Suggestions for Curricular Vocabulary Challenges

Beth Lawrence, MS, CCC-SLP

Deena shared some great techniques last week regarding vocabulary cards, which works for lots of students. I would like to share with you how we help our students with curricular vocabulary that have linguistically complex definitions. I have offered workshops in the Baltimore area for tutors and parents who want to help their students more effectively "anchor" curricular definitions. We're so excited to have this opportunity to share on a broader basis!

So many of our middle school clients approach studying in this manner: pull out the index cards, “memorize” the definitions on the back, play a matching game or two with the index cards, then feel they are ready to take the big test. If the teacher “re-frames” the definition on the test, students with learning-disabilities often do not see that the "test" definition is equivalent to the one they memorized, it reads like a foreign language. We see this over and over in our practices. Big effort expended, little dividend to show for it. The frustration mounts…

Students with language-based learning disabilities often have difficulty with the grammar of the language, and/or with linguistic flexibility. Students tend to focus in on “fragments” of definitions, often missing the overarching meaning (Scott and Nagy 1997) Or, they master the “gestalt” of the concept but fail to recognize the components of the definition if they are not presented in the exact terms they had committed to memory. During our speech-language sessions, it is not our job to ensure the student is “ready” for the test, but we use the student’s scholastic materials to teach vital strategies so that they can overcome this. We will walk you through one of our techniques using a recent example.

A 5th grade boy (we will call him John) came to me with a dozen or so geography terms he had to memorize. I will use “Climate” to show the process I used with him. He had been asked to memorize the definition, "A pattern of weather in a particular location over a specified amount of time".

First, we discussed his background knowledge of the concept of climate. Like many students with whom Deena and I work, he was a bright boy who had absorbed the concept during class after discussions, watching film and engaging in class activities. Under the word CLIMATE, the teacher had asked the students to draw a quick picture of something that would trigger the idea of climate. He had drawn a sun. (Aside: I have seen this improvement in recent years--teachers are really getting the idea that visuals can help anchor information!) I take a slightly different approach, however. Because it is often difficult to draw one “quickie” picture that is meant to capture all aspects of the definition, I prefer to focus our artistic attention to the phrases within the definition, and address the word in a different way.

Secondly, on the flip side of the index card, I divided the definition into segments that represent concepts, like this:

Segment the Definition Into Phrases

The Third step is to add a visual representation of each phrase that was bracketed, like this:

Climate Definition First Two Segments

This process went something like this. While I was drawing the shapes, I asked John to stop me when I had actually made a “pattern”. He stopped me the second I completed my last square. He understood the concept of “pattern”. John transferred the picture concept to his index card under the phrase “A pattern” and I asked him, “But are we talking about a pattern of shapes?” “No, a pattern of weather!” “OK, so we should draw something similar, but use weather pictures instead of shapes.” He drew a raincloud, sun and snow, repeated and knew he was done.

I repeated the process for "in a particular location"

This shows the completed card:

Completed Curricular Vocabulary Card

As I was drawing the "timeline" to represent the final concept, I asked him to direct me, and tell me when I was finished/how many years were passing. The term "specified" means someone is in charge of stating how long that time period is (weather experts). I wanted him to understand that, so I stopped the timeline when he told me to.

Once the index card was complete, the "language portion" of the program began. The next step was to ensure that John understood that the picture concept that we had drawn for each component could be explained using a variety of language:

“pattern of weather” could be:

weather that repeats

repeating weather

cycle of weather

prevailing weather conditions (slightly different meaning, but could be substituted on a test)

“in a particular location” could be:

in a specific place

in a specific location

in a place

in a region

in an area


John needed to see that the definition for Climate could be:

“Over a long period of time, when weather repeats in a region”


“When there is a prevailing weather condition in a certain place on the globe”

Teaching linguistic flexibility is a necessity for our students. We have experienced great success with our students using this technique! If I ask my students (and their parents) nicely, I am sure we could upload several other examples of these curricular cards if the interest is out there!

Hope that helps,


Helping Struggling Writers

Helping Struggling Writers

Good writing is clear thinking made visible. - Bill Wheeler


Deena Seifert, MS, CCC-SLP

Middle School and high school students are writing 2-5 papers a week. It's a lot of pressure for the average student, so how do you help the struggling writer? One way is to help them get organized.

You can use low tech writing aids using paper and pen, fill-in-the-blank organizers or note cards. What about inspiring your child with an APP? Inspiration Software is a favorite of mine and my students. It's available in Windows, Mac and iPad formats.

The first step in writing is brainstorming or rapidly writing your thoughts about the subject as they enter your mind. If you don't have an app, a low tech way is to have your student say aloud all the things they think about the subject they want to write about while you or your student/child records the thoughts on a clean sheet of paper. For a high tech solution, Inspiration has a feature called Rapid Fire where you can type in all your ideas about a subject. This can be done easily in the diagram format.

Visual Organization
Many struggling writers are strong visual learners, so being able to organize your thoughts in colors, shapes, and special fonts is not only appealing, but necessary to organize details, categories, ideas. A low tech method is to highlight, color-code and/or link the ideas. You can also put the information on index cards. Going high tech? Inspiration and another app called Popplet, can help you achieve this with a tough of a button or tap on the screen.

Example of Inspiration diagram

The next step is to organize the information by arranging the index cards in order, numbering the items on paper, or moving the diagram information around the computer or tablet screen. This is a crucial step to keep the writer on task and lessen the frustration. Many students who experience difficulties in writing need help outlining. Inspiration Software allows students to turn their diagram into an outline with the click of a button. Software programs such as Pages and Microsoft Word make this an easier task, as well, with their formating helps.

Writing, Plain and Simple

Many young writers want to edit their work as they write, but this breaks the flow of the writing. Encourage the student to write first and edit later. Simple sentences can be combined to make compound or complex sentences. The diagram, index cards or paper will have the vocabulary terms pertinent to the paper which cuts down on trying to retrieve the words needed for the essay or research paper. Let the writing flow uninterrupted, then take a break before editing.

Finally, it's time to edit the writing. First run-thru: sometimes the best way to do this is to have the student read each sentence aloud and find their own mistakes. Hearing themselves say the sentence can be a great editing strategy. Second run-thru: have an adult read the paper with them and call attention to sentences that need more finesse. The goal is to help them become more independent, so don't do the editing for them. Guide them in fixing their mistakes.

Finally, if your child is experiencing difficulties in written expression, see a certified speech-language pathologist who actively works on writing strategies with their students. There may be underlying oral expression and grammar difficulties that need to be addressed to improve the writing strategies. Without help, these students will not progress to being successful, independent writers on their own.

Vocabulary for Visual Learners – Help! For Parents

Deena Seifert, MS, CCC-SLP

Many of the students that Beth and I work with in our speech-language private practices have difficulty learning and memorizing their vocabulary words. . I’m going to share a picture method that helps visual learners with new vocabulary terms.

Night after night parents are struggling with how best to help their child learn the required vocabulary words. It leads to frustration for not only students, but parents, too. Here is a method you might try to make life a little easier with vocabulary:

Use a software program

There are many great software programs out there to help students store and learn vocabulary terms. One I like to use is It allows the student to post vocabulary from multiple subjects, learn the terms, take tests and play games with them. Words can be entered on the internet site and practiced on computer, on phones, iPods or on vocabulary cards you print out. The words stay on the website until you remove them which is great for students who lose cards they might need for midterms or finals. Many teachers use this program, too, and send students their lists. A student can practice their terms on their iPod or phone easily without having to carry around cards.

Pictures on the Cards

After handwriting or printing out vocabulary cards from a software program, now the real work begins. Have your child make two piles – one for words then know and one for words they don’t know. With the pile of terms they are not familiar with, go through each card and make a picture association that helps them recall the definition. Ask your child - What does it make you think of?

Here’s an example:

Front of card Back of card

Now practice the vocabulary cards and associate the pictures with the terms to solidify the meaning.

Why this works…

Students will associate the term they had trouble memorizing or learning with the picture. When they are being tested, looking at the word on the test will cause them to see the picture in their mind and remember what the word means.


You might want to highlight the root word on the front of the card or break the vocabulary word into syllables. Some students use the “sounds like” method when trying to recall a definition for a word.

This is a great method for students who tend to be more visual learners as opposed to auditory learners. In other words they learn better by seeing rather than hearing. Use whatever works for your child. Tap into experiences from your life and theirs. Make sure your child does this with you, because if you do all the work you will remember the term, but they won’t. Vocabulary learning can be a partnership between you and your child until they are able to do it independently. Who knows, you may enjoy happier evenings working on vocabulary.