Two British Speech Therapists writing about all things speech and language.

How to teach negatives

Negatives are a really important thing to understand and always a high priority for me to target if a child is struggling with them.  If you don’t know that there’s a difference between “push” and “don’t push” you can immediately see that it can lead to all sorts of problems!

The first thing to do if you think your child is struggling with negatives is to pick apart exactly what is causing the problem.  It may be that they don’t understand the words no or not.  However, it might also be that the sentence is just too long and they are only understanding or remembering part of it.  So in the sentence “don’t open the door” they just focus on “open the door”.  Finally, it may be the contracted form of the negative that is causing confusion.  So, they may understand “do not” but not realise that “don’t” is the same.  They may understand “can not” but be confused by “can’t”.  Try a few different instructions of different lengths and different types of negatives and see if you can work out where the confusion is.

There are a few different ways that you can work on the words “no” or “not” if they are causing difficulty.  Here are a few ideas.

  • Use gesture or sign.  You don’t need to learn a sign to represent “no” – shaking your head works well!  Use this to help your child to understand.  Shake your head as you say the negative word to help them focus on it and understand the meaning.  Also emphasise it with your voice.
  • Play a Simon Says type game.  However instead of the “Simon says” part, just tell the children whether to do the action or not.  EG  “walk to the door” or “don’t clap your hands”.
  • Get a selection of objects or toys and lay them out on the table.  Ask your child to find one which is “not an animal” or “not yellow” or “not soft”….  If your child struggles with these it may be the concept words (yellow, soft etc) that are tricky for them rather than the “not” part.  Make this easier by just naming items instead.  EG  “find something that is not a pencil” or “give me something that is not a sock”.  Remember to add some in which don’t use “not” as well so that they really have to listen and understand.
  • Look at pictures with your child. Ask them to follow instructions containing negatives.  For example, “find a girl with no glasses” or “can you see a child who is not eating?”
  • Black Sheep Press have some great packs of activities for working on negatives, and I saw last week that they have just updated one of them to a colour versions.  You can find that here.  There are two other negatives packs on the site too.

What else do you do to work on negatives?

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