How to Build Sentence Skills for Better Communication

Build Sentence Skills Using Visuals

We all want our students to have better communication skills! So, of course they need to be able to build sentences.  Have you worked with preschoolers who are limited to just single words? They can have a difficult time communicating their wants and ideas. Often, they become frustrated, understandably.

Older students with autism also face communicative frustrations frequently. We add to this problem if all we do is teach them requesting skills. There are so many other communication needs! Don’t assume that students do not have ideas they wish to express just because they show the stereotypies of autism, such as hand flapping, rocking, or echolalia. They also need to learn to build sentences.

Picture symbol sentence building autism

Use visuals for building  sentences.


Using visuals to build sentences is a great strategy! It works for students with a variety of language difficulties:

  1. hard to understand speech, especially those with apraxia:  These kids benefit from the visual modeling of picture cues. Since the sentence formulation is taken care of, it is easier for them to focus only on the motor aspects of sound production.
  2. limited sentence length: Picture sentences model longer utterances without the fleeting time aspect of verbal models. You can visually model the complete sentence while having your students only produce the appropriate words for their level.
  3. autism: Whether your students are nonverbal or minimally verbal, visual processing is usually a stronger modality than auditory processing.  Since many people with autism think in pictures, according to Dr. Temple Grandin, we should be modeling sentences using pictures.
  4. learning English as a second language: Pictures make the meaning clear so kids can concentrate on learning the new words and building sentences with them.
  5. limited attention spans: pictures engage students to help them remain focused.

But how do you find the time to get all of those pictures for building sentence skills?

It is much easier now to find picture supports by going online than it used to be, but it is still time consuming. I spent many, many hours over the years collecting physical pictures for my themes. Now I spend hours collecting digital pictures to make it esier for you to use them. That is how strongly I feel about using visuals!

sentence building, picture symbols, freebie, book craft. autism, speech therapy

Sentence Building Picture Activities

These sets build sentences using functional vocabulary. The different parts of speech have color coded borders that coordinate with Proloquo and many other AAC systems. There is color coding on the game cards, as well, to make sequencing the words to build sentences easier.

Not only that, but it is easier to differentiate instruction according to student needs:

  1. Use the game board that is most appropriate for each student. Three different levels of visual cues are provided.
  2. Prefill the game cards with the parts of speech you want to model, but the students aren’t yet ready to build into the sentence. Start with filling in just 1 word and build up to making complete Noun-Verb-Object sentences.
  3. Sort objects and verbs with the sorting mat.
  4. Check word association skills with the suggested activities and ready to go data sheet.
  5. Play sentence spinner games with 2 choices of levels.
  6. Complete the cut and glue picture sentece worksheets. Choose the level appropriate for your students- 2 or 4 sentences per page.
  7. Download the FREE book craft activity for take home carryover!

sentence building, autism, differentiated instruction, free download

Tips for Differentiating Instruction in Sentence Building Activities

Do you have students with problems manipulating pictures? Here’s a tip, shown in the picture above. Place the small pictures on top of milk bottle caps to make it easier for your students to maneuver. When they place the small picture in the correct place on the game board, you can replace it with the color picture.

And, to make the game more difficult, just turn the bottle caps upside down so they can’t see the picture. They’ll get practice deciding if that sentence part belongs on their board. Maybe they will switch out the sentence while playing!

Each Sentence Building set includes 6 different activities! You work on listening skills or asking and answering questions for student interactions. Provide more practice and helps students generalize their sentence building skills.

Each packet has pictured functional vocabulary for nouns and verbs needed to build sentences. Topics are based on familiar themes, such as seasons, holidays, and family/school outings to help with practical use.

And best of all, you don’t need to spend the time hunting down picture supports! I did the work for you.

Want more help with using visuals? Check out this great series of posts at PrAACtical AAC.

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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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