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Tip of the Month July 2014 – Supporting Receptive Language

Supporting Understanding of Spoken Language

By Michelle King (SLT) and Fern Jones (SLT)


Want the PDF? Find it here July 2014 – Receptive Language Tip


Language and communication is complex and often challenging for our early communicators. Early communicators are people of all ages who do not have a reliable method of expressive communication through symbolic language.  When individuals are learning to communicate, they are probably just starting to use augmentative communication tools and strategies to talk about what is happening right now; what and who they want; they are learning to say “more” and “finished” and “stop” and “I want”. It can be challenging to follow instructions, understand questions and follow routines.

Often early communicators are aware of changes in routine and important people in their environments. However, it can be difficult to talk about these things, especially what has happened in the past, and things that are going to happen.


A lot of early communicators can find following instructions and understanding questions challenging and become upset by changes in routine. Such as, what’s happening now, next, when a favourite thing will happen, and when they will see a favourite person again. You might see someone who does not do what is asked of them or refuses to answer a question. You may see behaviour, such as appearing upset, in an attempt to let people know “something’s wrong”.



Visuals can help to make the abstract ideas of language a bit more concrete. Using visuals to give instructions, ask questions or show how a routine works can help early communicators understand what is happening.


Understanding question words

colourful semantics makaton where

Knowing what question to answer is hard for some of our language learners. Narrative questions can be supported by using gestures, signs, colours and/or symbols to help them understand. When asking a question, give a sign/gesture or point to the picture/word. This helps your early communicator to understand what question you’re asking, helping them to answer it. The key is being consistent so that the signs/symbols can be learnt, helping your early communicator to understand.

Following instructions

brushing teeth following instructions flat pack guide mr potato head instructions

We all need help following instructions sometimes – especially if we are putting together flat pack furniture! Having a way to give instructions using visuals helps the people we are working with to be independent and to help understand what they need to do. You can even use simple drawings to help following a set of instructions. One great way to build these skills is in activities such as cooking, when it’s necessary to follow a recipe.


Doing the right thing

Sometimes our early communicators find it hard to work out how to communicate frustration or follow social rules. This can sometimes lead to challenging behaviour such as hitting, screaming or crying. Having ways to demonstrate ‘the right thing to do’ and giving a visual scale to work with, can reduce some challenging behaviours. Take a look at the 5 Point Scale below. Social stories can also give lots of great information about making good choices or giving options to replace challenging behaviour e.g. “Mum doesn’t like it when I hit. Instead I can go for a walk, show my ‘I’m angry card’ or have a drink of water”

5 point scale 5 point scale 2 social story

You don’t need any special equipment to create your own visuals to support your early communicator’s understanding.

schedule michelle

. The following is an example of an impromptu countdown depicting how many school days until a teacher returns to school:

post it note schedule

This support has been printed on photo paper and the family has used BlueTac to affix the symbols and photo to a blank sheet. The countdown visual is visited each night before bed. Granddad will return when all of the “sleeps” symbols have been flipped over.

going to grandads

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Fern Jones

Fern Jones

Speech Language Therapist at The Talklink Trust
My passion is working with profound and multiple learning disabilities and providing communication solutions for clients and their families.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.talklink.org.nz/index.php/2014/07/14/tip-of-the-month-july-2014-supporting-receptive-language/

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