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What’s That Word?

Jun 04, 2020

What’s That Word? 

Alli Caplinger, Speech and Language Pathologist

Understanding words around us is essential to meaningful communication, cognitive development, and is one of the critical pieces to reading acquisition (National Reading Pane, 2001). As stated by Rupley, Logan, and Nichols (1998/1999), ”Vocabulary knowledge is the glue that holds stories, ideas, and content together making comprehension accessible.” Visualize students with language impairments, especially those with vocabulary deficits, as tourists in another country. They may be listening to the foreign language spoken around them but are unable to find meaning in what they are hearing. As the trip goes on, they recognize specific words or phrases yet they are unable to identify the true meaning or use those words or phrases  in context correctly. 

Currently, there are over 450,000 words in the English language. Typical-developing children acquire 3,000 words per year, but only 400 words are being directly and explicitly taught by teachers. How do students learn the other 2,600 words per year? What happens if they don’t learn from incident teaching? How does the environment affect a child’s vocabulary? All of these questions must be addressed in order to overcome the exponential vocabulary deficit some children face. Unfortunately, and despite original theories, children do not learn based on age or grade but by experience (Beck, et al., 2002). Therefore,  “waiting it out” is just not an option. 

At-risk populations for vocabulary deficits include children with language impairments, cognitive challenges, hearing loss, and/or low socioeconomic status. There is a higher likelihood these students experience reduced engagement in conversation, aren’t aware of new or interesting words, do not read or aren’t read to, and/or do not receive explicit and intentional instruction related to word meaning. Students with language and/or literacy impairments may be told definitions but are too busy using more brain power to decode. Many of these students have lowered working memory skills which is required to juggle all of these cognitive tasks at once. 

So what can we, as teachers, parents, and caregivers, do to help our children expand their word use? We can provide a combination of the following: 

  1. Specific word instruction 
    • Preview text and pick “bang for your buck” words that are less concrete but useful across multiple situations, provide developmentally-appropriate definitions, and use picture examples.
  2. Word learning strategies 
    • Teach students patterns of prefixes, roots, and suffixes for academic words. This is called morphology, or the study of word parts (Armbruster & Osborn, 2001)
  3. Repetition 
    • More isn’t always better; read the same book over multiple days to teach, review, and scaffold the use of targeted vocabulary. This builds routines and familiarity with story grammar parts and important words.
  4. Find opportunities to apply and demonstrate knowledge in a multisensory way 
    • Have your child/student create his/her own examples of new words, relate it to their own experience, and identify relationships with similar or non-similar words. 
  5. Check in with your child to see whether he/she “knows” the word 
    • scale of 1-4; 1 = never heard of it, have no idea, 2 = heard of it but still unsure what it means, 3 = heard it before and can use it in a sentence correctly but cannot explicitly give definition, 4 = heard it before, can use the word in a sentence correctly and can give an explicitly give definition (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2002; Carey, 1978) 

Ultimately, vocabulary instruction helps students build connections with text, others, and oneself. Life experiences will “stick” with students and allow for a richer and deeper connection with the world around them.