Let’s create a hypothetical scenario that will help you understand pragmatics: 

It’s Thanksgiving, and your in-laws have invited your family over for dinner. As everyone gathers around the table, your child points at the food and says, “Ew, that’s disgusting!” then tells your sister-in-law, “You’re fat!”

Although your child may be able to follow simple directions and speak clearly, he or she may have difficulty with pragmatics. Pragmatics are the appropriate communication skills we use when we interact with others. It is also referred to as social communication and involves the vocabulary we choose, how we say it, and our body language. Basic concepts can also help with pragmatics, but it is worth paying attention to how you teach your child these social rules too, apart from general directions. 

Teaching your child pragmatics can be a difficult process.

What are Pragmatics?

Social communication skills vary between cultures. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), the three major skills of pragmatics involve using language for different purposes, changing our language depending on our audience or listener, and following rules for conversation.

Some examples of using language for different purposes include greeting others (“Hi mama!”), sharing information (“I’m sleepy”), requesting (“More milk, please”), demanding (“I want Elmo now”) and others.

Some examples of changing our language depending on our listener include speaking differently to our pets versus another person, modifying our vocabulary when speaking to a child versus an adult, and talking differently in the library versus the playground.

Some examples of following pragmatics for conversation include facial expressions, eye contact, turn-taking in conversation, topic maintenance, using gestures and body language, and awareness of our speaking volume or how close we are to the person we are speaking to.

The Challenges of Pragmatics

Difficulties with pragmatics can make it challenging for an individual to use appropriate verbal and/or nonverbal communication in social contexts, such as the Thanksgiving table example. It can also make things like starting school difficult. Additional situations that may be problematic are greeting others and introducing yourself, sharing personal information/oversharing, utilizing inappropriate language, making inappropriate comments, interrupting others in conversation, or being unable to understand humor or implied language. Over time, this can make it hard for an individual to make and sustain friendships, interpret meaning in educational contexts, or act appropriately in a work atmosphere.

Social communication disorders do not have an identified cause. It can be attributed to genetic factors and/or a family history or diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), communication disorders or specific language disorders.

What Can You Do to Help?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to improve social communication skills. A few strategies that can be applied to improve pragmatics include the following:

  • Utilizing everyday situations to improve conversation skills. After your child returns home from school, talk about his or her day. You can make it a routine to try to sequence the events in his or her day. 
  • Asking questions or make suggestions to improve topic maintenance. You can increase commenting by saying “Tell me more about…”. You can also improve requesting or asking questions by saying “You can say, may I please have _____” or “You can ask me for what you want!”
  • Role-playing. You can engage in pretend play situations, such as working on how to order food at a restaurant or how to interact with a cashier at a store.
  • Playing the politeness game! Sort sample comments or questions into “polite” or “impolite”. You can discuss whether the comments or questions are polite or rude. If the comment is rude, you can discuss how to modify it. 
  • Using visuals to improve sequencing. You can draw or use pictures in a book to practice “First, Next, Last”. For example, when making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you can explain through sequencing: First, you get the bread. Next, you put in the peanut butter and jelly. Last, you eat it!
  • Demonstrating use of nonverbal cues. You can also use pictures or videos to discuss social situations or teach feelings.
  • Making comments about topics that your child finds interesting. Ask questions related to the topic and redirect the conversation if he or she gets off-task.

Children learn pragmatics through exposure and repeated practice. You can improve your child’s social communication skills each day by using some of these strategies by just talking to your child!

About the Author

Ali Navia is an ASHA-certified speech-language pathologist who provides speech therapy services to children and families throughout Philadelphia. Ali is experienced in working with all populations, from early intervention to skilled nursing facilities. She primarily works with children with developmental language delays and various diagnoses. Ali enjoys creating individualized resources for each child’s learning style and interests to make communication fun, meaningful and engaging. She is passionate about helping families optimize their child’s ability to communicate and is experienced in supervising younger clinicians seeking certification in SLP. Ali is PROMPT-trained, PECS Level 1-trained and SOS feeding-trained.

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