Staying on Topic: Tips for Teaching and Why It’s Important
Staying on topic, or topic maintenance is a skill that is frequently addressed on IEPs for students with Autism, ADD/ADHD, and language disorders. The ability to identify the topic of a conversation or written work is vital for academic and personal success.
As an SLP, I associated staying on topic as being important mostly for a student’s social success. But, it’s actually important for much more than just casual conversations and expressing wants and needs. It’s also a vital skill for participating in classroom discussions, group work and projects, comprehending written materials (of all types!), and writing effectively.
Let’s talk about the ways that staying on topic can benefit your students and my suggestions for how to teach it.
verbal communication skills
This is likely what you think of most when you think about topic maintenance! The ability to stay on topic is needed for students to have pretty much any type of social conversation, whether it be with peers, family members, or other adults.
Situations where students need this skill:
- in the cafeteria
- on the bus
- at a friend’s house
- when guests visit
- at recess/PE/break
The specific skills needed for these types of scenarios are ones we use every day without thinking.
- responding to greetings
- answering “How are you?”
- answering personal questions
- talking about a particular area of interest
- telling an adult about school
Functional communication is another skill regularly thought of by those of us in speech therapy or special education roles. Topic maintenance skills ensure that students are able to express their wants and needs clearly and appropriately based on the situation.
Situations where students need this skill:
- in a restaurant
- at a store
- in a place of worship
- talking to a school administrator
- speaking to emergency personnel
The skills needed for these conversations are more specific and sometimes urgent.
- placing an order and answering follow up questions
- purchasing an item
- inquiring about an item
- reporting an emergency situation
- telling an adult what is wrong
Academic communication is primarily functional, but I think it’s worth differentiating between the two if you’re teaching in a school setting. Students will employ topic maintenance skills, socially and functionally, in the school setting. However, when it comes to academic communication, the skills and situations are even more specialized.
The skills needed in these situations require an understanding of the topics covered in that class and can have an impact on grades.
- asking for help
- answering a question from the teacher
- participating in a teacher-led discussion
- working on a group project
- participating in peer-to-peer discussions and activities
Workplace communication is another subset of functional communication that deserves its own designation. For older students who are preparing to enter the workforce, knowing how to maintain workplace conversations is important.
This type of communication is specialized and, like academic communication, requires an understanding of the language and tasks needed by the job. However, it also requires more generic social and functional communication skills, especially if the job involves interacting with customers.
- answering customer questions about a product or item
- asking questions of an employee or coworker to understand processes
- responding to customer complaints
- making work-appropriate small talk with customers and coworkers
So far, we’ve talked about staying on topic as it relates to verbal communication in social and functional situations. But now, let’s look at how topic maintenance also impacts literacy skills.
Any time a student is writing (unless perhaps it’s in a private journal), they should be adhering to a topic. It’s important that students understand the purpose of what they’re writing so that they can communicate clearly and effectively. Without the ability to maintain a topic, the student’s writing will become jumbled and unclear, making comprehension difficult or impossible.
Some situations that require this skill:
- writing an academic or research paper
- writing an essay or book report
- responding to short answer or essay questions on tests or worksheets
- writing a fiction story or other narrative
- constructing a resume or cover letter
Last but not least, students also need to understand topic maintenance when reading. Applying this skill to reading is a bit more abstract, particularly because it requires primarily the receptive side. However, having a clear understanding of the purpose (or topic) as well as the supporting details provided on that topic is important for successful reading comprehension.
A few ways that understanding topic maintenance can affect comprehension include:
- recognizing point of view in a narrative
- keeping up with dialogue in a story
- making connections between exposition and dialogue/narratives in a text
- understanding and remembering facts written on a topic in paragraph form
- utilizing excerpts of texts to respond to a broader topic or question
how to teach staying on topic
I like to follow a specific sequence of steps when I teach students how to stay on topic. In my TpT store, I sell a Staying on Topic unit for older students. Since I developed this unit to follow these steps, I’ll share examples from the unit. The unit itself targets verbal communication and primarily social communication skills, but the steps I use in the unit can also be followed to teach staying on topic in written communication.
I want to start by saying that I like working on these skills by first having them analyze other people instead of themselves. There’s something so personal about the way we communicate and changing it can be extremely difficult! My students are generally much more willing to begin working on a skill when it’s slightly removed from themselves at first; then, they become more able and more willing to recognize it in themselves. This is, of course, particularly true when working on verbal communication.
Okay, now let’s dive in!
Identifying On topic and Off topic remarks
Step one in teaching topic maintenance is teaching students to identify whether something is on topic or off topic. I find this to be a really important first step, as students often don’t realize that they’re off topic in the first place.
- Sort short written conversations by whether all conversational partners stayed on topic
- Record conversations between yourself and the student and say something off topic on purpose. During playback, have the student listen and call you out!
- Record conversations between the student and peer or the student and yourself. During playback, have the student find the moments that they veered off topic.
- Place “on topic” and “off topic” index cards on the student’s desk. During spontaneous conversations, randomly ask the student to analyze their last statement and determine if it’s on or off topic. Switch up when you ask so they have the opportunity to recognize their successes, too!
- Give the students a single topic or purpose for a written text. Then, give them a variety of written excerpts and have them sort the excerpts by whether they adhere to the topic/purpose given.
- Give the students a variety of topics and purpose for written texts. Then, give them a variety of written excerpts and have them sort the excerpts by which topic/purpose they go with.
- Give the student a prompt and ask them to write a sentence on that prompt. Then, have them determine they’re sentence met the prompt. Help them identify keywords that indicate whether or not it adhered to the topic.
- Using a sample of the student’s writing, ask them to identify the topic or purpose. Then, choose and highlight several sentences (some on topic and some off topic). Let the student choose which of the highlighted sentences adhere to the topic.
Repairing off-topic remarks
Once students can identify off-topic remarks or sentences in others and themselves, they are ready to begin repairing them. Any of the activities from the section above can be extended simply by having students repair off topic elements! But let’s look at some specifics.
- Teach students a way of analyzing conversations. The six questions I use in my unit are great for social conversations. Because we’re adding another layer when repairing conversations, students need to understand the why’s and how’s.
- A framework can be used for correcting written conversations, audio playback from their own conversations, and spontaneous conversations.
- Provide possible options for correcting conversations—both in others and in themselves.
- When providing options, give options that include making comments, asking follow-up questions, and answering questions.
- Just like in verbal communication, provide students a framework for analyzing other people’s written work and their own. The framework may need to change based on the type of writing being analyzed.
- Given the student a topic and an off topic introductory sentence. Then, provide a variety of corrections to the introductory sentence for the student to choose from.
- Similarly, do the same with sentences from the body of the text and the conclusion to the text.
- Within a written text, identify the off topic sentences and provide at least two choices for correction.
Now that students can repair conversations, they’re ready to complete them! We’re moving steadily onto the expressive side of topic maintenance at this point. But, as you can see, we’re scaffolding students to spontaneous conversations and writing.
- Adjust your framework from the previous skill to focus on the three primary ways we continue conversations—making comments, answering questions, and asking questions.
- Have students choose potential responses to partial conversations through matching and sorting activities.
- Provide partial conversations and encourage students to brainstorm the many ways they can stick to a topic. Encourage them to think of responses from at least two of the methods (comments, answering, or asking).
- Provide a partially filled-in outline for a written topic. Have students fill in the missing information based on that topic.
- Provide a written text that is complete to the conclusion paragraph. Provide a variety of conclusion paragraphs for the students to choose from.
- Provide a written text that is complete to the conclusion paragraph. Have students brainstorm ways to write the conclusion while adhering to the topic.
Generating comments and questions on a topic
Moving steadily toward expressive communication, I next give students the opportunity to brainstorm about a variety of topics. This step serves two purposes.
First, it takes away an entire level of the scaffold—completed or nearly completed conversations and texts—and requires them to think independently and creatively about topics.
Second, it gives them a bit of a “bank” of comments, questions, and answers on a wide variety of topics that they can take into their own conversations and writing.
This type of activity can be used for conversational topics and a wide variety of written topics, from creative fiction to nonfiction to academics. If working on writing, this is a great place to introduce the classic outline, perhaps with some added scaffolding and guiding questions for completing it.
What I really want at this stage is for students to dig deep and access all that they know!
This idea, and the samples below, could be easily used for verbal and literacy tasks.
Scripting and/or having on topic conversations
And now, we’ve reached the last piece of the puzzle! Students can identify, repair, complete, and brainstorm. What’s left is to put it all together!
- Have students script conversations between other people. You can provide them with a photo to use as stimuli, a situation, or even profiles of the conversational partners.
- Using the brainstorming pages from the last step as a guide, have students script a conversation on one of the topics. They can script the conversation with you or with a peer! Then, practice having the conversation aloud.
- Give students a topic and a few seconds to think before having them converse on the fly! If they need a little more help, choose a topic from the brainstorming pages and allow them to consult it as needed. Fade as needed.
- At this point, students are writing! Provide students with a framework that summarizes all the skills they’ve learned. Begin with the planning stage of writing by providing brainstorming pages, outlines, and general guidance.
- When writing, it’s always important to teach students to proofread and edit. After completing a written task, walk them back through the steps you’ve already covered and have them analyze their own writing, identify off-topic details and repair them. Provide a self-assessment rubric or another structured way of analyzing their work as or after they write.
I hope it’s clear by now that topic maintenance is an important skill for more than just socializing. Students with Autism, ADHD, or a reading/language disorder may struggle with it across spoken and written domains. It’s important to consider both domains when you are planning intervention for either, as one will likely affect the other.
I hope you find the steps that I use to teach this skill helpful for planning your own lessons. And if you’re working on verbal communication with older students, don’t forget I have a unit that might serve as a good starting place.