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Social communication (pragmatics)

Pragmatics describes the way we understand and use language and communication in social situations.

This includes our verbal skills, such as changing the way we speak depending on who we’re speaking to and taking turns in a conversation. It also includes our non-verbal skills, like body language, facial expressions and eye contact.

While your child may be able to speak complex sentences, this doesn’t always mean they understand how to use language and communication effectively.

If your child is having trouble using language and communication effectively, you’ll notice that they:

  • Make contributions that are unrelated to the topic
  • Have limited understanding and use of facial expressions
  • Understand language in a literal way and can’t understand common saying and sarcasm
  • Talk in a more mature way than other children
  • Successfully read something without the understanding it’s meaning
  • Talk too casually to a teacher or too formally with other children
  • Launch into long monologues with limited awareness of the listener’s interest or needs
  • Have difficulty making and maintaining friendships as other children may find them annoying or irritating
  • Have rigid, inflexible opinions
  • Have interests and topics of conversation they are obsessive about
  • Struggle with tasks that need them to infer, predict and reason
  • Have difficulty in appropriately starting, maintaining and ending conversations
  • Lack imaginative play and language

There are a number of techniques you can use to help your child develop their pragmatics, including:

  • Providing and discussing a visual timetable every day to help them prepare for any changes to their usual routine
  • Keeping language simple and in order, e.g. “Put your books away, then go out to play”, rather than “Go out to play after you’ve put your books away
  • Understanding that they may not respond appropriately to your body language, facial expression or tone of voice
  • Using literal language wherever possible and explain any use of abstract or non-literal language, such as common sayings and sarcasm
  • Using Circle Time to help develop their social and communication skills
  • Giving them immediate feedback on their communications, e.g. “Well done , you waited for your turn” or “We are talking about holidays now. You can tell us about Thomas the Tank Engine later”
  • Giving your child a specific time where they can choose the topic of conversation
  • Checking that they fully understand what they’re reading
  • Giving them extra support, such as helping them interact with or play with other children
  • Include them in supported social skills groups
  • Work with them on a social story to discuss changes in routines and behaviour
  • Demonstrate good conversation skills to your child and make the rules of conversation very clear
  • Support the young person in problem-solving a situation by discussing the possible choices and consequences; for example, you could get them to draw diagrams with speech bubbles to support this
  • Identify a member of staff or peer in school that they can talk to if issues come up#
  • Use real-life examples as they come up as teaching opportunities; for example, ‘how did you feel when…’ / ‘how do you think X will feel?’
  • Give specific feedback about what they’ve done well in a situation; for example, ‘you waited really nicely for X to have their turn’
  • Include the young person in Emotional Literacy Support (ELSA) or social skills groups in school
  • Think about different ways you could start a conversation with someone; you could comment on the weather or environment or ask a question (e.g. “it’s really hot today isn’t it?” or “did you watch the game last night?”)
  • Think about different ways you could end a conversation politely, and consider how to recognise that the other person may want to end the conversation
  • Remember not everyone wants to talk about the same things as each other, so it’s important to let other people talk about things they are interested in too
  • Join a lunch or after school club to get the chance to chat to different people. Ask your tutor about what is available at your school
  • Speak to a teacher you trust when a problem comes up. They will be able to work with you to work out what may have gone wrong and what you can do next
  • See if there are any activities in your local area which you would like to go to outside of school

If you’ve tried all of these techniques and you’re still not seeing any improvement after three months, please speak to your GP or health professional.

Social Skills Programmes

  • Talk About books website
  • Socially Speaking: Pragmatic Social Skills Programme, Schroeder, A (Winslow Press)
  • Dealing with Feeling: An Emotional Literacy Curriculum for Children Aged 7-13, Rae, T (Lucky Duck Books) 
  • Social Skills Programmes. An integrated approach from early years to adolescence, Aarons, M and Gittens, T. (Speechmark Publishers)
  • Developing Pupils’ Social Communication Skills, Barrett,  P et al. (David Fulton Publishers)

Resources and Activities

Further information