Pragmatic language, also known as social communication, is the social use of language, or how it is used in everyday communication. Whereas receptive language is the understanding of language, and expressive language looks at what we express/the output of language, pragmatic language incorporates the social aspect of both types.

Pragmatic language looks at how language is used in specific environments and across communication partners.

This may include how an individual speaks with their peers, caregivers, teachers, or medical professionals. For example, you would probably communicate differently to a 3-year-old than with a grandparent. In previous posts, we have dove deeper into pragmatic language and its importance, which we recommend checking out for more information! This post also includes pragmatic language milestones for different ages.

Many individuals with autism or developmental disabilities may have pragmatic language deficits and would benefit from intervention to develop these skills. As a parent or caregiver, you may want to support your loved one’s pragmatic language development, but are not sure exactly how to do so. In this post, we will break down ways to support pragmatic language development including modeling and role-playing these skills.

First Things First

Speech & Language Evaluation: If you suspect an individual’s pragmatic language skills are not up to par, we recommend a speech-language evaluation provided by a licensed speech-language pathologist (SLP). Be sure to mention that you are concerned about pragmatic language skills! Following an evaluation, if speech and language intervention is recommended, pragmatic language goals may be included.

Looking for resources? We have a whole post on pragmatic language goals!

Speech & Language Intervention: If your loved one is currently receiving intervention for speech and language, and an evaluation has indicated they may have pragmatic language deficits, you may double check with the SLP that developing pragmatic language skills are a part of their goals and intervention plans.

Looking for resources? We have numerous pragmatic language resources on our site as well!

SLP Recommendations: A blog post can only go so far - the SLP providing intervention and you know the individual better than we do! We recommend consulting with your SLP to see what they suggest for supporting pragmatic language development for your loved one. Research has demonstrated that collaboration between the SLP and caregivers has a positive effect on an individual’s speech and language development and treatment! This may also be known as family-centered practice, which, among many other points, includes “teaching families interaction skills to support and manage behavior and the development of communication and language.” (ASHA)

What else can I do?

Whether or not your loved one is receiving intervention, there are still many things you can do to support pragmatic language development. Research supports the notion that supporting skills in naturalistic or everyday settings (e.g. at home, during play and daily activities) is beneficial and effective.

Topic maintenance: If staying on topic for a conversation is a skill an individual is developing, you may ask them to say three things about a favorite game, TV show, or school day, to work on stating information about a specific topic. In our Best of...June post about webs, we talked about how we use webs in our sessions when working on topic maintenance.

Commenting/asking questions: If commenting on or asking questions about different situations is a developing skill, you may encourage an individual to make a comment by saying, “tell me more about [keyword]…” or asking a question, such as, “what did you do?”

Whole-body listening: The concept of whole-body listening is the idea that you listen not only with your ears, but also with your eyes, hands, feet...i.e., your whole body. Listening to what someone else is saying is important so that an individual can stay on topic, make appropriate comments, comment about it, and more. For more information on whole-body listening, we recommend checking out this site on social thinking.

Model: Model, model, model! Demonstrate the pragmatic language skills your loved one is developing. You likely do this already, but being more intentional about it can be helpful as well. For example, you may demonstrate whole-body listening and verbally state that you are looking at them, your hands and feet are not doing something else, and your brain is ready to listen. If they are working on asking on-topic questions, you may have them pick a topic and then you ask on the on-topic questions.

Role-play: While role-playing is not as naturalistic or a part of everyday situations, it can still be helpful and beneficial for individuals. If they are working on requesting specific wants and needs, you may spend some time role-playing that. For example, if an individual does not often ask for help or assistance from teachers or other direct support professionals, you can pretend you are the teacher or support staff and they practice asking you for help.

Being involved in speech and language intervention can help an individual SO much, and we hope that this post has provided more insight and direction into supporting their pragmatic language development. For more resources on pragmatic language, we suggest you explore our pragmatic language tag, the following YouTube video, as well as the resources listed below!

This is a great series on pragmatic language development. Video 6 is all about supporting pragmatic language. 

Citations/Further resources: