Teaching Verbal & Nonverbal Communication Skills in SPED

Instructor: Clio Stearns

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

As a special education teacher, one of your most serious obligations is helping students develop communication skills. This lesson discusses evidence-based strategies for teaching verbal and nonverbal communication.

Why Communication Counts

In Gina's self-contained, mixed-age special education class, students know that their needs are taken seriously. Gina understands a wide range of disabilities and works hard to help her students make academic progress toward the goals mandated on their IEPs (individual education programs).

She also spends time focusing on their social and emotional needs and development. Gina knows that one key to academic as well as social and emotional development is communication, or the ability to understand what others are saying and to express what you want to relay.

Gina knows that if her students can communicate, they can express their ideas, understand others' thoughts and feelings, and maintain more effective relationships. She spends a lot of time teaching communication skills in her classroom.

Verbal Communication

One aspect of communication, Gina knows, is verbal communication, or communication involving spoken words. This is especially challenging for students with language delays and profound language-based learning disabilities. Gina knows that she has to work explicitly on verbal communication skills with these students.


One aspect of developing verbal communication has to do with helping students improve their vocabularies. After all, when students know and understand more words, they can get a more complex array of ideas across.

To work on vocabulary development, Gina:

  • Uses visual tools, like illustrated dictionaries and photo cards
  • Has students use their bodies to act out the meanings of words
  • Actively uses necessary vocabulary in context
  • Relies on repetition to get vocabulary into students' long term memories

Oral Language Practice

Gina also knows that practicing oral language, or language that is spoken and heard, will help students improve their verbal communication. She pairs students up and gives them prompts or topics to talk about, gradually extending the time they are expected to keep conversation going.

Each day in morning meeting, Gina asks another student to share by describing something they are interested in talking about. Gina makes a point to give students plenty of time to express themselves and asks families to make oral language part of their daily relationships with students.

Modeling and Incidental Teaching

Lastly, Gina understands that the incidental teaching she does will make a big difference in students' verbal communication. This means that Gina does not necessarily need to plan a particular lesson around verbal communication; instead, she models it throughout the day and incorporates it into all of her other lessons.

Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication, or that which happens without words, is also a big part of connecting with other people. This is especially hard for students on the autism spectrum and those with emotional impairments.

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