Building Vocabulary: an SLT case study

by Shelley Parkin – Speech and Language Therapist
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SLCN, Speech Link, Language Link, Speech and Language, Speech and Language Therapy, Communication Difficulties

Harry and Tami were both in Year 3, and needed a bit of extra support building their vocabulary. They knew plenty of basic words, the kind they used when speaking to their families and friends each day. They were comfortable with these words and often fell back on these when writing. Their teacher found they didn’t always understand everything they were reading in class, and wanted them to use a wider range of vocabulary in their written work.

I placed these boys in a vocabulary group, with the aim of teaching not only some new words, but the skills needed to become better vocabulary learners. I spoke to their teacher about the topics they were working on, and she gave me a copy of the lesson plans. I was able to use these plans to pick out some really useful vocabulary.

One of the challenges we face, as educators, is knowing which words to teach- there are so many choices! It can be helpful to think about vocabulary as belonging to ‘tiers’. Tier 1 is the largest group of words, and contains all the basic words we encounter every day, such as ‘walk’, ‘run’, ‘bike’, ‘apple’, ‘chair’ etc. These words are learned by exposure to language, and most children won’t need any specific teaching to pick these up.

Skipping ahead to Tier 3, the smallest group, we find specific topic-based words. We don’t encounter these ones very often, although they are useful while we’re learning the topic, e.g. ‘Roman’, ‘centurion’, ‘toga’, ‘amphitheatre’ etc. The class teacher usually introduces these words, and provides lots of pictures to help the class learn them.

That leaves us with Tier 2 words. This is our middle group and contains some really useful words. These words are less likely to be taught explicitly in class, but are used very often, across the curriculum. These words can have multiple meanings, depending on the context, and are often not easy to visualise. Their meanings can be more abstract, and our understanding usually builds over time, e.g. ‘compare’, ‘identify’, ‘mature’, ‘discover’, ‘irregular’, ‘predict’ etc.

Speech and Language Therapists are usually interested in these types of words, and often target them in therapy. Children with speech and language difficulties often have literacy difficulties as well, and it’s through books that children are typically exposed to a greater range of Tier 2 words. This means children with speech and language difficulties are simply not exposed to the same range of vocabulary as their peers.

So, what can we do about this? While it may not be possible to fill in all the gaps, we can certainly fill in some, and in the process, teach them how to become better vocabulary learners. Learning words securely is best achieved by working on both the meaning and the sound features of the word together. We are then not only giving them the meaning, but also better access to the correct word form, making it more likely for them to actually use it.

Let’s get back to Harry and Tami. Both boys enjoyed the sessions and soon became familiar with what they had to do. We used ‘Word Maps’, which are basically spider diagrams, with branches for sounds features in one colour (e.g. initial sound, number of syllables, rhyming words etc) and meaning features in another colour (e.g. simple definition, picture, word associations etc). We created sentences using the new word, and wherever possible, carried out a practical activity to experience the word in context. You can add all kinds of branches to your ‘Word Maps’- the more ‘hooks’ you give the child, the more likely the new word will stick. It’s very important to revisit the new vocabulary regularly. Just like us, they will forget a new word if they don’t hear it very often.

The boys were thrilled to let me know one session that their teacher had asked them to ‘record’ some information in class, and they knew that rather than expecting a tape recording, she just wanted them to write it down!


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