Confession. I really used to struggle to find a balance between keeping my upper elementary students engaged while incorporating materials from the curriculum. For many of my students, materials from the curriculum are so far above their reading level. This makes basic comprehension feels like an uphill battle. Meanwhile, they have goals for higher level language skills (like context clues and inferencing). It makes sense to target these skills in isolation to give students an opportunity for errorless practice, but how do we work towards generalization if we’re always using materials that are significantly below grade level (and out of context)?

After a lot of trial and error, I came up with a few solutions. I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this, so hopefully sharing my process/strategy will help you to tackle these skills, too! Please share any other ideas in the comments!

All the Visuals

It is so important to teach a skill before we expect students to demonstrate mastery. I’ve worked hard to build up an “arsenal” of visuals to help me do that. It makes it easier for me to teach (and not talk so much). Students can more quickly start to cue themselves and eventually bring the visual into the classroom (if needed) for generalization.

Start Small

As we’re teaching the skill, I start with some simple examples so that students can benefit from errorless learning. However, I don’t stay here long. As soon as they demonstrate basic understanding of the concept, I want to move into more relevant materials. Even if it means that I have to do more cueing.

You might have a different approach to therapy, and that is okay! This just makes the most sense to me, and it seems to work better for my students. Just be sure to “do you.” 🙂

Jump into the Curriculum

Okay, sounds good. But how?!

I was pleasantly surprised how willing teachers were able to share what they are doing in the classroom when I told them what I wanted and why. That said, there are different levels of collaboration between teachers. Some teachers will share their plans for the quarter, so I know what lessons they will be targeting and when. Other teachers drop a passage or a vocabulary list in my box every few weeks. I hear from others in the hallway. It varies, but all forms of collaboration help me to better meet my students’ needs and set them up for success.

Since I started collaborating with teachers in this way, teachers have a better idea of what their students are working on in therapy. Because of this, they are better able to communicate what I can do to help, and they are more willing/able to support these skills in the classroom.

The research also indicates that targeting students’ goals in context results in less rapid progress initially (vs. drill); however, skill maintenance and generalization are improved. That means that students will actually be able to use these skills in the classroom! That’s what we’re all about, isn’t it?

And If That Doesn’t Work?

Even if you aren’t able to open that line of communication with teachers, you can often get your hands on the curriculum and pull passages/vocabulary from there. Even if you’re not “in sync” with the teacher, it’s likely something that was addressed or will be addressed in the future.

If your school doesn’t have a curriculum, then here are some amazing resources. I found out that many of my teachers pull passages from these sites: – There are tons of FREE passages. I also love this site because you can select the reading level. If one of your teachers happens to be using this in the classroom, then you can use the same passage but lower the reading level to make it more accessible. All with the click of a single button! – This is another great FREE resource. The passages are leveled, but you can’t level individual passages like you can with NewsELA. You can download activity sheets to accompany the passages. They pull out vocabulary targets and questions for you. You can also find paired passages for some interesting thematic units. – This one is paid (with a free trial), but many districts have subscriptions to it. It includes an amazing variety of reading passages.

You can also use some awesome FREE websites to quickly identify therapy targets. Read about how I do this here.

Engagement Strategies

But what about those students who are “too cool” for speech and are not “motivated” to participate? Here are a few strategies that I have found to be helpful:

1. Goal Awareness: I always make sure my students know why they are coming to speech (and it is not to play games!). Check out this freebie or these decks for a quick way to review your students’ goals.

2. Make It Relevant: Amy Harris from Amy Adapts talks about the idea of treating our students as professionals in training. It really helps students take accountability and put forth the effort needed to tackle these challenging skills.

3. Growth Mindset: Talking about growth mindset is another great strategy. My students will often shut down because these skills are challenging, but they seem to be more resilient after my favorite “brain talk.” Read about it here.

4. Switch It Up: Finger flashlights and dry erase markers are great tools to increase engagement. I “reward” the students with these tools when they participate verbally (e.g., if they offer an answer, so they get to use the dry erase marker to underline the evidence and/or write the answer). It’s amazing how something so simple can motivate students to participate. Check out some of my favorite tools here.

5. Incorporate Technology: My students love it when we pull up the passages on Notability. They get to use a stylus to annotate the passage. We also use an emoji keyboard when we’re working on inferencing. Projecting the passage is another fun way to keep students engaged.

6. Incorporate Movement: Especially when the text is dense or particularly challenging, we’ll get out of our chairs and get moving. This is particularly helpful when students are struggling to comprehend a passage and/or understand vocabulary terms.

Putting It Together: An Example

Last week, my 5th graders and I were reading a passage about forensic evidence that the teacher shared with me. After doing a quick “walk” of the passage, we read the first paragraph. The vocabulary was very challenging for the students (e.g., fingerprint, suspect, criminal, evidence, detective). They weren’t able to comprehend the passage because they were missing those key vocabulary words. My “basic” strategies weren’t working, so we stepped back and acted out scenarios. The goals were targeting vocabulary and inferencing, so I tailored the scenarios to target those areas.

They didn’t know that everyone has unique fingerprints, so we started there. I grabbed a marker and we each colored our fingers and “stamped” our fingerprint on a piece of paper. They saw that all of our fingerprints were a little different. I guided them to make some inferences about why this might be useful in finding a criminal… It took a little while, but we got it. (:

Then, things got intense! We set up our own crime scene. One of the group membership committed a crime (e.g., stealing a pen). Another group member had the detective role. He looked for evidence (and made inferences about who committed the crime). We had a list of suspects (who we thought committed the crime) to find the true criminal. After a few repetitions, the students were independently using this vocabulary and assigning each other roles. Success!

By doing this, we were able to make the content more “real.” It was also a great activity to target my students’ goals. Because the students had prior exposure to the vocabulary, they were better able to comprehend and participate in the classroom discussion related to this challenging passage. Because we were using the same content, they will be reminded of our discussion and the strategies we practiced. The teacher knew what we targeted, so she was able to support those skills throughout the discussion, as well.

The goal is to facilitate generalization. It’s not always an immediate fix or a “magic wand” approach, but my students are making more rapid progress since I started using materials from the curriculum in therapy.

I’d love to hear what you think! What are your favorite strategies to engage students and work towards generalization?


Hi there! I'm Marisha. I am a school-based SLP who is all about working smarter, not harder. I created the SLP Now Membership and love sharing tips and tricks to help you save time so you can focus on what matters most--your students AND yourself.

Reader Interactions


  1. Thank you for this post! You always share real life struggles in our field as well as fantastic ideas on how to overcome them, making them much less scary and overwhelming!! I could get lost on your blog for hours!

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