Conversation relates to how we interact socially with others. Conversation is “the exchange of news and ideas between two or more people.”

A speech-language therapist may refer to  conversational skills as pragmatics.  This is  the way people use language in social situations and the way that language is interpreted.

Sometimes there is a mismatch between what a child can say and HOW they say it.  The child may be able use sentences, but is not able to use them appropriately in a conversation. They might not look at you or attend to what you are saying. They might have difficulty maintaining the topic of conversation and change topics frequently, or veer off the topic on a tangent. Some children might interrupt too much or only talk about their own interests. Difficulties in any of these areas may affect social skills.  Children usually want to talk and make friends, but they just don’t know how.


There are a number of underlying skills that are needed in order to have a conversation.



Conversation involves sharing of ideas. Children may have difficulty sharing their ideas for a number of reasons.

– They may be shy or feel that they don’t have valuable information to share on the topic.

– They may not know anything about the topic and cannot contribute.

– They may not have enough language or vocabulary to talk about it.

– Their understanding may be better than their ability to express their own thoughts and ideas.

– They may have difficulty initiating a conversation.


2. Listening

Listening involves focussing on the other person and responding to what they are saying.  Active listening tells the conversational partner that you are interested in what they are saying. Nodding your head, body posture, making eye-contact, and using sounds like ‘uh-huh’ are strategies that good listeners use to engage with their conversation partner.

Children learn from what is modelled to them. However, the pervasive use of technology around us can interfere with active listening.  An excellent article in The Atlantic, discusses the dangers of distracted parenting. Find the full article over here.

Some children have difficulty attending to information and may need to practise active listening skills.




poor conversation model


3. Turn Taking

Sharing and listening are related to turn taking.  The person that is talking often signals that it is someone else’s turn to talk. Signals may include include body language and/or voice (discussed below).

Children may have difficulty taking their turn because they may be impulsive, they may have difficulty identify the signals from the speaker, or because they have difficulty anticipating when it is their turn to talk.


4. Body Language

There are a number of elements that are important to consider. In order to have a conversation, you need to be able to interpret the other person’s body language. Body language comprises of a number of areas.


It is important to remember that eye-contact may differ in different cultures and with different conversational partners.

Eye-contact can be a difficult skill to master particularly because it is not constant. Too much eye-contact or staring at the person that you are talking to is uncomfortable. Looking past the person that you are talking to can signal that you are not interested in what they saying. No eye-contact with your conversational partner can also suggest that you do not value their message. People may use eye-contact  to initiate a conversation or terminate a conversation. Eye-contact is an important element in joint attention. This refers to shared focus on an object and is important for developing communication skills.


Facial expression:

Facial expressions are universal and they are an important part of conversation because they help the listener interpret the message. For example if you share information with a smile on your face, the conversational partner will anticipate that information will be positive or funny.  Frowning during a conversation communicates that you don’t understand or agree with what the person is saying. As a result the speaker may then check if their meaning is clear.

Some children may have difficulty interpreting facial expressions, particularly when there is a mismatch between the verbal message and the facial expression. Children often have difficulty understanding jokes because the facial expression may be serious but the message may be funny.


5. Voice

Voice is not only what you say, it’s how you say it. When we speak, other people “read” our voices in addition to listening to our words. Some children have difficulty using or understanding features that are conveyed with voice.


Children may have difficulty using the correct intensity in different settings such as inside/outside, classroom environment or at the family dinner table, and private conversations versus general conversations.


Voice can be used for different functions. For example, anger can be expressed using a loud or a soft voice.  A person may express sarcasm using voice. The speed and intonation of one’s voice when speaking affects how easy or difficult it is to be a communication partner.




I will be talking about some strategies to teach conversational skills  in my next post.

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