Using Play as a School SLP to Build Speech-Language Skills in Children and Adolescents

Play is a natural part of development for children that do not have learning delays. However, many of the students we work with in speech-language therapy have underdeveloped play skills. Play skills influence cognitive, social, communication, and language development. Speech-language pathologists are an important part of the school team that can help facilitate children’s and adolescents’ growth of the three main types of play: functional, symbolic, and game play. During structured speech-language therapy sessions, we can provide opportunities for children and adolescents to develop these essential skills while using strategies to increase their receptive and expressive language skills. Children can build functional and educationally relevant communication skills through play based activities.

Most speech language pathologists who work with preschoolers naturally incorporate functional and symbolic play based activities in therapy sessions. They do a great job of going in the classroom during center rotations or incorporating play during a circle time activity with their bag of fun toys. Young children learn how to build a tower with blocks, put a basic puzzle together, build Mr. Potato Head, and blow bubbles.  They practice labeling nouns, expressing actions, making requests, and waiting for their turn during play. Speech-language pathologists may help preschool children engage in dramatic or pretend play with toys while eliciting communication skills.

As children get older, it is important to remember that SLPs can still play a role in facilitating functional, symbolic, and game play skills in elementary and middle school aged students. When you incorporate play in therapy sessions, students are typically more motivated to participate and initiate communication.

Here are 4 tips for elementary school SLPs to use while still addressing students’ IEP goals and objects:

1) Use toys as a reward after completing a speech/language task. Try using a First/Then chart with minimally verbal children. They should first participate in a structured activity such as listening to you read an interactive book and then play a fun learning activity such as sensory bin, puzzle, blocks, or play-doh.

2) Use Vocabulary, Grammar, or Social Skills Chipper Chat. Kids love earning tokens and playing with the magnetic wand. They practice turn taking skills with their classmates while working on their IEP goals.

3) Use learning games such as HedBanz, Blurt!, Vocabulary BINGO, or Jeepers Peepers to practice speech-language skills.

4) Play I Spy game in the speech room to work on following directions, speech articulation, identifying objects and describing objects using attributes.

Here are 4 tips for middle school SLPs to use while still addressing students’ IEP goals and objects:

1) Use a standard board game and language task cards that require them to problem solve, use context clues to explain meanings of words, explain cause/effect, make inferences, state fact/opinion, etc.

2) Play games such as Madlibs to work on parts of speech and syntax.

3) Play traditional games such as Apple to Apples, Jenga, and 20 Questions for kids to build skills.

4) Watch video clips about social scenarios and talk about the perspective of others, expected behaviors, and unexpected behaviors. Have your language students role play scenarios and you record them in action.

You may also use seasonal/themed open-ended reinforcer games to increase engagement of children and adolescents (e.g. basketball, St. Patrick’s Day theme, spring). I encourage you to think about how often you incorporate play based activities in your speech language therapy sessions. This is a valuable strategy that should extend beyond early intervention SLPs to those working with school aged children and across disability areas as well.  If you work with students with Significant Developmental Delay (SDD), Autism, Moderate Intellectual Disability, Specific Learning Disability, or Speech Language Impairment only, incorporate play-based activities in weekly therapy sessions. They can build functional and educationally relevant communication and language skills using play-based learning activities. Kids will have fun and learn new speech-language skills too!


Here’s a link to a Google document about Types of Play and Social Stages of Play.

Here are links to free madlibs to work on parts of speech:

You can purchase madlibs here (*Note: This specific madlib book seems appropriate for adolescents, yet others on website may not be kid or school friendly.):

History of the World Mad Libs

Here are links to free social skills videos:


10 Reasons to Enhance your SLP Work Efficiency

I hope that you are having a good week at work so far. I want to help you improve your work efficiency as a pediatric SLP. In my last post, I shared tips for improving your efficiency or quality of your day as a therapist.  Today, I want to share 10 reasons to enhance your SLP work efficiency. I know that you have the passion and determination to work with special needs kids. Now, I want to ensure that your remember why you should do your job with excellence every week.  Here are 10 reasons to focus on staying motivated about enhancing your SLP work efficiency:

Increase students’ success

When you streamline your SLP work processes, you will increase students’ success. Their success depends on whether they are learning new skills based on your therapy instruction. Speech-language therapy students are successful when they make gains in their communication and language skills. It is truly rewarding to witness students’ success as a result of speech-language therapy. This is why we do our jobs each day!

Increase knowledge of evidence-based practice

There are many strategies and techniques that speech-language pathologists use with their students each week. Are you sure that you are using evidence-based practice? This entails integrating clinical expertise,  current research evidence, and client/caregiver perspectives. You can read more about ASHA’s position statement here. Are you using literature based lessons to teach vocabulary and grammar in context? Are you providing students oral language practice using narrative instruction or summarization strategy? Read more about evidence-based practice ideas here.

Increase knowledge of effective data collection

In order to measure students’ gains in therapy, you need to establish a baseline score of their present abilities on specific skills and take data periodically to measure progress in therapy. SLPs typically use different data collection systems based on the type of goals they are addressing, group vs. individual tx. session, pull-out vs. inclusion tx, etc. You may need different forms to record quantitative vs. qualitative data. Do you have criterion referenced informal assessments or progress monitoring tools to use with students on your caseload? It is best practice to readily have access to a variety of data collection forms that will work best for your caseload. Here are some suggestions.

Have practical, fun, and engaging therapy materials

Children are naturally more engaged when you are excited about a speech-language therapy lesson and activity. They will usually have more fun in therapy if they are enjoying “playing” while practicing a skill in therapy. Using 1-2 themes each month with a mixture of books, games, crafts, play-based, and ipad activities often will maintain children’s interest in therapy. Make sure that you write down a basic plan each month so that you will be more efficient as a therapist with selecting and implementing engaging activities.

Experience greater job satisfaction

When you have systems in place for data collection, therapy lessons and activities, and your students are making progress, I am positive that you will feel good about the job that you are doing. You may start to feel discouraged if you don’t have materials to address a particular speech-language learning target, you are struggling to take data during group sessions, or little Johnny doesn’t seem to be making progress. Just remember, each week is a fresh start to improve your systems in your speech room which can contribute to greater job satisfaction.

Strengthen knowledge about eligibility criteria

Pediatric SLPs in the school system have to follow the regulations by their school district for qualifying students for speech-language therapy sessions. It is critical that all SLPs are knowledgeable about this criteria. The Department of Education for each state also provides an overview of eligibility  criteria. For example, a disorder does not exist if:

“A) Environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage cannot be ruled out as primary factors causing the impairment; or B) A child exhibits inconsistent, situational, transitory or developmentally appropriate speech language difficulties that children experience at various times and to various degrees.   C) Because children who have communication difficulties do not necessarily have speech or language impairments, the speech-language program may not be the appropriate service delivery model to adequately meet the child’s educational needs. For this reason, all children who are suspected of having communication problems shall be the subject of a Student Support Team (SST) to problem solve and implement strategies to determine and limit the adverse affect on the child’s educational performance.”

Increase confidence in providing services

Remember that you have the training to be an effective and confident pediatric speech-language pathologist. You are constantly observing students’ behavior and speech-language skills. You make adjustments to your delivery of services based on how they are performing in therapy. You provide various verbal, visual, and tactile prompts as needed to help kids demonstrate communication and language skills. Often times, pediatric SLPs just need a reminder that they have the knowledge to thoroughly assess and deliver effective services. Just keep swimming. On the other hand, it is equally important to remember that there is always something new that you can learn to enhance your work efficiency.

Confidently communicate SLP role to staff

Another critical part of an SLP’s job is communicating with colleagues about the needs and methods used to improve children’s speech-language skills. You may talk with general education teachers, special education teachers, paraprofessionals, and administrators about what you are implementing to address students’ IEP goals. This is done formally at meetings and informally as you need to speak with them about different students throughout the school year. Make sure that your message is clear so that everyone can work together as a team towards improving the communication, language, literacy, and academic skills of children.

Increase parents’ understanding of speech-language disorders

Another reason to enhance your efficiency as a speech-language pathologist is to successfully communicate with parents about speech-language disorders. Parents can help their children practice skills at home in everyday activities. When they are an active part of the team, children will further  expand their communication abilities at school, home and in the community. Read these helpful hints for parents.

Have more enthusiasm for students

When you are more knowledgeable about all the facets of your pediatric SLP job and have streamlined processes,  you can focus more on having enthusiasm during speech-language sessions.  When you are having more fun in sessions, so will your students! Yes, the volume of work will still be there. But, it is possible to enthusiastically love the life changing work you do as a pediatric SLP!

Tamara Anderson

Building Successful Lives

Speech-Language Pathologist

Education Specialist




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