Vocabulary – HOW TO

kumquatI’ve been an SLP for 7 years and it has taken me nearly that entire time to find a systematic approach to vocabulary instruction that works for me and my students.  Incorporating elements of the vocabulary tier system and word-storage and retrieval strategies, here are the steps I use and that I give my students for learning new vocabulary words.
SLP Step 1: Select Tier 2 words for the student to learn.  Tier 2 vocabulary words are those that are beyond basic words (Tier 1) but not as complex or rare as field-specific vocabulary used almost exclusively for a particular subject area (Tier 3).  Tier 2 words occur frequently enough that students are likely to encounter them in multiple subject matters.  These include the language of directions, such as “Summarize,” “Correlate,” “Devise,” “Reiterate,” etc.  They also include words they will need in order to be informed consumers and independent, productive adults.  Tier 2 words can be selected from novels or text books that your students are already reading.  These do not have to be the words that the text book puts in bold.  Those are usually the Tier 3 words.  The words we want are those often found in the the instructions for assessments, homework, and activities.  Recently however, I decided to create a list of Tier 2 words by picking them from the commercials I watch on TV.  I chose words that you will need to know in order to make savvy purchasing decisions or even understand prescription instructions and labels.  (Get the list here).  This year, I’ve also been focusing on explicitly teaching the meaning of conjunction words used to form complex sentences.  (Get your complex sentence lesson plan here and your complex sentence wall posters here).
SLP Step 2: Once you have a list of words, conduct a baseline to gauge the student’s familiarity with the words receptively and expressively.

SLP Step 3: From your baseline, eliminate the words that the student already knows and focus on the remaining words.

Here are the strategies I give my students for how to learn these new words.

Student Step 1: Identify the word (Say it, write it, etc.)

Student Step 2: Break the word into syllables
Student Step 3Picture (either draw or imagine) what the word sounds like – in other words, what other words does it remind you of (ones that rhyme with it, ones that start with the same syllable, etc.).   It’s important to insist that the student think of his/her own idea of what the word sounds like to him/her.  This will help with later recall later.  Also, the skill of recognizing familiar patterns between words is what allows us to make educated guesses about the meanings of new or unfamiliar words, seeing connections between prefixes, suffixes, roots/stems, and varying grammatical forms of the same base word.   (When asking students to draw what a word sounds like, reassure them that the quality of the artwork doesn’t matter.  Some students get hung up on not being able to draw well.  Let them know that stick figures and basic forms are fine as long as they can tell what they have drawn).

SLP Step 4: Explain to the student what the word really means.  You can use a variety of tools and strategies to do this.  Including using the Expanding Expression Tool (EET) to guide your own definition.  (I don’t use dictionary definitions, because I find them often confusing for students.  Many of them do the very thing we tell kids not to do, they use a form of the word to define the word).  In your definition, bombard the student with grammatically correct use of the target word but stating the word at the beginning of each feature’s description.

SLP Step 5: Ask the student if they’ve ever seen anything like what you described for the word’s meaning. 
Student Step 4: Picture what the word really means (based on the SLP’s description).
Student Step 5: Merge the picture of what the word sounds like with the picture of what it really means.
Student Step 6: Rehearse the word by saying it at least 3 times.

Student Step 7: Use the word in a sentence.


SLP Step 6:
Correct the grammar of the sentence if necessary and give examples of how to use the word correctly.

SLP Step 7: Bombard the student with correct use of the word again by telling a story using the word.  I like to do this by incorporating into a tale about a personal experience if possible. 

SLP Step 8: Ask the student follow-up questions about related experiences.  Incorporate the target vocabulary word into your question.

I introduce this process to students using very basic, Tier I words.  I do this so that they can learn the strategy without focusing on a new word meaning.  Once students have the hang of the process, we move on to our targeted Tier 2 words.  We can usually get through 2 or 3 in a session.  After introducing a few words, we review the ones that we worked on that day.  Then at the start of the next session, we review last week’s words before introducing new ones.  Delightfully, following this process I have found that students usually have a deep understanding of the words and recall them for the next session.  When they don’t, they are usually able to retrieve the words from their memory with a cue about what the word sounded like (making a verbal reference to the picture they drew of what it reminded them of).

I have done this with a focus on words with the same prefix or suffix as well.
After introducing a couple of words each week for a few weeks, you can begin to incorporate them into other games and activities like “Jeopardy,” “Who has…?,” Hangman (with semantic clues), Cross-word puzzles, or writing your own stories.
This year, I have also given my junior high students strategy cards to keep in their wallets.  The cards include reminders of the steps that students should use to store new words in their memories at home and at school because after all, speech/language therapy should be about teaching strategies and not just content.

Get your speech/language wallet cards here!

EXAMPLE: kumquat
Here’s an example of how to use these steps to introduce a word.
Student identifies the word: kumquat
Student breaks the word into syllables: Kum Quat
Student pictures what the word sounds like: For Kum Quat, the student may draw a picture of someone coming in the door while doing squats because, Kum Quat sounds like “Come Squat.”
SLP: Explain to the student what the word really means:  A kumquat is a kind of fruit.  Kumquats can be peeled and eaten or made into jams and jellies.  A kumquat looks kind of like an orange but it’s smaller than an orange.  A kumquat can be more oval shaped than round.
SLP: Ask the student if they’ve ever seen anything like what you described for the word’s meaning:  Have you ever seen a fruit that looks like an orange but smaller?  Do you think you would like jelly made out of a kumquat?

Student pictures what the word really means: (Student draws a picture of a small orangish fruit).

Student merges the picture of what the word sounds like with the picture of what it really means: (The student may draw a picture of a fit person, coming in the door, doing squats, while taking a bite out of a small orange fruit/kumquat).
Student rehearses the word by saying it at least 3 times: “Kumquat, Kumquat, Kumquat”
Student uses the word in a sentence: “I eat kumquats when I work out.”

SLP: Correct the grammar of the sentence if necessary and give examples of how to use the word correctly if necessary. 

SLP: Bombard the student with correct use of the word again by telling a story using the word.  One time, I went to the grocery store specifically looking for kumquats.  I didn’t find any, so I asked the store clerk where the kumquats were.  He took me over to the produce section.  When I looked in the bin, there were just oranges though.  I told him that I didn’t see any kumquats in there.  He asked me “Aren’t those kumquats.”  I told him, “No, those are oranges.  Kumquats are smaller.”  Then he said, “Oh, in that case I don’t think we carry kumquats.”  That’s a shame because I really wanted some.  I asked the clerk to ask his manager to order kumquats in the future.  

SLP: Ask the student follow-up questions about related experiences:  Kumquats, oranges, lemons, and limes are all citrus fruits.  Have you ever had a kumquat or another citrus fruit? 


This approach is inspired by a combination of strategies by Diane German (Word-Finding) and Nanci Bell (Visualizing and Verbalizing).  Sara L. Smith’s techniques (Expanding Expression Tool) can also be incorporated into the SLP’s or teacher’s explanation of a word’s meaning.


My “Communication Coach” Sports-Themed Office

Check out my sports-themed office. The idea behind it is that SLPs are communication COACHES. We can’t do the work for you, but we can show you how to get better results, teach you some strategies that others are using to gain an advantage, and motivate you to continue to improve.


See still shots with descriptions below:

View from doorway

That big blue box on the floor is actually a mailbox center. This is where I put papers that the students are still working on or sheets for them to work on in the future. I also keep my CEUs and watch list here.

Next to that is a bookshelf full of binders with my most frequently used materials. On top of the bookshelf sits a mini score board (from Amazon.com) that I can use to quickly award points to the group with a flip of the number (rather than having yet another thing to write down) and two model mouths – one is the Mouthy Mouth puppet from Super Duper, Inc. The other is a model head from ebay that I can split apart sagitally to show students where there articulators are housed.

On the bulletin board behind there are the Speech Room Rules, which includes our points system. Students earn points for knowing their goals, stating why their important, reporting on using their goals in a class or at home, etc. They earn the most points for homework and I give out bonus points for any other positive behavior I’d like to see again. Occasionally, we also have double points and triple points day.


Data Cart

This data cart is actually situated right behind my chair now, but this is a clear photo of it. The top includes my data sheets (which are broken download into 3 columns for ease of data collection for three different goals/students). They are color-coded by day and organized by period. You can get your free copy here:http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/EASY-Percentages-Data-Sheet-for-3-kids-652811

The bottom includes my most frequently used materials that I want to be able to pull out with ease (such as one page reading passages from Remedia publications and my articulation practice sheets).

To learn more about my data cart, please click here: https://autumndawnbryant.wordpress.com/category/speech-language/



Games & Communication Descriptions

At the top are posters from www.therasimplicity.comexplain the meaning of the main types of communication impairments.

When I work with elementary school students, I print off black and white versions of these and have the students color them as I explain what they will be working on for the year. Then they take them home so that parents will have an idea of their areas of need too.

Beneath the posters is a timeline of American history. As we read passages, we add markers to the timeline to represent when the story takes place. This helps students to conceptualize the time period within the greater context of American history. We also add dates that are important to their own lives.
Click here to learn more about the timeline: https://autumndawnbryant.wordpress.com/2014/04/23/american-history-timeline/

To supplement their temporal understanding, one of our projects during the year is to make collages of each of decade from 1900 to present. We start out with pictures of each all mixed together and sort them into the appropriate time period to help give them a clearer idea of what it looked like “back then.”



Tools & Strategies Wall

The “Tools and Strategies Wall” includes some of my most frequently used visuals. They are velcroed to the wall for easy access. Beneath them is a poster of the parts of speech that we can add sample words to. This helps students understand new vocabulary.

To learn more about the “Tools and Strategies Wall,” please click here: https://autumndawnbryant.wordpress.com/2014/07/20/tools-strategies-wall-2/





I have my “Coach” hat sitting on top of the file cabinet. When I put it on or wear a “Coach” shirt, that means students can earn double points that day!

Above that, there is a basketball hoop-styled trash bin (from Bed, Bath & Beyond) with small basketball-inspired stress balls. Students can try to make baskets as a reinforcer after turns with their goals.

There’s Michael Jordan’s silhouette right beside it as he leaps from the “Tools and Strategies Wall,” reinforcing the idea that our tools and strategies are designed to give us an extra boost.



Soccer Goal Points Chart

This soccer inspired incentive chart is a basic green chart from Lakeshore Learning decorated with printouts from the internet and some hand drawn grass at the bottom.




TV and Folders

I’m truly lucky to have a flat screen TV in my office. It needs to be repaired, but when it was working I used it to show play online games with the students fromwww.quia.com or show speech & language PowerPoint presentations like these: http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Autumn-Bryant-Speech-Language-Investigator/Type-of-Resource/PowerPoint-Presentations

Beneath the TV is a prize box (mainly high-quality school supplies and some full sized-candy bars. Students only get to visit the box 3 times per year (at the end of the first 3 marking periods; for our final quarter celebration, we have a pizza party).

Next to the red prize box are some file folder activities I borrowed from the special education teacher next door.

Next to that are students’ individual folders (organized by period). They include independnet work activities …they’re not used very often, but they’re nice to have so students can work on something if I to give individualized attention to a groupmate for a moment.



Doorway & Stars

A decorative football soars over the crowd at the “Field of Communications.” (see what I did there ).

The stars on the back of the door say:

State the speech/language goal you are working on and why it’s important.

Try your best during speech & language.

Ask questions to gain a better understanding.

Return homework during your next session.






Our school’s mascot is the hawk, so I found one I liked online and used it as the inspiration for this hand-drawn version I did a few years ago.



We are in the Field of Communications

Touchdown! This goal post, score board, and crowd back drop are from partycity.com.






Lessons Learned as a Language Student

I am a monolingual SLP.  English is the only language I use.  (I have some understanding of Spanish after 4 years of it in high school and a couple of semesters in college, but not enough to use in a mutual and meaningful conversation).


While my background in speech-language pathology allows me to consider myself an expert in English, I am not sure if that expertise is helping me learn a language used in a whole different modality – American Sign Language.


Since I have never been a very visual or spatially organized person, ASL is quite difficult for me. Right now, I am nearing the end of my 3rd semester of ASL courses.  I have 2 more classes in the sequence before the college says I can consider myself “conversational” in ASL.  In spite of this,  my ASL professor has consistently required us to attend Deaf events and actually converse 😉


Last night, I attended one of these required events with a one of my classmates.  While we have both attended Deaf events in the past, none of them threw us into the middle of the conversation to the level that this event did.


The room for this social event was set up like a living room with two couches and a few arm chairs.  I sat on one of the couches right next to a sign language interpreter and my classmate sat in an arm-chair to the other side of her.  There were a total of 5 hearing people at the event and 5 Deaf people.


After some small talk, the conversation flowed like any conversation would – some topics sparked the interest of the whole group and we were all engaged together, but most of the time people took turns chatting in pairs or groups of three before getting drawn into conversations taking place between other pairs of people at the event.


As the least proficient signer of the group, I struggled to follow along even when someone was signing directly two me and communicating at a slow pace.


I found myself in the position similar to what my language students likely face on a daily basis:

  • I only understood about half of what was signed.
  • Sometimes when I didn’t understand, I acted as if I did to avoid the embarrassment of admitting my confusion or the time it would take for someone to explain things to me.
  • Other impairments compounded my language difficulties.  (I hate wearing my glasses, even though I need them to communicate in ASL so I missed the beginning of the conversation because I hadn’t put my glasses on yet).
  • At the times when I did understand the flow of conversation, and had a comment or question, I usually didn’t say anything because I didn’t know how to.  My receptive ASL skills are still much better than my expressive skills.

So, with all of the challenges I faced, what actually helped me to understand?

The same things you’ve always known to help people understand language:

  1. CONTEXT – this was the biggest help of all! (Yes, even more helpful than repetition or definitions, etc.).  If I knew the topic AND had the background knowledge associated with that topic, it helped me understand what was being communicated.  Context was definitely key.
  2. REPETITION – going right along with context, seeing the same sign multiple times while talking about one topic helped me understand.  The same word used in multiple ways about a topic I understood, was crucial.  Each new sentence with the same signed helped me hone in on the sign’s meaning and refine my hypothesis about what the word meant.
  3. SELF-ADVOCACY – Now that I have latched onto a topic I am familiar with and someone communicating with me directly, there are still words that are not yet in my ASL vocabulary. Asking someone to sign slowly or repeat themselves was very helpful.   I also needed additional processing time to retrieve signs and associations from my memory and assemble them into a meaningful thought in my mind.  Requesting these “accommodations” (go slowly, allow additional time, etc.) helped me follow along.

Having that level of difficulty with language was very uncomfortable, especially for an SLP.  I am used to language being so easy for me to grasp, that I think I can teach it to others!  However, learning not only a different language, but a language communicated in a different modality, thrust me into a position that is far from familiar.

Fortunately, I believe we do some of our best learning from the difficult situations.  Here’s what I am taking back with me from this experience;  In reflecting on my own clinical habits, I noticed that when I worked with pre-school students, I used context, themes, and repetition a lot more than I do now.  With my junior high kids, I explain word meanings, dissect word structures and meanings, employ word recognition strategies, practice using the words in sentences, etc.  However, I seem to have moved away from consistent contexts and word bombardment.

While at the Deaf event, I did occasionally try to connect signs with meanings for similar looking signs, I didn’t feel that it was the strategy I relied on most.  Yet, with my junior high kids, I had moved toward this higher-level metacognitive approach to vocabulary.   Sure, some signs I saw resembled other signs that I already know, so I wondered if they meant something similar. However, the context/theme of the conversation was more important for me to gain some initial understanding.  That is what provided me with a clozed set of concepts in my mind.  Repetition then helped me clarify and refine my initial guesses about word meanings.

So, how am I going to apply all of this?

In working with my middle school students, here is what I will try to do more consistently:

  1. CONTEXT – I will select topics that the students are very familiar with already (e.g., Christmas traditions, turning in homework, facebooking, etc.) and use target words in conversation and readings revolving around these topics.  I will recycle topics that students are the most familiar with to teach other words.  The background knowledge is key.  I will also continue to provide my students with experiences to enhance background knowledge, such as taking them on field trips, watching movies together, reading books, etc.  However, when it comes to teaching word meanings, I will focus on contexts that the kids have experienced repeatedly.
  2. REPETITION – I will find/create stories that use the target word multiple times (at least 5-10) within the same story.  While my students do get multiple exposures to target words already, I want a bombardment of the word used in context.
  3.  SELF-ADVOCACY – I will continue to help students recognize when they don’t understand so that they can ask for help.  This is easier said than done.  Over the past year, I have noticed that my kids don’t always “know what they don’t know.”  They think that a word sounds familiar so they make an erroneous guess about what it means.  Try doing this 2 or more in one story and you could end up with a very different image and conclusion than what the author intended.  I work on this by encouraging visualization, telling students to ask me about sentences they can’t picture – including dates, sizes, etc – and telling them to ask me about sentences that look “weird” when they picture them.  I also sometimes ask students to draw what the words make them picture.  This provides me with great opportunities to see what they were thinking and clarify misconceptions and misinterpretations.  My students are now using these strategies in the classroom and asking teachers more questions when they don’t understand.  We will also work on using “just a minute” or some phrase to buy them more processing time when they need it.

With all of that said, I realize that I can never really be in my students’ shoes.  While learning a second language can be challenging (especially when it’s communicated in a different modality than you’re used to), I have the benefit of background knowledge and proficient communication skills in my native language.  I also only have to deal with these challenges for a couple of hours at a time, not every hour of my life.  However, I am very THANKFUL for getting to experience a few of the difficulties my students may face in their day-to-day lives.  Every opportunity to understand their experiences better makes me a better SLP 🙂

“Hard”/”Difficult” http://lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-signs/h/hard.htm

Social Stories Lectures from cdd.UNM.edu

Hi all, earlier this year, I found a wonderful lecture series on Social Stories.  It is one of the most descriptive, succinct, and understandable guides to Social Stories that I have seen.


They since took it down from the net, but I saved it (all but one page).  It was originally posted at http://www.cdd.unm.edu/autism/AUTISM_COURSE/modules/social/sstory/lecture01.html


To see the lectures now, please click here:


Middle School & High School Therapy Ideas

1. Teacher Guess Who:

Make 3 color copies of the staff pictures in your yearbook.  Cut out one set to be a deck.  Use the other two copies to be game boards as you play “School Guess Who” with the teachers as the characters.  (Just cover up the pics with coins, chips, or small paper as you go).  This works well for targeting descriptive language.

2.  Would You Rather….

Working on the structured speech level for articulation?  Play “Would you Rather…”  Give 2 choices of hypothetical situations and ask the kids “Would you rather A or B?”  Tally how many answers the students have in common.  (You can have them do this by dropping a chip in a cup every time the agree with the student answering the question and counting them at the end).  Students enjoy this game and you can get do it online for free by using the website: yourather.com  (Just read each question yourself first to make sure it’s appropriate).  You can also have students at the reading level read the question choices.

3. Electronic Catch Phrase

This game is a favorite of mine because it is fun for students and adults.  I use this game to illustrate the concepts of giving clues for an inference, defining a word with categories and attributes, providing a distractor (the game beeps) for fluency students, and working on structured speech for articulation students.

4. Apples to Apples

This language game is a classic that helps target adjectives, comparing and contrasting, and visualization.

5. Jenga

This multiplayer game allows you to reward each student in your small group with a quick turn removing and replacing a block from the Jenga tower.  This is my go to for mult-student articulation therapy.

6. Model Me Kids

Use the “Model Me Kids” DVDs to target social skills.  This video modeling series features middle school in High School students in a few of the DVDs (including “Conversation Tips and Tricks”).  My students respond well to seeing kids their age talk about what to do and what not to do in social situations that they will face.

7. Show Off

This board game is among my students favorite speech therapy activities.  Like the old game “concentration,” players must think of a word that starts with each letter of the alphabet for a given category.  This board game adds the feature of being able to steal someone else’s turn if they are taking to long.  The game is perfect for targeting categorization, but I have also adapted it to target word-final articulation; for each letter have the students come up with a word that starts with the letters of the alphabet, but end with their target sound.  For example if your student is working on the word-final “er” sound, responses could include “Archer, Barber, Caterer, Doctor, Easter, Foster, etc.”

8. 20 Questions

Have each of the students in your group think of/write down the name of an object.  Then, allow the students to take turns asking each other a series of 20 yes/no questions until they can guess the object.  This is a good game for structured speech practice and descriptive language skills.

9. Connect-4

The kids love this game!  I only use it with groups of 2 or kids that I see one-on-one, though.  I even found a way to spice it up by adding speech and language therapy targets to the back as a snap-on game board.  Check it out here!

10. Classic pencil  & paper games

Hangman, Dots, and Tic-Tac-Toe are always available with just a pencil and paper or even whiteboard and dry erase marker.  I often default to these old standbys to spice up an articulation session or language activity.

Most of the games I love can either be done on scratch paper, found for free on the internet, or acquired cheaply at a garage sale or thrift store 😉