How to Make Atypical File Folder Activities You Will Love

File folder sentence building activities for students with autism

You will love these atypical file folder activities for students with autism! File folder activities are typically used in preschool and special education classrooms to teach matching. They are also great for independent work tasks. That got me thinking. Why can’t this familiar file folder activity set up be used to teach language skills to students with autism?

Start with Play Activities

And language with play is even better! So I took some of the sentence-building activities I was already using and figured out how to make them visually apparent on a file folder.

Can your students with autism play in simple sequential patterns, such as placing a figure in a car and pushing it?  Or can they put a car on a garage toy and make it go down the ramp? Then they should have the language to talk about it! Do they? 

language skills. sentence building, students with autism, file folder activities

Language-based file folder activities are a great method for teaching your students with autism because It helps them produce basic sentences. Then they can tell about their preferred activities or communicate about school trips and family outings. So give it a try with your verbally limited students and AAC users.

How do I get started making my own file folder activities for sentence building and play skills?

  1. Choose a toy that your student likes to play, but lacks the appropriate level of language for.
  2. Take a photo of the toy you want to use.  Your large toy picture, like the play garage in the picture above, needs to fit on one side of a file folder.
  3. Make the symbols in the size and type that your students use and understand.


Incorporate Language Skills

Then make sure that your student understands the visual symbols you are using. Make it fun! Just let the students request the toys and figures to play with.  Occasionally give your students access to the toys and say something like, “Sure! Take it!” You will see if they understand when they are taking what they requested.

forward and backward chaining, autism, file folder sentence activities

After that, think about where in the sentence to start.  There are two commonly used methods for teaching students with autism how to do sequential skills. And organizing words into a sentence is a sequential skill. The graphic shows you two ways of teaching students with limited communication skills. 

Backward Chaining for Sentence Building

Use the backward chaining pattern for students who use single words/symbols. They typically have been taught a variety of noun labels so providing the name of the object is a familiar thing to do.

For example, if you start with 3 symbol sentences, the character and the symbol ’ride’ will already be on the top sentence strip. The student labels the toy by placing the symbol at the end of the sentence.

visual modeling, sentence building, autism, speech therapy

Point to each symbol in the strip as you read aloud. It’s even better if you have your student point. But whichever way you do it, watch to make sure that the student is looking at the symbol being pointed to.  This reinforces joint attending skills and gives the student a chance to connect the verbal word with the symbol.

Forward Chaining for Sentence Building

This method works well for students who are working on answering WHO? questions. Ask who and place that character head on the TOBI toy symbol.  Then put the whole thing on the picture of the garage. It is time for a play break when all of the hook and loop strips in the garage picture are filled. And you already have the visual symbol sentences to model while your student plays.

autism play skills, file folder language activities

Play First and then Sentence Building

Or you can let your student play a bit with the toys first. They choose who will ride on each toy without having access to the garage. They put a figure in the vehicle. Then you place it behind a ‘wait’ symbol while the student forms a sentence about it. The student has to make a sentence for each toy set. Then remove the ‘wait’ symbol so the student gets access to the garage for some playtime.

There’s a benefit to this method. You are actually teaching the beginning of narrative skills by forming sentences to talk about what happened during play. Students have to develop the skill of remembering what happened to be able to tell a personal narrative.

autism, play skills, file folder activities

Certainly, there are so many different ways to approach how you use sentence file folder activities with your students. The best way to go is the way that your student learns.  Be sure to start where the student is successful and work to a little higher level each session. Always end the activity while the student is still engaged and having success.

sentence building with symbols, autism, speech therapy

File folder activities can also be used for answering questions with your more verbal or communication skilled students. The photo shows how to work on answering ‘Who?” questions.


As you can see, file folder activities are a great way to develop communication and play skills for your students with autism. But they don’t have to be just for play! If your students like adapted books and need more language for school and family outings, try these picture sets! To be honest, they do take a bit of time to set up, as do all laminated activities with hook and loop tape for students with autism.

Try printing the colorful full pages and placing them in a page protector. Make one set of the symbols you need in grayscale and just cut them out. That way, you can try it quickly without the prep time. But once you see how responsive your students are, you will be willing to make the set to be able to use all of the engaging learning activities that are in each. Adapted books, photos, sentence activities, sorting, games, and worksheets. You will love how much you can do with each set and how easy it is to adapt them to individual needs. So, check them out!

picture sentence building, file folder activities, adapted books, autism , speech therapy

Read more about why you should be using visually based teaching methods like file folder tasks. Read more about using True Object Based Icons, or TOBIs, here. And on this site, you can find out more about a variety of symbolic ways to communicate.

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I’m Linda, an SLP who loves helping you build effective communication skills for your students using strategies and visuals. Pictures are time consuming, so let me make your life easier!

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