Teaching Communication Skills for Speaking and Non-Speaking Children

Teaching Communication Skills for Speaking and Non-Speaking Children
Whether you are a parent of a young child developing speech or you are the parent of a child with a speech delay or disorder utilizing augmentative-alternative communication (AAC) strategies, the following six, quick tips will help you facilitate your child’s language and communication skills.

  1. Require your child uses symbolic communication.

    What is symbolic communication? Symbolic communication is achieved when an individual expresses a thought or idea using a unit of language (i.e., a symbol) that has a shared meaning between the user and the listener. Symbolic communication maybe expressed using spoken words, sign language, pointing to picture communication symbols or objects. Most children begin to use their first words between the ages of 12-18 months although this varies. For children who have been diagnosed with an expressive language delay by a speech-language pathology, their first words may come significantly later. For these children, augmentative-alternative communication (AAC) strategies should be implemented as soon as possible to foster language, communication, cognitive and social development, decrease frustration, and enhance self-esteem.

    Once your child has learned to communicate using a symbol (in the beginning it may be only one or a few symbols), you should require that he continue to use that symbol every time he attempts to communicate that particular idea. For example, if your child learns to use sign language to sign "cookie" to request a cookie, then every time he asks for a cookie he needs to sign for "cookie." Once he understands how to use the symbol (in this case sign language), he should no longer be allowed to cry, grunt or tantrum to get what he wants. The goal is to teach your child to use higher communication skills (i.e., symbolic communication).

    Many children will continue to cry, grunt and tantrum because it is easier than using symbolic communication IF IT GETS THEM WHAT THEY WANT! You should not reinforce lower levels of communication if you know your child understands how to make the request using a symbol. Make this a family RULE! Discuss the importance of this rule with other family members so they also require the child to use symbols and BE CONSISTENT. If one family member does not "buy into" this rule what often happens is the child learns that he doesn't have to work to communicate with this one family member. Thus, he prefers to make requests of this person to avoid hard work and ultimately prolong learning to use symbolic communication.

  2. Control and manipulate the environment.

    Most beginning communicators are highly motivated to communicate for desired items. If your child has easy access to all of his favorite things and he is independent in obtaining these things, he has no reason to ask for them.

    You can control the environment by either keeping desired items out of sight (somewhere where your child will not find them) or keeping them out of reach. For example, keeping videos on a high shelf that your child can't get to or storing treats in a container that your child can not open manipulates the environment so the child must communicate to get what he wants.

    If you are concerned that your child may experience a loss of independence from implementing this strategy, consider that there are many areas of your child's life where independence can be taught. Teach independence during activities of daily living such as: feeding, dressing, bathing and grooming. More advanced independence skills include: setting the table, making lunch, collecting trash, placing laundry in the hamper, making the bed, caring for pets, etc. Encouraging independence is important; however, independence should not come at the price of learning to communicate.

    NOTE: If your child is accustomed to always having access to his favorite things it is likely you will meet resistance when he is required to work for these items. Learning to communicate can be hard work for many children and the easy way out is to cry, and even tantrum to obtain what they want. It is important that your child have an easy and reliable form of communication to replace these behaviors. If your child is non-speaking, consult with a speech-language pathologist (SLP) to determine if augmentative-alternative communication (AAC) strategies would be beneficial and what types of augmentative-alternative communication (AAC) strategies are appropriate for your child to easily replace crying and tantrum behaviors. If the communication system is too difficult for your child or if the system does not contain appropriate vocabulary (i.e., what YOUR CHILD wants to say - NOT what the adults in his life want him to say) it will FAIL!

  3. Plan ahead for communication opportunities.

    The best way to teach children communication skills is within real-life, meaningful activities; it is important to plan specific activities or times of the day to incorporate communication practice into your daily life. This may be as simple as planning a snack routine where your child is required to request his snack and drink. You can increase the opportunities for communication by giving only a small amount of food (i.e., a tiny piece of a preferred food; just enough to wet his appetite and only a mouthful of drink) each time your child makes a request. Using small amounts of food and drink are generally appropriate for children who are beginning to learn to communicate; this is done to increase the amount of opportunities they have to practice communicating within a short period of time.

    For children who understand how to make simple requests, such as the example stated above, more complex communication needs should be addressed. For example, you can involve your child in snack preparation where he must tell you what ingredient goes in next and what action needs to take place (i.e., pour the milk, scoop the flour, stir the mix). For children who use AAC, it is critical that you plan ahead to determine what vocabulary your child will need to have access to during the activity. It helps to imagine how the activity will go and what words your child will need access to in order to communicate effectively. Repeating activities is great to build your child's confidence in his communication skills. Don't worry if you forget some vocabulary the first time you plan an activity, you'll have other opportunities to include more vocabulary when you repeat the activity. Keep in mind that while repetition of activities is good for increasing learning opportunities, be mindful of incorporating some change into the activity so your child doesn't become bored or dependent on the routine.

  4. Use sabotage and temptations for increased communication opportunities.

    Sabotage familiar routines or situations to get your child communicating. If life is too routine and predictable then most of your child's needs are likely being met without him having to communicate for them. For example, give your child a fork to eat his cereal with and see how he problem solves this "mistake." Loosen the top to the glue bottle so it falls off when someone uses it. Model words that describe your reaction to what happened, "uh oh," or "messy." Hide a broken toy with other toys and when it is discovered, encourage your child to comment about the toy by modeling words like, "broken toy," "no wheel," and "lost it."

    Communicative temptations can be used to encourage requesting. For example, give all of your family members a favorite dessert after dinner but "forget" to give it to your child who is working on communication. If he doesn't ask for one, sit down and enjoy the desert; try tempting him by telling him how much you are enjoying it so he will want to ask for one using symbolic communication. Make sure your child has some reliable form of communicating that he wants the dessert and prompt him to use it if necessary. You want to provide prompts before problem behaviors arise. For example, if your child expresses an interest in the dessert but does not use symbolic communication to make the request, you can verbally prompt him by saying, "Oh, do you want something? Use your words and tell me what you want." If your child uses sign language or pictures to communicate ask him to use his sign or picture to tell you what he wants. If he requires more prompting, model the correct response verbally, with a sign or point to the picture for dessert. Give your child as much prompting as needed to avoid problem behaviors from arising. If problem behaviors do arise, be sure not to reinforce these behaviors by giving your child the dessert.

  5. Follow your child's lead.

    There are great opportunities for teaching communication during play, but too often we get caught up in trying to teach and we lose the playful moments. When playing with your child, allow him to lead you to what he is interested in. Engage him by getting down at his eye level and begin imitating his actions, noises and movements. For example, if he is rolling a truck, do the same and imitate the sounds he is making. Don't be afraid to WAIT for your child to respond to you. It is important to watch your child play, imitate him and go in his direction rather than trying to lead him in the direction you think he should go. Let your child lead you and you'll find he is more interested in interacting with you during play. Once you have your child's attention, you can slowly add variations to your child's play that you introduce to teach and expand your child's skills.

    NOTE: Some parents of children with autism may not observe their child playing appropriately with toys or others. Children with autism tend to spend a majority of their "down time" (i.e., time when they are not engaged in structured activities) alone and demonstrating self stimulating behaviors. If you have designated an appropriate time in the day for your child to engage in self-stimulating behaviors, try imitating your child’s behaviors along side him. In this way you are following your child’s lead. Make the goal of this activity maintaining shared attention through eye contact and facial expressions. You are creating a social connection which is often difficult for children with autism to establish by following your child’s lead. Please read more about improving social interaction skills in children with autism in my article "How to Improve Joint Attention Skills in Child with Autism".

  6. Listen to your child.

    1. Interpret your child's actions and put them into words.

      For example, if your child handed you a cup and pointed to the refrigerator you can interpret by saying, "Oh, you want juice." If you drop an egg and your child points to the mess, you can interpret by saying, "Broken egg, messy!" By interpreting your child's actions you are preparing him to use symbolic communication by modeling the appropriate words. If your child uses augmentative-alternative communication (AAC) you can interpret and model both verbally and by using your child’s AAC system.

    2. Add to what your child is saying.

      When your child begins to use symbolic communication you can enhance his communication and language skills by adding a little bit to things he says. For example, if your child sees a flower and says, "Pretty flower" you can add a little bit by saying, "Pretty flower, smells good!" By adding a little bit you are modeling language skills at the next level. You are preparing your child for greater language and communication skills without over whelming him with too much added information. For augmentative-alternative communication (AAC) users, you can add to what your child is communicating both verbally and by using the AAC system.

In summary, helping your child become a functional communicator involves several key elements:

  1. Your child must have a reliable, easy to use communication system if he is functionally nonverbal.

  2. You must consistently require your child to use symbolic communication.

  3. Control and manipulate the environment so your child wants to ask for things.

  4. Use temptation and sabotage to increase opportunities for communication.

  5. Teach communication skills during naturally occurring activities by following your child’s lead.

  6. Listen to what your child is trying to communicate and interpret his actions into words as well as adding to what he is saying.


  1. Dyer, L. 2004. Look Who’s Talking! How to Enhance Your Child’s Language Development, Starting at Birth. Minnetonka, MN: Meadowbrook Press

  2. Manolson, A. 1992. It Takes Two to Talk (3rd Revision). Ontario, Canada: The Hanen Center.

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