The Power of Building Vocabulary Through Context

What is critical for children’s and adolescents’ communication, language, and literacy success? There are so many contributing factors, but vocabulary development is most definitely critical. Speech-language pathologists need to focus on building vocabulary skills of children and adolescents when providing speech-language therapy each week to those with communication and language disorders.

Children’s exposure to vocabulary varies based on how language rich their home, school, and community environments are in providing language stimulation. The playing field is not the same. Vocabulary knowledge and use is directly linked to economic status of families. The National Center for Education statistics reports that by the time a child in the U.S. reaches 3 years of age, there is a 30 million word gap between children of wealthy vs. poor families. Similarly, 34 % of kindergarten children in the U.S. lack the basic language skills that are necessary to become effective readers and learners.

This is why it’s so important for speech-language pathologists to provide intervention to build vocabulary skills. This is a powerful way to deliver positive and visible results in children’s communication, language, and literacy skills. There are so many words that children need to learn. How can you as the SLP provide therapeutic intervention in a way for them to understand and practice new words? You need to provide multiple exposures of the word in context of hands on activities, sentence context, and paragraph context. Children and adolescents will learn new words when they can hear the word, see the word, say the word, act it out, read the word, and write the word. Here are 4 activities to harness the power of building vocabulary through context.

1) Emphasize new words during play activities.

For younger kids this will help them build nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Use seasonal activities to build everyday tier 1 vocabulary for early language learners with speech-language impairment. Fall is a great time to bring objects into the speech room. Kids can name the items such as apples, pumpkins, stem, leaves, seeds, vine, and squash. They can describe the objects using adjectives such as red, green, orange, yellow, white, big, little, smooth, bumpy, sweet, sour, slimy, wet. Provide visuals for kids to label/match the nouns, verbs, and adjectives with the appropriate item. The SLP can provide a verbal model for simple sentences. Then kids can say and write their own sentences with key vocabulary such as: I like the green apple, It tastes sour, The inside of the pumpkin is slimy, or The pumpkin seed is little.

2) Use task cards to build tier 2 vocabulary using sentence & paragraph context.

I suggest using my Fall Multiple Meanings task cards with upper elementary and middle school students. The SLP or students can read aloud the sentences and then the children have to select the correct meaning of the homograph from a choice of 4 answers. They can use a dry erase marker to select their answer on laminated cards. This activity works well during group speech-language therapy sessions. These task cards are a part of my differentiated Fall Themed Multiple Meanings activity packet.

3) Use children’s literature to build tier 2 vocabulary using sentence & paragraph context.

I recommend that the SLP preselect tier 2 vocabulary from fiction text. Use your favorite seasonal or year round books to introduce more challenging vocabulary to children and adolescents. Read aloud the story and teach them how to use context clues or helpful hints in the sentence or paragraph to predict the meaning of the unfamiliar word. As extension activities across multiple sessions, you can integrate Marzano’s 6 vocabulary building steps discussed in my last blog post with the new vocabulary from the fiction book. Subscribe to my blog/upcoming newsletter to get a related worksheet for children to use as they learn new words in children’s literature.

4) Use high interest non-fiction and diverse text with key tier 2 vocabulary targets.

Select topics of interest for children on your caseload. Give them excerpts of text and have them highlight or underline challenging vocabulary. Guide them through using context clues strategies to identify the meaning of the unfamiliar word.  Again, use Marzano’s research based & proven six steps of vocabulary building to further reinforce and provide multiple exposures of tier 2 words. Remember as an SLP, your job is to maintain the therapeutic focus of the lesson by modeling the strategy that needs to be implemented and providing opportunities for children to practice.

Speech-language pathologists will remediate receptive and expressive language disorders in children and adolescents when they use the power of building vocabulary in context. Build vocabulary using context from hands on activities, sentence context, and paragraph context. Remember children need repetition and multiple exposures of a word to truly build receptive and expressive vocabulary skills in a meaningful manner. Make sure that you integrate this significant intervention method so children can build speech-language skills. Overtime, this will contribute to closing the achievement gap for children with communication and language disorders.



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).


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.

Vocabulary Progress Monitoring {Product Launch & Giveaway}

I am excited that my latest product, Vocabulary Progress Monitoring, is available for use by speech-language pathologists and can be purchased in my TPT store. This essential and effective informal assessment tool assesses 300 vocabulary words.

I have personally used these quick evaluation tools with children who have speech-language disorders to measure their semantic processing skills. Several SLPs purchased this product last week during my November 7th Must Have sale so I know this is a necessary product to have handy in your speech-language therapy room.

The resource is organized by vocabulary skills that require increasing receptive and expressive language abilities. In this extensive resource, you will receive vocabulary progress monitoring documentation forms to evaluate these specific semantic skills:

1) Object functions- 20 words (school & home items)
2) Word associations- 40 words
3) Categories- 10 groups
4) Similarities/Differences- 10 words
5) Synonyms/Antonyms- 40 synonyms, 40 antonyms
6) Multiple meaning words- 90 words
7) Oral definitions with Tier I words- 10 words
8) Oral definitions with Tier III (academic) words- 20
9) Figurative language- 20 words

I recommend making an assessment binder with several copies of each form and keeping them in sheet protectors. This way you can easily access them when you need to complete an informal vocabulary assessment for a student.

This must have progress monitoring tool is on sale now in my TPT store for one week only because I know how much you need this product! As a special gift to my blog readers,  enter now for a chance to win my 2 latest progress monitoring tools! The winners will be notified next Thursday in honor of ASHA in Florida! a Rafflecopter giveaway


Thanks for visiting the blog today.

Tamara Anderson
BSL Speech & Language


I love Semantic Maps! {Evidence-Based Strategy}

I love any reason to use markers in speech-language therapy sessions with my students. When I demonstrate how to make semantic maps, I naturally use markers to make the terms more appealing. Who doesn’t like colorful work samples anyhow? Plus, it is a great memory aid as well.

Semantic maps are visual representations of key vocabulary words that are accompanied by definitions, pictures, and/or acronyms to help individuals learn academic content.

I provide speech-language therapy to kindergarten-fifth grade students. Typically, I use this evidence based strategy with my 5th grade students with science and social studies content. However, it is beneficial with younger kids as well.

Last year I implemented a single subject research design study for my Ed.S. degree program in curriculum & instruction. I compared 5th grade students’ receptive social studies vocabulary knowledge after instruction using semantic maps with World War I and World War II terms vs. the intervention method of flash card drill & repetition. Making semantic or metacognitive maps were a part of Dr. Caroline Leaf ‘s, The Switch On Your Brain 5-Step Learning Process system that I implemented during this research. She is a neuroscientist and speech-language pathologist. How cool is that! I met her in person two years at a conference and she is a phenomenal speaker!

Ok, back to semantic maps. My research findings revealed that the use of the semantic map strategy increased the receptive vocabulary knowledge of 5th grade speech-language impaired students at a greater rate than vocabulary instruction using the flash cards method. On average, my students made a 35 % gain from pretest to posttest with WW I terms and a 50 % gain with WW II terms using semantic maps as a vocabulary learning strategy. When they used the flash card method during the non-treatment phase they demonstrated a  11% increase with WWI terms and a 15 % increase with WWII terms.

This year, I have reviewed key ideas about the Civil War, reconstruction, westward expansion, animal cells, and plant cells using semantic maps with my students who have language disorders and co-occurring language based learning disabilities.

Here are some more snapshots of the maps:





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Tamara Anderson

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