How to help your school-age child learn new words – the nuts and bolts of how I actually do it in therapy

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Many school-age children have problems learning new words. In particular, children with language delays and disorders often struggle with vocabulary (e.g. Haynes, 1992).

So how can we help them?

Evidence-based strategies

1. Choose words the child needs to understand for school or in life. Choose words from topics the child is covering at school, or needs to cope with the current or future needs of his or her daily life. Look at the child’s curriculum and ‘real world’ language needs (e.g. words needed to get to and from school safely).

2. Repeat the target words lots of times in different settings. We know children with language difficulties benefit from hearing words multiple times in a range of places (Rice et al., 1994).

3. Help the child understand both the meaning of the word and the sound features of the word. The fancy name for this is ‘taking a semantic-phonological approach’. We know that children who have problems understanding new words benefit from treatments that combine meaning and sounds (Lahey & Edwards, 1999).

4. Teach both the oral and written form of the word together. They’ll need both forms of the word at school. In speech therapy jargon, my approach is a combined ‘semantic-phonological-orthographic’ method. But don’t worry about the terminology! Let’s talk about what it means in practice.

Let’s get specific! How do I do it in therapy?

Meet Jenny, a Year 4 student in a mainstream class. She doesn’t understand the word ‘edge’ – a word I know she will need to know to complete her maths homework as part of the Year 4 curriculum. Jenny has a moderate receptive (comprehension) language delay and struggles to understand or use new words quickly.

So here’s what I would do to help Jenny in language therapy, based on my application of the research and, in particular, the terrific work of Stephen Parsons and his colleagues (see below):

1. Write the word ‘edge’ on a piece of paper or white-board and read it to Jenny.

2. Ask Jenny whether she has heard the word before.

3. If Jenny has heard the word before, ask her what she knows about the word. In other words, find out what her prior knowledge of the word is.

4. If Jenny hasn’t heard the word before, give her a worksheet like our Word Learner and ask her to think about it. Specifically, ask her to tell you:

(a) how the word sounds and is written:

  • the first, middle and last sounds in the word (‘e’ as in egg, ‘j’ as in ‘judge’);
  • something that the word rhymes with (e.g. ‘hedge’);
  • how many beats or syllables it has (1); and
  • how the word is spelt, and how the spelling is linked (or not linked) to the sounds (e.g. the letter combination ‘dge’ says a ‘j’ sound – it’s a 3-letter way of making the ‘j’ sound, just like ‘dodge’, ‘badge’, and ‘nudge’).

(b) what the word means:

  • do something physical, e.g. look at the room you are in and find ‘edges’;
  • look online for examples, e.g. in Google Images (in safe mode);
  • look at things that don’t have edges (e.g. circles and spheres);
  • think of other words for ‘edge’;
  • use lots of repetition with as many examples as possible (e.g. edge of a table, ruler, cliff, knife, etc);
  • talk about any idioms or metaphors that use the word, e.g ‘I’m on the edge’, or ‘edge of a cliff’;
  • if possible, link it to Jenny’s interests, e.g. ‘cutting edge’ fashion and music she likes; and
  • for more concrete words (especially objects), I would also use visual support to prompt Jenny to think about other features of the word (e.g. where would you find it, what do you do with it, what it is made of, what parts is it made up of, etc). You could use our semantic feature analysis Describe It! tool to help do this.

5. Combine sounds and meaning to define the words – take it in turns to define ‘edge’ saying at least one ‘sound’ feature and one semantic/meaning feature for each turn. Adapt board games so that Jenny needs to name one sound or meaning feature of ‘edge’ to roll the dice or get a reward.

6. Get Jenny to write the word in her ‘Word Bank’, along with two semantic and two sound features. Use pictures (drawn or pasted in) to help remind Jenny what it means. Jenny likes stationery, so her Word Bank is stored in a special notebook that she is proud to carry around.

7. If possible, work with Jenny’s family and teachers to reinforce the word meaning and sounds, and to give her lots of practice using it with different people in different contexts. For example, Jenny’s father could take Jenny for a bike ride on the weekend, pointing out the edge of the track, the grass, the road, the gutter, etc. Jenny’s teacher could add ‘edge’ to the class’ spelling word list for the week to give Jenny further practice writing the word.

Related articles:

Key source: Parsons, S., Law, J., & Gascoigne, M. (2005). Teaching receptive vocabulary to children with specific language impairment: a curriculum-based approach. Child Language Teaching and Therapy 21(1), 35-59.


Man wearing glasses and a suit, standing in front of a bay

Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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