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Helpful Conversation Starters: At the table, on the road, or anywhere in between

Parents frequently ask how to incorporate speech and language therapy goals and objectives around meal times, particularly at the dinner table. It’s a great question. It can be a big challenge to get any child talking after a long day, and for a child with language needs, it’s just that much more of an effort for him or her to express himself/herself in a free-form, open-ended format, such as a conversation. Why? It’s WORK! There are a lot of balls to juggle to participate in conversation. A child, especially one with language needs, can easily be overwhelmed by the many tasks required; to name a few: recalling of past events, formulating the message, selecting appropriate vocabulary, using good timing, working against competitive speaking situations (e.g., sibling interruptions, background noise, a begging puppy), maintaining social rules and conventions (e.g., make eye contact, take turns, stay on topic, etc.)-- it’s an exhausting list. And, for some children who struggle with language comprehension or use, they have to be actively working on some or all of these tasks to participate even in part, in conversation.

Many parents describe dinner time as being the one opportunity of the day for everyone to sit together, while other parents sheepishly admit that dinner can be a rather hectic time because it’s a meal time on-the-go--heading out to soccer, driving from an afterschool play date, or sandwiched between extracurricular activities and HW. Regardless of what your dinner time routine looks like on a given night, it can be the perfect grounds for conversation to happen. The setting is not necessarily all that important—conversations can happen in the car, while walking, or at a table. However, what does matter is that you intentionally set aside the time to pay attention, remove distractions (cell phones, e-mail, TV, the radio), and ask supportive questions that will facilitate a quality exchange or interaction. Over time, these moments can grow to be a regular platform for sharing opinions, ideas, or feelings about the day, life, or the world around us for many years to come.

Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, though, let’s start with a basic conversation. If you are looking to help your child engage with you and your family more at dinner time, here are the practical aspects to incorporate. Consider making the conversation more structured and direct to take some of the language load off of your child.

To get started, use starter questions for topic selection in order to get the conversation rolling. After that, you can expand a conversation by using more specific questions so that your child can elaborate on the conversation at hand by providing some of the more specific details. As I mentioned, conversations do not need to physically happen at a table, but providing structure in the conversation through asking direct questions can allow your child to participate with support, and therefore, greater ease.

An added bonus--when the family can be together at a meal time, other family members, even siblings can serve as excellent models of what conversational input should sound like.



  1. What was the BEST part of the day?
  2. What was your least favorite part of the day?
  3. Does anyone have a funny story to share?
  4. What did you do at recess?/at lunch time?/while on break at work?
  5. Who has a fun fact they learned today?
  6. What were you doing at 12 PM today?
  7. What are you studying at school?
  8. If you could change one thing about the day, what would you change?
  9. If you could have done anything you wanted today, what would you have done?
  10. What are you looking forward to tomorrow?


PROMPTS & GUIDED QUESTIONS for when more support is needed

    For the early conversationalist, more specific questions will be a better way to get the conversation going. Here are some basic questions to help your child "chat" about their day. These questions are more specific to help direct your child and support their responses if open-ended conversations are too difficult.

    BROAD QUESTION: What did you do today?
                                                [No answer…]

    BROAD QUESTION: Did you have a good day?
                                                [No answer OR one word answer]



  1. Tell me one thing you did today!
  2. Who did you play with today?
  3. Was everyone in class today?
    1. Who was there?
    2. Who was absent?
    3. Who did you play with at lunch?
    4. Who did you play with on the playground?
  4. Where did you go today?
  5. What did you eat for lunch?
  6. What did you eat for snack?
  7. What did you make/play?
  8. What did you do? Did you have…?
    • Reading
      • Math
      • Speech
      • OT?
      • PT?
      • Library time
      • Art
      • Music
      • Gym

Get started tonight. Pick a question and give it a try. If you think you are prone to forget them, keep a jar of questions or hide a question along with a napkin or the utensils with a packed meal. Families who have successfully implemented these strategies enthusiastically share how surprised they are by how effortless conversation can be after initially supporting it in this way. Once conversations become a regular part of the routine, it becomes natural and something that your family comes to expect or look forward to. These few moments a day become a matter of habit and before long, you’ll have your children prompting conversation themselves. Wouldn’t that be a nice change of pace?