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Thursday 22 June 2017

Build Your Students' Communication Skills - All Day Long

Communication deficits are one of the core symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). People with ASD can be slow to begin talking, or may not learn to talk at all; others may learn to produce words and sentences but have difficulty using them effectively to accomplish social interactive goals. Because communication is so important, everyone who works with the student has to know how to teach these skills. There is not one single way to do this. Instead there are many interventions that educators can use to teach communication skills to students with ASD. 

What to Teach

Communication not only encompasses expressive language skills; how we really information to others.  It also includes receptive language skills; understanding a message another person is trying to convey.  In most students with Autism, both receptive and expressive language skills are delayed.  Therefore, it is important to focus teaching on both aspects of communication.

Just like all other skills, the communication skills we teach will be individualized to meet the unique needs to the student. To determine which skills to teach, you should consult with your school's Speech and Language Pathologist and also complete an assessment, such as the ABLLS-R, VB-MAPP or HELP.  Once you have completed the assessment and consulted with your SLP, you can choose developmentally appropriate goals for your students.

Mode of Communication 

When teaching communication, we know what we teach will vary from student to student. However, communication is much more complicated. The method or mode that the student uses to communicate will vary too.  In my classroom, we a variety of modalities based on each student's unique needs.  We use vocal language, PECS, ASL, Core Boards and iPads with Prologue 2 Go on them.

We want communication to be enjoyable and meaningful for the student with ASD and using an appropriate system for the student is one of the first steps. If the student does not talk, then the educational team will determine the mode of communication to teach the student. Sometimes a student will have only one mode they are learning. For example, Amy is working only on learning sign language. Other students may have more than one mode. For example, Conner uses both words and pictures to communicate.

Once the mode of communication is chosen, all staff in the classroom should receive training on it, if necessary.  It is important that all staff are consistent in how they are using that mode of communication with the student.  For example, there are specific phases in the PECS protocol that need to be followed when teaching a student to use that system.  There are also variations in signs in ASL and it can be confusing for a student if staff aren't using the same sign for one word.  

How to Teach

Just as with any other kind of instruction we have to individualize how we teach communication skills to each student.  There are two main teaching methods I use in my classroom when teaching communication skills.  

The first method is often referred to as didactic. A large body of research has demonstrated that didactic approaches are an effective means of initially developing attention to and understanding of language, as well as initiating speech production in preverbal children with ASD. Discrete Trial Instruction (DTI) entails dividing the chosen skill into components and training each component individually, using highly structured, drill-like procedures. Intensive training utilizes shaping, prompting, prompt fading, and reinforcement strategies. Trials continue until the child produces the target response with minimal prompting; at which point the next step in the hierarchy of behaviors (such as correctly pointing to the named picture from among two pictures) is presented and trained.

The second method is called developmental or pragmatic. This approach emphasizes functional communication, rather than speech, as a goal. As such, teachers encourage the development of multiple aspects of communication, such as the use of gestures, gaze, affect, and vocalization, and hold these behaviors to be necessary precursors to speech production. Activities provide multiple opportunities and temptations to communicate; the teacher responds to any student initiation by providing rewarding activities. Thus the student directs the interaction and chooses the topics and materials from among a range that the adult provides. Teachers strive to create an affectively positive environment by following the student’s lead, and react supportively to any behavior that can be interpreted as communicative (even if it was not intended in that way).

Teaching Across the Day

Use natural opportunities to teach communication skills

Anytime there is a natural opportunity to work on a communication skill, grab it!  Learning new communication skills will be challenging for the student. It is important that we pay attention and respond to all attempts of communication by the student. This is especially important when the communication is appropriate! Let’s look at an example. Madison is just learning to request. Because talking is new to her, the words are not always clear. She says “coo-ee”. The teacher is thrilled that Madison tried to say the word “cookie” and gives her a bite.

Responding to all attempts to communicate really requires us to pay close attention! Sometimes the student’s desire to communicate will be obvious. For example, Emily screams and reaches towards the snack shelf. It is obvious that Emily is “communicating” that she wants something to eat. Sometimes, however, the student’s attempt to communicate will be more subtle. Let’s look at Luke. He will often walk up to the teacher and stand beside him. He says nothing. In this example, Luke wants to communicate, but does not know how. It is our job to figure out what he wants and to help him. You must therefore take the lead and ask Luke if he needs something or ask him to show you what he wants.

Provide a lot of opportunities to teach communication skills   

In addition to taking advantage of times that naturally pop up during the school day, you will also need to create times for the student to work on communication. This can be done in several different ways. Sometimes it might be done while working alone with the student at the table. For example, Alex is working on talking with appropriate grammar. During the day you might sit down with Alex and spend several minutes having a conversation, while helping him to use good grammar.

Other ways you might teach communication throughout the day is to “set up situations” by manipulating the environment or materials. As you work with students with ASD, this will become one of the best ways you can teach communication during the school day. Manipulating the environment simply means you structure it in such a way that it fosters communication.  

In my classroom, we have child safety locks on all of the cupboard doors, so that students have to request to open the door and retrieve a desired toy or edible.  We also lock the door to the bathroom, to work on requesting to use the washroom.  During art class, we withhold needed supplies so that the students have to request what they need and we also teach them to ask for the colour they want to use as well.

Plan when you will teach communication skills
When I make my class schedule, I identify when we will work on different skills and post this in each area of the classroom.  For example, during our morning meeting we work on greetings, answering questions, and requesting to have a turn.  During direct instruction times (DTT sessions), we use didactic teaching methods to work on receptive and expressive language skills, as outlined in the student's IEP.  Examples of these skills include identifying and tacting noun objects, action words, adjectives, prepositions, etc., echoics (vocal imitation), manding (requesting) and intraverbals (filling in blanks, answering questions).  During free play and floortime sessions, we use developmental or pragmatic methods to work on communication skills.

Here is an example of how you could work on specific communication goals throughout the day:

Time of Day
Communication Skill
Greet teacher
Request: use bathroom
Request: drink of water
Request: materials needed for reading (book and pencil)
Request: reinforcement item to play with for working hard
8:30 – 8:45
Request: chair to sit in
Request: song to sing in group
Request: puppet to use during turn taking
Request: item to play with after group time
Request: snack to eat
Request: drink preference
Request: straw
Request: indicate when finished
Request: bathroom
Request: materials needed for math (book and pencil)
Request: break
Request: reinforcement item to play with for working hard

Additional Tips

  • Provide praise and reinforcement anytime the student uses an appropriate communication skill or tries to use the skill.
  • Prompt the student to help him or her learn to use the new skill.
  • Know when you will work on different communication skills during the school day

How do you incorporate teaching communication skills into your day?  I'd love to hear from you!  Leave a comment or shoot me an email!  Thanks for stopping by!

Until next time,


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