By: Jeff Sabo


As teachers, we spend a lot of time communicating with students, and talking is one of the most important ways we do this. We use words to explain concepts and skills, ask questions, give directions, correct errors, and lots more. However, many students with exceptionalities struggle with verbal comprehension. That means they may have difficulty understanding us when we use long sentences or complex words, so it’s important to adjust our teaching style to fit the needs of each student. There are many ways to do this, but I’ll discuss two main ones here: adapting communication style and using a multimodal approach.


Adapting your communication style 

This is important for every student, but for students with exceptionalities you may need to choose your language and other forms of communication even more deliberately. If you notice a student doesn’t seem to understand what you’re telling them, you can simplify things. You can try speaking slowly and clearly, or using short phrases that have a specific meaning in the structure of your lesson, like “your/my turn”, “[activity] is finished”, “time to do [activity]”. You can also keep instructions exact and concise. When they complete a task, give short and clear verbal praise. If there is something you want to correct, tell them to “try again” or give specific feedback (for example, “this finger on D”). This type of communication may seem overly direct at first, but for some students it is really just speaking in a way that helps them understand you easily. Using the same short phrases consistently helps students know what is happening in the lesson, what you are asking them to do, and whether or not they have done it successfully. In addition to adjusting your language, it’s also  useful to supplement your verbal communication with non-verbal communication, like gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice. 


Using a multimodal approach

For students who struggle with verbal communication, it’s important to help them learn using other modalities. This often involves a lot of learning by doing. Instead of spending too much time explaining a concept or skill, you can create activities that allow students to jump right in and learn as they go along. For example, you can use lots of demonstration and imitation. If they are struggling to imitate effectively, you can give a short instruction and guide them as needed (for example, with hand over hand support). Tangibles can also be a big help (and lots of fun!) to give students the chance to learn through movement or manipulating large objects. Pictures and other visuals are also great tools that can help to teach concepts that would be too complex to explain verbally. When combined with the communication tips above, these different modes of learning can help the student achieve learning goals without very much verbal explanation at all.

Every student is different, so you can adapt any of the tips and strategies here to your students as you see fit. Over time, you’ll start to learn which phrases and non-verbal communication work best for them. You can also look out for their preferred learning style, which can help you determine the types of activities that will set them up for success. If you’re looking for new multimodal activities for different elements of music learning, you can check out our webinars (part one and part two)!


Happy teaching!