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  • Writer's pictureStacy Crouse

Strategies to Engage Older Students in Speech Therapy

Does finding ways to engage middle and high school students in speech therapy feel like a work of art? Maybe it’s just me, but often it seems like the stars must perfectly align for older students to show interest in therapy sessions. At times, it feels impossible to find activities that older students don't think are totally lame.


With that said, I do love working with older students, even though sometimes it seems like an impossible feat. Recently, I’ve been analyzing what seems to make sessions with older students successful. What components make therapy the most engaging, and therefore, productive?


Of course, there will always be factors outside of our control. Adolescents and teenagers are obviously very different than preschool and elementary students in many different ways. But I have found that being selective about the types of activities that I do with older students gets the session off on the right foot.


So, here are 5 things that I keep in mind when making or looking for activities to engage older students:


It’s all about them.

It’s no secret that teens like to talk about things that they like. That’s no different from the rest of us, right? Since getting older students to participate can be like pulling teeth, we might as well let high-interest topics be a way to facilitate participation.


This ice-breaker activity is a perfect example. The basis of the entire activity is allowing students to ask each other questions and share about various topics.


Rapport building activity for older students in speech therapy

It comes with a digital version too, and I use it in teletherapy to encourage students to make follow-up questions or comments that may include connecting the topic to themselves. After all, finding commonalities is a natural way to engage with others.


This Poll Questions activity is another example of encouraging students to participate by telling what they think about various topics. While doing so, they are also learning to respect the opinions of others, formulate questions, give justification, use persuasion, and many other higher-level pragmatic and language skills.


Poll Questions Group Activity for Speech Therapy

Give choices...... a.k.a. ownership!

Giving choices is not just a strategy to use with younger students. For adolescents and teens who are in the process of developing their sense of identity and striving for autonomy, allowing them opportunities to make their own choices is so powerful. Granting students a sense of ownership also plays into helping them know their value.


An example of this in speech therapy might be allowing the student to choose the topic of an article for targeting vocabulary within context. In my teletherapy sessions, I often pull up the ReadWorks or Tween Tribune website. Once I filter by grade level, I allow the student to browse through the articles to choose which one we'll read that day.


Another example is these digital speech books where the student is in charge of identifying words for articulation practice. Since the books are in a Google Slides format, I share the link with students to work on at home but also assist them as needed.


Google Slides articulation activity to engage older students in speech therapy

Make a Game Plan.

I have found that activities with an element of logic or strategy work well for engaging students– games (or game-like activities) that create a challenge are often too irresistible 😉 This could be a competitive game among two or more students, or an independent challenge. It could also be a collaborative activity that requires a group of students to work together toward a particular goal using higher-level thinking (i.e. not luck).


This digital peg game is one activity I use to make articulation practice more exciting for older students. Not only does the activity look the part (no immature graphics or clip art), but it also provides a challenge for students to conquer.


Articulation Boom Card game for older students in speech therapy


DO Keep Me in Suspense!

In addition to activities that require thinking strategically, an element of mystery or suspense is also quite engaging for older students. If the entire activity is known or predictable, students may not have a reason to stay attentive throughout.


Since finding engaging activities to target articulation with older students is a pain point for SLPs, I have created some mature Boom Card decks for this specific population. These activities not only utilize choice-making but also create suspense as the student reveals each target word.


For example, in this fireflies Boom Card activity, the target words are hidden until the student moves each firefly into the jar. This ghost activity and fireworks one work similarly. Not only is the student able to use creativity in forming the scene, but the reveal of each word is anticipated.


Digital articulation activity for older students in speech therapy

Look the part.

It goes without saying that the majority of older students want to be treated like, well, older students. Most will not show interest in activities designed for younger children, even if those activities are appropriate for the goal being targeted. Using activities that have age-appropriate images, themes, and language will foster more trust… and fewer eye rolls.


Real photographs are generally more appealing to older students than clip art. Similarly, stories and passages about things that teens and adolescents know and care about will be much more engaging than those pertaining to younger children. In this social language resource, real pictures are used to depict situations that older students can relate to.


Social Language Activity for Older Students in Speech Therapy

In this activity, text message simulations are used to practice engaging in conversation with others. Obviously, texting messaging is a huge piece of teen communication, so students are more likely to view this as a functional and relatable activity.


text message conversation practice activity for older students in speech therapy

In a perfect world, all of our students come bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to each speech therapy session. But as middle and high school SLPs, we know that this isn't a perfect world.


So instead, we just have to put a little more thought into our planning. There are some tricks we can keep up our sleeves to help our older students maintain attention and interest in speech therapy activities.


Strategies to engage older students in speech therapy

A quick recap of strategies that engage older students in speech therapy:

1. Make the activity about them and the things they care about.

2. Allow students to make choices.

3. Include strategy or game-like aspects.

4. Incorporate an element of mystery.

5. Use pictures and topics that are relative and interesting to older students.


And how about a bonus strategy for good measure? I've found that using mature, high-interest, and relevant themes in speech therapy improves engagement for many older kids!


What about you? What strategies have you found to encourage your middle and high school students to maintain interest?


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