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Pragmatic Skills

What is pragmatic skills?

Pragmatic refers to the social language skills that we use in our daily interactions with others. It includes what we say, how we say it, our body language and whether it is appropriate to the given situation.

Pragmatic skills are important for us to express and convey the contents of thoughts, ideas and feelings. Children, adolescents and adults who have pragmatic difficulties often misinterpret the intentions of others and have difficulty answering or responding correctly whether verbal or non-verbal.

Characteristics of pragmatic skills

According to American Speech-Language and Hearing Association (ASHA), pragmatic involves three main communication skills:

  1. Using the language for different purposes:
    • Giving a speech (e.g. hello and goodbye)
    • Notify (e.g. I want to go to bed)
    • Demand (e.g. Give me the shoes)
    • Promising (e.g. I’ll buy you shoes)
    • Request (e.g. I want orange juice)
  2. Changing the language according to the needs of the listener or situation, such as:
    • How to talk to a child is different from adults
    • Provide background information to unfamiliar listeners
    • Speaking in a class different from the playground

  3. Understand and follow the rules while talking and telling stories, such as:
    • Take turns in conversation
    • Introducing the topic of conversation
    • Maintain a topic of conversation
    • Correcting the conversation back when not understood
    • Know how to use verbal and nonverbal cues
    • Know the distance when talking with someone
    • Know how to use facial expressions and eye contact while talking

The rules stated may vary from one culture to another. It is important to understand the culture and rules of your conversation partners.

Individuals who have pragmatic difficulties

Children who have the characteristics of autism including having semantic-pragmatic disorders and Asperger’s syndrome often associated with pragmatic difficulties caused by lack in social interaction. Children with language disorders can demonstrate lack of pragmatic skills, especially when they are delayed in language development.

For adults, pragmatic problems are associated with individuals who suffer a brain injury on the right side as the right side of the brain controls higher level of language skills including pragmatic skills.

Ways to identify individuals who have pragmatic difficulties

Pragmatic difficulties can be identified when the person shows features as follows:

  • The inability to communicate for social purposes, such as giving a speech and share information, in a manner consistent with the social situation.
  • Ability to change the way of communication which declined in the context of a varied and according to the needs of the listener, like talking in a class different from the playground, talking to children are different from adults, and avoid the use of language that is too formal.
  • Difficulty understanding and following rules while talking and telling stories, such as taking turns in conversation, correcting the conversation if not understood and knew how to use verbal and nonverbal signals to control the conversation.
  • Difficulty understanding what is not explicitly stated (for example, making conclusion) and the illiteral language (e.g. idioms, jokes, metaphors, multiple meanings depending on the context interpretation).
  • Ask questions that have nothing to do with the topic of conversation.
  • Lack of focus and context of the conversation
  • Talking too much and deeply about something.
  • Only talk about yourself and do not show an interest in other people’s conversation.
  • Unable to answer open-ended questions such as “What happened?” Or “Why does it happen?”
  • Cannot read or understand the non-verbal communication such as sign/body language, facial expressions and different range tone of voice.
  • Have difficulty to understand and conveys thoughts and feelings.

The method can be used to help individuals with pragmatic difficulties

Parents, care-givers, family members, and teachers can help individuals with pragmatic difficulties by using language that is apprpriate in social situation or contexts. Some general recommendations to improve skills in three main pragmatic areas are listed below.

  1. Using the language for different purposes

    Ask a question or make a suggestion to use language for a variety of purposes.

    Desired Language Functions

    Remmended Questions or Comments


    “What are you doing?”
    “Tell me about…”


    “What do you want?”
    “Tell your mother…”


    “Ask me”

    Reply to the intended message but not to correct pronunciation or grammar. Make sure you provide the appropriate model in your own speech. For example, if someone says, “That’s how he did not go,” replied, “You’re right. That’s not how it goes.”

    Taking advantage of the situation that occurs naturally. For example, greeting is the practice that people used at the start of the day, or have people asked friends what they want to eat for dinner or to request materials needed to complete the project.

  2. Changing the language for different audiences or situations

    Change roles in conversation. Pretending to talk to different people in different situations. For example, plan a situation (or use one of the things that happen in one day) in which individuals have to explain the same thing to different people, such as teaching rules during play, or how to make a cake. Model how a person talking with children different than in adults, or a family member compared to its neighbours.

    Encourage how to persuade. For example, ask the individual what he will say to convince a family member or loved ones to allow him to do something. Discuss different ways to deliver the message:

    • In polite (“May I go to the playground?”) compared to the less polite (“I go to the playground!”).
    • Indirectly (“The TV sound is too loud”) compared to more direct (Close the TV! “).
    • Discuss why some requests are more convincing than others.
  3. Conversation and storytelling skills

    Comment on the topic of conversation before introducing a new topic. Add relevant information to encourage talking more about a particular topic.

    Provide visual cues such as pictures, objects, or guidelines to help in explaining the story of a sequence event.

    Encourage rephrasing or correcting any words or sentences that are unclear. Check with the appropriate question, “Did you mean …?”

    Show the importance of non-verbal cues when communicating. For example, talk about what happens when the facial expressions do not match the emotion expressed in verbal message (for example, using angry words
    with a smile).


  1. Pragmatic Language, http://www.therabee.com/images-pdf/pragmatics-jul08.pdf, September 10, 2015.
  2. Social Language Use (Pragmatics), retrieved from http://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/Pragmatics/, September 10, 2015.
  3. Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder, retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/disorders/social-pragmatic-communication-disorder/, September 10, 2015.


Last Reviewed : 28 August 2020
Writer / Translator : Mohd Azmarul bin A Aziz
Accreditor : Fairus bt. Mukhtar
Reviewer : Nadwah bt. Onwi