Categorization for Vocabulary Storage

When we work with students, we ask them to identify items in categories,
such as animals, as well as sub-categories, such as farm animals,
insects, birds, reptiles, ocean animals, fish etc.

By working on
categories and sub-categories, we require students to use more
specificity in their storage. Metaphorically, rather than clothing being
all thrown into one giant "hamper", we are asking clothing to be put
into specific drawers. This helps with future recall of words, so that
children do not rely on "thing" or "stuff" when trying to retrieve words
in conversation.

Working on cross-referencing words is also key.  Here is a picture of a chart/matrix my student completed today, cross-referencing words from a word box into Flowers, Fruits and Vegetables according to where they grow (i.e., Tree, Vine, Ground).  Categorization is SO key for vocabulary development and retrieval!

Mnemonics, Test-Taking Strategy

Last week, my fourth grade student, Gabe, needed help memorizing facts for his Iditarod Trail literature test.  Try as he might, he continued to struggle recalling facts using the "read/re-read" method he was attempting.  He knows that our brains are much better at memorizing silly information, so we got SILLY!

He needed to recall that the native people of Alaska like to be called Inuit. So I wrote "it" on a teeny, tiny piece of paper and ate it! He then pointed to my stomach and said, "" with a big grin at the "aha moment".

He also needed to memorize the towns where the Iditarod raced.  He needed to know that Wasila was the "Official Start" and Anchorage was the "Ceremonial Start". We broke down the meaning of official (he was familiar with the pop gun that an official discharges at a running race) so we drew a picture of the "official". Then, Gabe drew the dogs and sled, and we brainstormed the name "Wasila" What sounds like "Was"? He came up with "wasp".  So, to make a silly story, and recall Wasila associated with the start of the official race, we had the W-A-S-p sting the dogs in W-A-S-ila, which made them run.  To memorize Anchorage as the town where the Ceremonial Start occurred, we looked at pictures of ceremonies. Champagne was in many of the images, and he is familiar with the cork popping.  We drew a picture of a champagne glass, then, to recall "Anchorage", we pretended to pour champagne into the A-N_C_H_O_R and visualize the silly scene (liquid spilling from the far side of the anchor as people drank from it). This helped him recall A-N-C-H-O-R-age as the town.

It may take some creativity and a little bit of extra time, but many students really benefit from the use of mnemonics for recall of factual information.

Think-Alouds in Vocabulary Instruction

It's not a new term, but it was new to me - Think-Alouds. It's just like it sounds - "think aloud." It was first used by an engineer with IBM to think through the steps the user would take to use what they were building giving insight into using the product.

In education it's a strategy that teachers and speech language pathologists can and do use to give students insight into how we learn and know a vocabulary word at a higher level of understanding (metacognitive level). The Think-Aloud procedure gives students information about what we find interesting and important about a word. It helps them see how we think through the process of figuring out the meaning of a word. I think many of us use this technique with our students, but didn't always know the name for it.

An example of a Think-Aloud would go something like this. We are reading Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird together when we come across the word imprudent when describing one of Atticus' first clients.

"...were imprudent enough to do it in the presence of three witnesses..."

Me:  "Have you ever heard the word prudent? Do you know what it means?"

Student: "Yes, I've heard the word, but I don't know what it means."

Me:  "Prudent describes doing something good for yourself, like stretching before you exercise, or drinking water instead of soda. Prudent would be choosing a healthy snack instead of a donut. Can you think of an example of prudent when you are listening to your music that is too loud?"

Student: "I could turn it down, so I don't hurt my ears."

Me: "Right. The prudent thing to do would be to protect your hearing by turning your music down when you are listening with your earbuds. This passage uses the word imprudent. What does "im" do to the meaning. In this case "im" means "not." So imprudent means..."

Student: "...not prudent. So in To Kill a Mockingbird they did something that was not good for them?"

Me: "Yes. What is this passage about? What did the Haverfords do in this passage that got them in trouble?"

Student: "They sent a blacksmith to hurt someone because of a horse and it got them in trouble."

Asking questions and thinking through the process aloud with your student helps them learn how to do the same as they are reading and encountering new vocabulary. Using think-alouds can help students tackle new vocabulary to boost understanding. Research has shown the more engaged we are with students while learning vocabulary, the higher their level of understanding.

Previewing Texts for Reading Comprehension

Students in my private practice walk through the door with newly assigned literature texts every week. Many of them have never encountered the book they are reading before the book was placed in their hands. Getting a student ready to read a new text is something I enjoy and there are a lot of resources available today that makes that job easier.

Read a text summary
A book jacket or a review on Goodreads or is a great way to preview a text with a student. This gives them the context of the story and sets the stage for what is to come. After reading the summary, I ask some simple questions. What do you think the main character is like? How will they solve the problem mentioned? How do you think it will end? 

Next, I like to visit Youtube with the student and find a 2 or 3-minute selection of a video based on the book. This allows my student to picture the main character in their head, see the setting and start forming a basis for how to make a "movie in their head" for the story action. I'm careful not to spend too much time on Youtube as teens can too engrossed. I'm familiar with the reading material in my area for middle school and high school, so I have some go to videos for books they are reading.

We preview vocabulary assigned with the book/novel for our next step. In The Red Pony, the first chapter contains words like: saunter, rambunctiousness, and contemplative. We break down the meaning of saunter, for example, using our WordQuations® method.

  • Vocabulary word: saunter
  • base word is WALK
  • speed is SLOW
  • heaviness is GENTLE or POWERFULLY
  • emotion/motive is RELAXED

So when someone is sauntering, they are walking slowly, powerfully or gently, in a relaxed way. Who would walk that way? Possibly a cowboy, since the title is about a pony and a cowboy takes care of horses. I would introduce other vocabulary such as, meander and swagger, also WALK words.

How is the text organized? The Red Pony by John Steinbeck is organized in a series of stories rather than chapters. This is important for the student to know when reading and discussing the novel in class. Some books are organized into chapters and others into sections of chapters. Building a roadmap on how to navigate a new text involves understanding how the text is laid out.

Finally, do a little research on the author or time period in which the book was written. Determine if there is a personal aspect from the story to the author's life.

Based on these strategies, my student now knows a little more about the book/novel she is reading. It seems less daunting and more like an adventure. Better yet, comprehension improves because we have laid the foundation for a better understanding of the text.

Focus on Word Endings!

I recently worked with a Junior in high school who had failed two recent vocabulary quizzes using her usual method of writing the word on one side of an index card and the definition on the back. 

On these quizzes, she was required to do two things: 1) match the word with the definition; and 2) choose the correct word to fit into a sentence (demonstrating deep comprehension of the word meaning).  Because her memory for rote information is so good, she was 100% accurate with the definitions. She had NO mastery of these words, whatsoever!  She missed every item on the fill-in-the-blank section, because she did not truly understand the meaning of the words (language-dense, confusing definitions). Therefore, she was not able to use the word in context.

Sadly, this is incredibly common!

In addition to working on morphology (i.e., prefixes, suffixes, Greek and Latin roots) on her next set of vocabulary words, we spent a significant amount of time discussing strategies for fill-in-the-blank scenarios.  Not only was I attempting to help her learn the new words in a deeper way, but teaching her metacognitive skills to infer meaning for future words AND teaching her metacognitive skills to more successfully respond to fill-in-the blank tests.

This young lady had such a lack of syntactic awareness, she could not even narrow down her choices.  For example, of the four words, two were verbs, one was a noun and the last an adjective, but she did not recognize that fact. Nor did it guide her in choice-making. Prior to our metacognition work, she made her choices randomly and missed every item.  After our work, she was 50-60% accurate on this section on the next three quizzes, raising her grades from Fs to Cs. (More practice is needed!)

We spent time reviewing the parts of speech, focusing on endings.  For example, words that end in
-ous, -ic, -al will be adjectives. Have the student say the sentence with a common adjective, like "big" and hear although it might sound silly, if it sounds like a sentence that could work.  Words that end in -tion or -ism, for example, will be nouns.

Several great websites have lists of these word endings, so we did not reinvent the wheel, but utilized these resources:,, and


Aha! Moment at ASHA15

The American Speech Language Hearing Association's (ASHA) annual conference in Denver was outstanding this year. Beth Lawrence and I were able to present our InferCabulary and WordQuations methods to more than 700 SLPS who are in the trenches with students everyday. More importantly, we got our batteries recharged by attending some excellent sessions learning and re-learning important skills.

We've all relished in seeing our students have that aha! moment. I thrive on it and beam when it happens. In Denver last week, I had my own aha! moment. I was in the Practical Strategies for Middle School and High School students class with hundreds of other SLPS (in the overflow room) and something Stephen Charlton said made the lightbulb illuminate. 

SLPs are not responsible for getting the student a good grade on the next test. They are responsible for giving students the strategies so later in the school year they are getting good grades, because they can.

That message was freeing. As a speech language pathologist in private practice, I feel so much pressure to help my students ace that next test by learning the vocabulary, developing mnemonics to recall information and comprehending the textbook passages. It's a reminder that my job is to give my students strategies to learn new vocabulary effectively. I need to teach them how to attack expository text by paying attention to the key words in the passages. The student and I work together to find what strategies work for them in all areas of academics and then hone those skills so they can master the material independently, eventually.

I'm disowning the guilt trip I feel when students don't do as well as I would hope. I'm taking on the role of language expert and cheerleader, all wrapped in one. Still relishing in those aha! moments, but looking more for the light at the end of the tunnel when they master a language skill that leads to accomplishment and success. - Deena Seifert, M.S.,CCC-SLP

Robust Vocabulary Instruction

In the last ten years there has been a lot of research into Vocabulary and here is what I've learned:

  1. We should focus on tier 2 words. (Beck & McKeown, 2002)
  2. Students need multiple exposures to words they are learning. (Stahl, 2005)
  3. Instruction needs to utilize a variety of methods. (NICHD, 2000)
  4. Learning words in context sometimes requires a prior knowledge and inferential reasoning skills. (Univ. of Illinois, 2007)
  5. When teaching a class, 1/3 already know the word, 1/3 will get it, and 1/3 of students won't get it. (Katz, 2005)
  6. Most people (65%) are good visual learners, so using multiple pictures and photographs to help students learn a word is a useful strategy.
  7. Students need to learn the words deeply and broadly, not just a quick definition in one context. (Stahl & Kapinus, 2001)
  8. In order to build vocabulary, students need to develop an interest and an awareness beyond the words. (Beck & McKeown, 2002)
  9. Using technology to learn vocabulary is effective (NICHD, 2000)

Cutting Edge Vocab Research

New research, published in the journal Developmental Science. by a Florida State University psychology professor, Arielle Borovsky explores how toddlers add new words to early words, such as mama and dada. Dr. Borovsky studies learning disabilities, but in order to better understand what happens when things go awry, she has been studying early vocabulary acquisition.

When a young child has learned the names of several types of fruit, for example, they have laid the foundation, so learning a new word like "lime" or "kiwi" is easier.  By having a category label, like "toy", it is then easy for the child to add words like "doll" or "block". Learning new words, without previously learned related words or category labels takes longer.  Dr. Borovsky explained, "Children start to say words somewhere around their first birthday...but they're not a random subset of adult vocabulary.
They're not learning words like stockbroker or bifocals. That's common
sense, but what's really new is that they are learning these words in
clusters and there might be some words that are easier for children to
learn and some that are harder."

Borovsky and her colleagues studied 32  two-years olds. She examined their existing
receptive vocabulary knowledge by showing images on a screen of
items that are common for toddlers.  Using eye tracking technology, the researchers could identify when the toddlers looked at pictures upon request.  The researchers taught the children six, new, complex words, but they were words already related to known words.  These words were used in five different sentences and paired with pictures on the screen.

When the children had more related words in their repertoire he was more successful and quicker at learning new words than toddlers who had fewer words in that category. For example, if a toddler know five drink words, he was better able to learn a new drink word than peers who knew only two drink types.  "This suggests we could use a
child's own vocabulary to find words that would be easier or harder for
an individual child to learn at a particular age," Borovsky said.

Journal Reference:

  1. Arielle Borovsky, Erica M. Ellis, Julia L. Evans, Jeffrey L. Elman. Lexical leverage: category knowledge boosts real-time novel word recognition in 2-year-olds. Developmental Science, 2015; DOI: 10.1111/desc.12343

Geography Vocabulary with Google Earth

I was struggling to  help a student who was struggling to recall continent versus country versus state versus city. I wanted to share with you how he mastered the concepts and was able to retrieve the associated vocabulary words in 20 minutes!  We used: a) Google Earth; b) gestures; and c) pencil and paper.

First, like many young students, he needed to understand how he personally fits into the schema that names locations from close (his city) to a bigger "gestalt" (the world.)  Using Google Earth, we honed in on his home, zooming out to see that his house and his neighborhood are part of the city of Baltimore.  We continued to zoom out until the Maryland state boundaries became obvious. We continued out until he could see the United States of America (which we changed to USA so he would not be confused with the "state" level.) Then we could see North America and the other continents, then the world.  He was in awe and wanted to zoom back in. We did this several times, with me emphasizing the labels for each level: "world/earth/globe, continent, country, state, city" and vice versa. Then, I had him join me.  We gestured a small circle (city) and expanded the size of our circle for each term until we were laughing at how huge the world/earth/globe was.

Now, I had to make sure he could retrieve the correct word. It is confusing that two of these concept words start with a "k" sound (continent/country) and two start with a "s" sound (state/city.) But the COOL part is that the number of letters increases as one moves from city to world/earth/globe!  Having him write the words like this helped him to link the concept of the size of the location with the length of the word:

World/Earth/Globe (15 letters)
Continent (9 letters)
Country (7 letters)
State (5 letters)
City (4 letters)
My student and I hope this mnemonic and method will other students struggling to recall the terms in order of size.  Enjoy! - Beth Lawrence, M.A., CCC-SLP