Self-advocacy skills and conversational repair strategies: Keys to successful communication

By Jackie Unser, MS, CCC-SLP

In addition to speech, language and auditory skills, self-advocacy and conversational repair strategies are important skills to develop in students who are deaf and hard of hearing. Peers are bound to have questions about hearing devices, and communication breakdowns are a part of everyday life. Preparing students who are deaf and hard of hearing to react appropriately in such situations is key to setting them up for success in the mainstream. As Better Hearing and Speech Month comes to a close, considering self-advocacy skills and conversational repair strategies provides one more way for teachers, audiologists and speech-language pathologists can support our students and build Communication as the Key to Connection.

As students learn about device care and responsibility, it is also important to teach our students how to talk about their devices. They are likely to encounter questions from curious peers such as “What is that?” or “Why do you have that?” Preparing our students ahead of time with simple responses such as “It’s my hearing aid. It helps me hear better,” will help build their confidence in such situations. Students may want to explain themselves or teachers, audiologists and speech-language pathologists can teach classmates how the ear works and what hearing aids and cochlear implants do. This can be done though hands-on activities or games such as a child pretending to be sound and running through all the parts of the ear. This will also help start a conversation about hearing among all the students in a class and create a more relaxed setting for a student who is deaf or hard of hearing to talk about his or her hearing and devices.

Developing conversational repair strategies is another way to prepare students for responding to situations that are bound to arise. The opportunity to begin teaching these skills comes at a young age. A child first learns to recognize that a breakdown of some sort has occurred. Does a student look up with a confused face when he knows he heard something but did not understand or did not hear it completely? Does a student add gestures to her words when an adult does not understand? These are both great indicators that the student knows something went wrong in that communication. She is even moving to the next step by making an attempt to do something about it.

As students grow in their language skills, it is important to continue to expand use of repair strategies. When reading a story, for instance, prompt students to ask about unfamiliar vocabulary. Ask them, “Do you know what thrilled means? What could you do if you don’t know what that means?” Or, during conversation, ask a student, “Did you hear what your friend just said? What could you do if you didn’t hear him?” As students grow older, it is important to fine-tune these repair strategies. Teach them to recognize what exactly is causing the breakdown. For instance, does the student need to ask simply, “Can you say it again?” or was the message too quiet and he or she needs to ask, “Can you say that louder?” If a listener does not understand a student’s message, should it simply be repeated or is further explanation necessary? For instance, if a student is not quite sure how to pronounce a teacher’s name, he could add “It’s Mrs. ____, the math teacher. She has long hair.” Regardless of a student’s age, knowing how and when to use conversational repair strategies is an important key to successful communication. Teachers, audiologists and speech-language pathologists can anticipate challenging situations and support students who are deaf and hard of hearing in developing the skills to advocate for themselves and to ultimately build meaningful connections.

Jackie Unser, MS, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist at CID-Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, MO.

2 replies
  1. Ryan H
    Ryan H says:

    Hi Ms. Unser,

    Thank you for this insightful post. I am a graduate student and recently started a position as an itinerant teacher of Deaf and Hard of Hearing students. I have found that advocacy skills are a critical part of our work. I have used social stories about wearing hearing aids and cochlear implants with younger students. The story explains what to do if your device stops working or the FM is on when it shouldn’t be. I also read audiograms with my older students and create a book about their hearing. I find that these activities are great opportunities to introduce advocacy vocabulary and appropriate responses to questions that may arise about hearing loss. Do you have any recommendations for working with students on differentiating between asking for information to be repeated or for it to be louder?


    • Jackie Unser
      Jackie Unser says:

      Hi Ryan,

      Thank you for your question! It sounds like you are already doing some wonderful activities in order to build your students’ self-advocacy skills!

      Similar to many skills with our students, making specific requests for clarification or repetition is something that would likely require direct instruction. Initially, it would be helpful to set this up as a typical, structured auditory activity. Create a set of written or picture prompts with specific requests such as, “Can you say that louder?” “Can you say that slower?” or “I don’t understand some of the words you said.” Give the students examples of when to use each type of request, then ask the students to identify the appropriate request from the set as you use a very quiet intensity or quick rate of speech, for instance. Once the students become more comfortable recognizing what would help them understand the message better, begin to integrate similar practice into more natural activities. During your regular therapy activities, give the students an initial prompt such as, “There might be times I say something too quickly or my voice is too quiet, so remember to ask if you need me to say something differently.” Hopefully, this will serve as a bridge to your students beginning to use such strategies when needed in their everyday conversations.

      Please feel free to reply or email me at if you have any other questions!

      Thank you,


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