Six Vocabulary Building Steps for Speech-Language Therapy

Vocabulary knowledge and expression is critical for children and adolescents’ success in communicating their ideas and summarizing curriculum information. But what about those with communication disorders, language disorders, and learning disabilities? They often have a limited vocabulary that hinders their ability to comprehend information and clearly express their thoughts. They need direct instruction from speech language pathologists to learn vocabulary building strategies. They need multiple exposures of a word to transfer it to their spoken vocabulary. They need opportunities to hear new words, speak them, read them, and write them in the appropriate context. Children and adolescents need to be taught high frequency tier 2 vocabulary words. However, young children also need therapeutic intervention to expand their semantic processing skills of Tier 1 everyday vocabulary. Did you know that there are six vocabulary building research based steps that speech-language pathologists can use during intervention? Yep. You may have activities that have words that you want to teach, but how do you go about it?

Where do you begin? First, you need assessments to determine where to start in speech language therapy sessions. I’ve got you covered as my Vocabulary Progress Monitoring tool directly addresses semantic processing skills. With information from these informal assessments you can effectively determine starting points in therapy and quickly determine growth over time. There is a hierarchy of progression  for semantic processing of tier 1 vocabulary words and then kids move on to learning tier 2 words. Children typically learn to label, state functions, name word associations, convergent/divergent categories, explain similarities/differences of basic words, state antonyms, state synonyms and explain multiple meanings words (tier 2). I do not suggest teaching the words in the vocabulary progress monitoring tool, but you can determine where in the semantic/neurological hierarchy to target in therapy.

A metaanalysis of research studies confirmed that identifying similarities and differences had a 45 percentile gain in overall student achievement (Marzano 2001).

When children start kindergarten, they have varying levels of vocabulary knowledge and expression based on previous language exposure at home, preschool, and in their community. Speech-language pathologists may remind classroom teachers that they need to explicitly teach word building strategies to children. Teachers can use the Vocabulary Progress Monitoring tool for students in the Response to Intervention (RTI) process to evaluate what they know and monitor their progress after provided direct instruction.

Over the years, I have seen significant progress in children’s and adolescents’ communication and language skills when they are directly taught vocabulary and provided opportunities to learn and use new words.

In order to effectively instruct students during speech-language therapy, you must clearly understand the three tiers of vocabulary before you can implement the 6 vocabulary building steps.

Tier 1 words are high frequency vocabulary that are often heard everyday in conversation and learned by many children during incidental learning. These are basic level words. However, many young children with language disorders have a limited repertoire of these words and require direct instruction of these words.

Tier 2 words are high frequency  and general academic vocabulary that are used across content areas. These include words such as analyze, compare, contrast, and multiple meaning words.

Tier 3 words are considered low frequency vocabulary because they are specific to curriculum subject matter such as social studies or science. These may be words such as topography, ecosystem, or molecule.

Speech-language pathologists should primarily focus on building Tier 1 and Tier 2 vocabulary skills for children and adolescents with language disorders because these are frequently occurring words in conversation and academic curriculum. So, what are the six vocabulary building strategies that SLPs may use in speech-language therapy? These are based on educational expert, Dr. Robert Marzano’s research over the years.

1. SLP describes a new word and provides an example.

This goes beyond saying the definition.

2. Child restates or describes the new term in his or her own words.

3. Child creates a non-linguistic representation of the word such as a drawing or acting out the word.

A metaanalysis of research studies confirm that non-linguistic representations led to a 27 percentile gain in overall student achievement (Marzano 2001).

4. Child completes an interactive activity to extend his or her understanding of the new word.

5. Child verbally discusses new vocabulary term with others.

He or she needs time for oral language practice. This is critical to deepening understanding of the word.

6. Child plays learning games to review new vocabulary.

I know that speech-language therapists provide countless descriptions of new words with visuals for children and adolescents during language therapy. Students complete many activities including word descriptions and play vocabulary learning games in therapy session. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind these 6 research based steps for vocabulary building. Dr. Robert Marzano’s research points out that it is important not to skip steps. Therefore, in clinical practice for SLPs, perhaps we should think about how many of these steps we are doing. Do our sessions have a emphasis at times on playing games in language therapy? Yes, it’s fun, but we must take the time to directly teach new vocabulary and not just jump to the activity or game. However, I do acknowledge that games such as Blurt do provide opportunities for the SLP and children to describe new words while participating in an interactive game. It is often in these opportunities that children can practice listening to descriptions, building word retrieval skills, and confirming their learning of new words. However, SLPs should try to implement the Six Steps for Building Vocabulary in their speech-language therapy sessions with children and adolescents. I acknowledge that SLPs have a limited time each speech language therapy session. Therefore, you most likely can not implement all 6 steps in 1 session. However, I encourage you to reflect on the suggested progression of steps proposed by Dr. Marzano and see if there are adjustments that you may make in your clinical practice to promote children’s semantic growth. As speech language pathologists, we are therapeutic specialists who can break down learning and give children multiple exposures to acquire new words both receptively and expressively.

Remember that “student’s vocabulary knowledge is directly tied to their success in school” (Marzano 2013).

References:

2013. Marzano, R., Simms, J. Vocabulary for the Common Core. Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research.

2004. Marzano, R., Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement. Research on What Works in Schools. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

2001. Marzano, R., Pickering, D., Pollock, J. Classroom Instruction that Works. Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

2007. Richard, G., Hanner, M. Language Processing Treatment Activities. LinguiSystems Inc. Austin, TX.

Do you want to read more articles about direct vocabulary instruction? Check out these previous posts on my blog.

Why Teach Word Associations?

Why Do You Teach Categorization in Speech-Language Therapy?

Why Teach Multiple Meaning Words?

Do you need activities to work on vocabulary building in speech-language therapy? I have several therapy activities for SLPs to use with children and adolescents available for digital download in my TPT store. You can also click on the vocabulary activities section  under TOPICS on this blog. Just scroll back to the top to read more.

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