that anything ANYONE talks about can be a topic.  Keep this list of topics to refer back to as your students learn more conversation skills.

Step 2: Smile and Look

Here is the point where our sweet students learn the first actionable steps to having a conversation: smiling and looking.

Remember, we are starting at the bottom of the ladder and climbing up, so I don’t even have my students worry about talking yet.

Smiling and looking is hard enough for many of them. I don’t expect them to make eye contact with everyone, but I do encourage them to try and look at the other person’s face. I explain that when we do this, it lets the other person know that we are friendly and that we want to talk to him or her.

After we have talked about this skill in the relative safety of the speech room, we walk around the school and practice smiling and looking at everyone we meet. It sounds easy enough, but it often makes my students squirm with discomfort. With each new person we see, I remind my student why this skill is important until the student can repeat it back to me. We try and practice smiling and looking each time we walk together around the building.

Step 3: Asking Questions

Asking a question is a natural way to start a conversation. Typically, we start a conversation by asking “How are you?”, so I teach my students this first. Unfortunately, a conversation cannot be maintained on this single question alone, and our little friends need to learn other strategies for developing questions.

 Having students initiate a question around a preferred topic, helps them ease into the conversation, but it is also important to explain that they need to ask questions about many different topics. This is where that list of topics from Step 1 comes in handy. Help your students generate different questions they could ask someone about each topic on the list. I also give my students pretend scenarios and have them practice thinking of questions they could ask in each situation.

Our students always need to know why each skill is important, so I make sure they understand that asking questions gives the other person a chance to speak, which makes that person feel good and makes the conversation more interesting for the other person.

Step 4: Find Common Interests

Once our students are proficient at asking questions, they will now have the ability to find common interests with someone. We find common interests by asking questions about many different topics, until we find a topic everyone likes. I try and explain to my students how to tell if someone enjoys the topic or if the topic is not a shared interest.

Why is finding common interests an important piece of the conversation puzzle?

Because, when we find that golden spot where each communicative partner is engaged and interested, the conversation is so much more enjoyable for everyone.

 To teach my students how to find common interests, I have them first identify their own interests, then I have them practice asking questions that can help them find out if someone shares their interests. I also talk to them about how shared activities/situations such as the weather and school can be a common interest and can be used to make conversation.

Step 5: Take Turns Talking

I have listened to countless one-sided conversations perseverate on everything from squirrels to video games, and I bet you have too.

While these fixed interests are part of what makes the student unique, they aren’t functional because we know that it takes two people to have a conversation. And if one person isn’t getting the chance to speak, that isn’t really a conversation, is it?

Find a way to remind your students to take turns talking. Teaching your students to respond to a visual or auditory cue might be helpful if your student is struggling in this area.

Step 6: Stay on Topic

As we continue to climb the conversation ladder, our next rung is staying on topic. At this point, our students can (hopefully) ask questions and take turns talking, but if each conversation partner keeps trying to redirect the conversation to a specific topic…well that’s going to be a confusing conversation.

Find a cue that can remind your students what the topic is, and a cue to redirect them if they get off topic.

Step 7: Add Comments

This next step is really tricky. It can be extremely difficult for students to generate an appropriate comment, on topic, and insert it in the appropriate place in the conversation. I like to teach my students how use place holder comments such as a head nod, saying “uh huh” or “mmhmmm” to show their communicative partner they are listening. I teach them to listen for natural pauses or breaks in the conversation and insert comments in those places. I explain that adding comments like these lets their partner know they are interested and that they are paying attention.

Step 8: Ending the Conversation

Have you ever had someone literally walk away from you without doing anything to indicate they are leaving the interaction? It is kind of jolting and it is definitely awkward. Knowing how to end a conversation can be really confusing, so it’s important that we explicitly teach this skill to our students.

To do this, I explain to my students that just leaving a conversation is not polite…even if they are ready to be done with that conversation. Then I give them a few key phrases that they can use to end a conversation more politely. We also talk about making sure the other person is done talking before we leave the interaction.

Step 9: Practice

We all know that repetition is the key to learning. The more opportunities our students have to practice these skills, the easier and less awkward it will be come. I like to begin practicing full conversation skills by using conversation prompts in my classroom. I give my students a visual of the steps to having a conversation, and we work through each prompt, making sure we have used each step appropriately. If the student is struggling with a particular prompt, we practice it again until it becomes easier. Then, if it is possible, I like to practice using these skills with familiar people in our environment. This might be peers or other adults who are around us. We then practice and practice some more until the student has met mastery.  

Conversation Social Story

I have created a “How to Have A Conversation” Social Story, that teaches conversation skills using the steps I have outlined above. Each step is explained using simple, easy to understand language so that it can be understood by most learners, even those with language delays or disorders. Each of the steps above has a dedicated page in the story and a companion activity so that students can practice the skill in a structured lesson. There is also an option for the students to draw the pictures for their story. I have found these pictures spark interesting conversations and it also helps the students take more ownership of the story.

I usually spend one session teaching each step. I have found reading the story, doing the activity, and drawing the picture usually takes around 30 minutes. Afterwards, I like to send the activity home for the student to review with his or her caregivers. Once all the steps have been taught, we practice using each step together to try and form a conversation.

If you are interested in learning more about this conversation activity, please click the picture below!

How to have a conversation social story and activities
Conversation Social Story and Activities

If you’re interested in upping your pragmatic language therapy/evaluation game then you have come to the right place. Let me share my tips, tricks, and research with you so that you can approach this tricky area with confidence. Click here and we can start learning together–I even want to give you a free pragmatic language evaluation checklist so you can sample my work. If my style isn’t your cup of tea, you can unsubscribe at anytime 🙂

Click the image above if you would like a free pragmatic language evaluation checklist!

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How do you like to teach conversation skills? Do you do anything the same? Do you do anything different? Let me know in the comments below!