Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Teaching Conversational Skills

So many of my students have difficulties with conversational skills. Speaking with them one to one, it may not always be clear, but observing them in different settings (the cafeteria, by their lockers, in the halls between bells) allows you to get an earful….

After speaking with a behaviorist in my school, I thought about how to address conversational skills. One way I have been teaching these skills is with the acronym TOAST.

T= choose a topic
O= offer opinion
A= ask questions
S= share similar experiences and feelings
T= talk about what you know

When teaching about topics, I first try to teach about the audience. Students need to understand that the topics they introduce will be different, depending on if they are speaking with a familiar or unfamiliar adult, peer, or family member. One of my students rushes to greet me daily, saying, “’Sup dude? How’s it goin? I’ma ask out one a these fine ladies, which one you like?” While this might be appropriate with friends, it is certainly not appropriate to speak this way to an adult.

The behaviorist who cotaught with me began a lesson with this power point slide to introduce differentiating between peers and adults: 

It was pretty generic, and my students needed further breakdown to understand what topics were appropriate to discuss with different people.  This is what I used for my next lesson:

Second, I teach students to discuss a variety of age-appropriate universal topics. We discuss weather, pets, sports teams, current events, movies and television shows. 

Third, it is also important to teach students how to find the main idea of a conversation so they can jump in with relevant comments and questions.  Most of my students enter into a conversation between others by introducing a new topic of their own, rather than trying to follow the conversation already taking place.  Students also need to learn how to interrupt conversations politely, when to step into a conversation, and when it may not be appropriate.

Finally, it is important to help a student determine when to introduce a new topic, and how to make the transition smoothly.  Some lead-ins for topic initiation include the following questions: 
"Hey, did anyone hear about....?"
"What do you think about...?"
"Did you see...?"


If your students don't know the difference between facts and opinions, this needs to be taught.  Once students know the difference, they need to understand how to give an opinion politely.  Most of my students don't fully comprehend others perspectives, so I teach them how other people might react to their opinions.  We act out conversations and 
switching roles has really helped my students.  The students also learn to identify when other people are offering an opinion by identifying phrases such as:

"I really like...."
"I don't like/dislike/hate...."
I agree/don't agree with...."
"I think...."
"I believe...."

Ask questions:

Children need to learn that there is give and take in conversation.  I have many students who only speak about themselves and what they like, but never ask me or their friends any questions.  This makes for a very one-sided conversation, with the conversation partner feeling very left out.  Again, I teach perspective-taking in this situation, typically after a weekend or a vacation, when I speak about everything I did, but don't leave students the opportunity to tell about their vacation or weekend. The students catch on quickly, and then we learn about reciprocity.  I teach them to ask questions like: 

"How do you feel about...?"
"Why did you...?"
"What happened when...?"
"What did you like/not like about...?"
Share similar experiences and feelings

Peers may or may not have the same experiences and feelings about those experiences.  For instance, one child may enjoy roller coasters, while another one has a fear of them.  A third may not ever have been on a roller coaster.  We need to teach them to not only respect another's opinion, but that they do not have to have the same feeling or experience to converse.  In the example above, we can teach a child to think of a time s/he was scared by something.  Phrases we can teach students to say when sharing similar experiences include:

"I remember when I felt...."
"I had something like that happen to me once."
"I know what that's like because...."
"I saw/did the same thing once."

Talk about what you know

As we know, many children with ASD do this in excess.  In this situation, we need to teach that it is appropriate to state what you know, but we also need to teach those nonverbal signals that reveal interest and boredom from a listener.  

Some phrases we can teach our students are: 
"I know a little bit about...."
"I learned about that when...."
"I saw something on tv/read something about...."

Once these skills are learned, I start combining them.  If I have a group of five students, I assign one component of the TOAST acronym to each student.  When the students are called on (or pointed to), they need to use their role in the conversation to respond.    Here is an example of a conversation that uses these skills:

Child 1: (pick a topic): Have you read the book Divergent? 
Child 2: (offer an opinion): I really liked that book!
Child 3: (ask a question): Which faction would you be part of if you had to choose?
Child 2 (offer an opinion): I would be Amity, because I want everyone to get along and have peace.
Child 4: (Share a similar experience): I read the book too, and I remember I wanted to be in Amity as well!
Child 5: (Talk about what you know): I learned all about the factions at the book club in the library after school.

This is just one example of how I teach conversational skills.  

Here are some posts by other bloggers about conversational skills: 
Miss Thrifty SLP blogs about conversational breakdowns here.
Speech Universe discusses having conversations in this post.
SLPRunner discusses thought boxes here.