How to Help a Child with Pragmatic Language Impairment

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Helping children develop their pragmatics is an important part of assisting their language development as well as their social and emotional growth. This lesson gives you some ideas about how to help students with pragmatic language impairments.

Understanding Pragmatics

Deborah has been working as a speech and language pathologist for many years. In the early days, she mostly focused on helping her students develop their pronunciation skills and syntax.

Lately, though, Deborah is seeing more and more students who struggle with the pragmatics of language. Deborah knows that pragmatics are the aspect of language that deals with how words, phrases, and sentences are used in authentic interactions.

Pragmatics, in other words, are practical. Students with good pragmatics can more fluidly navigate social, academic, and, later, employment situations. They are more adept at presenting themselves and understanding the communications of others.

Deborah's students with autistic spectrum disorders tend to struggle with pragmatics, as do those who came late to language development. She sets out to learn more about how to help children with pragmatic language impairments.

Visual and Sensory Learning

Deborah realizes right away that many children who struggle with pragmatics benefit from working from other learning modalities. These students may not work best verbally, so Deborah tries to make use of visuals and tactile activities whenever possible.

For instance, she has her students jot notes in graphic organizers before they enter into a conversation. She uses photo cards to give them opportunities to express themselves, describe emotions, or talk about social situations.

She also lets her students use sensory fidgets when working on language tasks, and she encourages them to use their bodies and facial expressions to aid their capacity for self-expression.

Scaffolded Peer Interactions

Deborah knows that the best way for her students to develop their pragmatics is to give them opportunities to interact with peers. At the same time, she knows that peer interactions are exactly what is challenging for them.

She realizes that she will have to scaffold, or support, her students in interactions with peers. She asks colleagues to recommend peers who are well suited to these interactions, and Deborah observes and offers occasional advice when her students talk or play with other children.

Deborah knows well that not all of this work will be able to happen in her office or even in the school where she works. She involves families in scaffolding their children's interactions with peers as well, encouraging frequent playdates and other interactions outside of school. She tells families to sign children up for extracurricular activities where they can excel, and that their interactions in these settings will be more fluid, thus improving their pragmatics.

Scripts and Social Stories

For some of Deborah's students, developing pragmatics is actually a matter of memorizing specific language and strategies for navigating stressful or complex situations. For these students, Deborah finds it especially beneficial to work with scripts or social stories.

Social stories are anecdotes told from the perspective of a hypothetical student who is working on navigating a realistic scenario. For students who struggle with pragmatics, Deborah uses social stories about going to a party, starting a conversation, or asking a stranger a question, to name a few.

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