Incidental Teaching

Categories: Basic Skills

Incidental teaching is something that stellar teachers, parents, and clinicians do naturally. We are constantly utilizing the environment and play off of our students’ responses to teach and expand their knowledge.

Incidental teaching is a “process whereby language skils of labeling and describing are learned in naturally occurring adult-child interactions.” (Hart & Risley, 1975) This evidence based strategy can be used to teach receptive and expressive language, reading, counting, social skills, and more. Incorporating students’ interest is key to maximize on motivation.

We need to create an environment that creates a multitude of "teachable moments."

The key is creating an environment that will encourage your students to engage in communicative responses. That means “don’t give the milk for free!” Put those reinforcing items a little bit out of reach. You student will reach for it and you can grab that opportunity to shape that into a lovely, “I want puzzle please” or even just “puzzle” depending on your student. This teaching strategy involves waiting. Sometimes we are bad at doing that. We want to over-help and over-prompt and are so busy rushing through our schedules that we are missing so many valuable learning opportunities. So slow down. Model this for your paras. And let your students initiate their learning!

Don't be afraid of a little sabotage. Contriving situations is a great way to set the stage for learning!

Sometimes situations and learning opportunities will come up naturally. Other times we may need to be a little creative. Set up contrived situations that will motivate a student to engage in a communicative response is a great way to push this strategy along. Check out this post on some ways to do this.

When utilizing incidental teaching, we will want to take data on prompted or unprompted responses. I want to know given how many opportunities, did my student engage in the response. If the opportunity wasn’t there to request his favorite stuffed animal, I can’t count that against him. However, if there were 6 times during the day he reached for the stuffed animal and needed a verbal prompt of say, “I want Teddy Bear” in order to request the item, that’s information I want to know.

Requesting preferred items.

This is a great place to start with this teaching strategy. Preferred items and reinforcers are already something your child wants. Put them slightly out of reach so you child needs to request. Make the request more and more complex. Your student can use a visual, single word utterance, full sentence or question, and even add detail to request the preferred item.

Elongating utterances.

With your kids who are verbal, every time they request something or engage in any time of verbal language – grab on to it. Prompt them to add detail – descriptors like color, quantity, or location. Work in prepositions. Where is the blue pen? Is it in the cup or next to the cup? Count items as you give them. Add in questions on function, feature, and category. Talk about child centered instruction – this approach is all about seeing where your kids take you. You just add in the extra teaching along the way!

Shaping conversational phrases.

This approach is perfect for working on conversation skills. Conversation skills may be a little awkward in DTT of fluency instruction because conversations are all about playing off what others’ say. My favorite activities for working on conversation skills are weekly chats (talk about what you are going to do on the weekend on Friday and talk about what you did on Monday), conversation cards, and Daily Questions. This is a little bit contrived but the key is to play off of what students are talking about and shape each response into a more appropriate communicative behavior.

Add in that wait time. Loosen the reins a bit. And see where your students take you.


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