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.