When targeting vocabulary in therapy, we not only want to focus on giving our learners an expanded vocabulary (by learning many new words), we also want to prioritize having robust vocabulary knowledge (by deepening how well they know each word).
These concepts are often called vocabulary breadth and vocabulary depth.
Vocabulary depth is closely related to overall language comprehension and is also a predicting factor in reading comprehension.
Here’s a graphic to show what I mean:
Vocabulary knowledge increases each time a word is encountered in context. For typical learners, it can take between 8 and 20+ encounters with a word before in-depth knowledge is achieved. Students with language or learning disabilities take even more encounters, around 36, to fully learn and understand new words. (Storkel et. al., 2019)
According to Michael Graves, “We learn a little from the first encounter with a word and then more and more about a word’s meaning as we meet it in new and different contexts.”
Students also learn the meaning of new words through direct teaching strategies like the ones I share more about below and here: Direct Vocabulary Instruction.
Targeted Vocabulary Teaching
Interventions targeting vocabulary skills are most effective when they are explicit and systematic. Broadly speaking, my favorite ways to explicitly teach targeted vocabulary words are to:
1. Teach words directly.
Give your learners child-friendly definitions.
2. Provide visuals and real picture examples of vocabulary words.
Have your students use semantic reasoning skills to come up with their own definitions.
3. Connect the word across all language areas.
That means sound (phonology), writing (orthography), reading, meaning (semantics), and syntactic use/part of speech (syntax). Teach your students that all of these pieces together make up a word! (PS: This is how you build vocabulary depth of knowledge).
Check out the picture to see an example of one way I put all of these skills together to target the word “edge”. You can see how this worksheet encourages depth of understanding and provides multiple examples of the word.
So you might be wondering how to select words to do this process for in your speech therapy sessions.
Here’s my top tips:
One way to help you think about which words to target in your therapy sessions is by tier.
The research of Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown (which is used in the Common Core Standards) categorizes vocabulary words using a three-tiered system that groups words based on how often they’re used and how complex they are.
Tier 1 includes common words that most students learn through everyday life. They’re high frequency and highly functional. Examples of tier 1 vocabulary words are car, blue, cold, drink, or go.
Tier 2 includes academic language that can be used across topics and subjects and in a variety of ways. They’re more complex, still flexible in their use, and more likely to be found in written text than in verbal speech . Examples of tier 2 vocabulary words are analyze, foundation, or valuable.
Tier 3 are highly subject specific, low-frequency, advanced vocabulary words. I tell my students that these are words you use when you’re a pro at something! These words are most commonly found in technical, informational texts. Examples of tier 3 vocabulary words are synapse, legislature, or aorta.
Direct teaching focused on tier 2 vocabulary words can be the most effective and impactful way to select target words because they are advanced targets, however they’re still useful in a variety of contexts. They are words your learners will definitely encounter throughout their lives and will need to be able to understand.
While this tiered system is helpful in thinking about and prioritizing your vocabulary targets, it doesn’t give clear recommendations for word targets based on grade, age, or level.
Because vocabulary learning is highly related to experience (with each word), there is no consistent way to level vocabulary words for all students. Despite seeing many, many “grade level vocabulary word lists” online, this isn’t a reliable or effective way to decide what words to target and teach students.
To illustrate this further, let’s imagine two children. The first child lives on a boat with their family and travels around the world. They are only 3 years old but understand and use vocabulary words like marina, anchor, hull, aft, and stern. The second child is the same age and often goes to work with their parents who own a local restaurant. They understand and use vocabulary words like platter, cutlery, assign, and prepare.
Our learners don’t learn vocabulary words hierarchically based on their age or grade, they learn words from their experiences.
So how can we narrow down where to start and what to prioritize for each student? Some aren’t ready to jump all the way to tier 2 vocabulary.
Here’s the hierarchy I like to follow when figuring out what words to target for each student:
Because of the research on choosing complex targets over simpler ones (because oftentimes generalization occurs from complex —> simple but rarely from simple —> complex), I like to start as high up on the hierarchy as I think a student is likely to experience success with.
An example, if you were doing an activity related to cooking in your therapy sessions, here’s some of the words I might target at each level:
- Core: make, give
- Basic Concepts: half, in
- Tier 1: foods/food groups, simple cooking verbs (e.g., mix, eat, add)
- Tier 2: melt, blend, fresh, prepare, edible
Note: I typically target core vocabulary and basic concepts in play! Then I try to shift to more ‘academic’ type activities (based on what is most engaging and appropriate for each learner, of course) when targeting tier 1 and 2 words.
💡 When it comes down to it, remind yourself that the words you pick aren’t that important as long as you’re targeting useful words your students will actually encounter and need to understand. You will never have enough time in therapy to teach all of the words our learners need to know. So instead, we focus our time on building increased meta-awareness around words, better cognitive organization of vocabulary, and providing lots of opportunities for word retrieval and practice.
To summarize, here are my top tips for effective vocabulary interventions:
- Focus on developing a better, more efficient cognitive organization of vocabulary words. Build solid semantic networks that link words to other similar words (synonyms, words in the same category, words with a similar syntactic function, etc…). For more on this, see Categories + Word Associations and Describing.
- Include direct teaching on affixes and morphology. Nearly everything you hear and read is filled with affixes. And they’re a great link between semantic skills and syntax skills! For more info on this, see Morphology/Affixes.
- Teach vocabulary words explicitly and directly. Focus on vocabulary words that your students have a high chance of encountering in their daily life and need to know. Aim for depth over breadth. For more on this, see Direct Vocabulary Teaching.
With all of this said, whenever possible, it’s best practice (and easier on you!) to target vocabulary words that are related to some bigger picture, theme, story, or text. Read the section below for some easy ideas for how I do this!
Practice Vocabulary Skills in Context
If we’re focused on implementing the research-supported practices described above, it’s easy to see why targeting vocabulary in context would be a good idea. Contextualized vocabulary interventions help students better organize words they’re learning and see the ‘big picture’ of how a word might be used.
Some easy ways to target vocabulary in context are:
📚 1 – Teaching select vocabulary words within the context of picture books.
📖 2 – Reading articles on topics your students find interesting and directly teaching vocabulary words from it. Some topics my students have found particularly interesting are outer space and space travel, sharks + other deep sea creatures, and world travel.
♻️ 3 – Play Word Swap! To play, find a text/story and then follow the steps below:
- Highlight or circle words throughout the story.
- Have your students find replacement words or synonyms for each.
- Reread the sentences to make sure they still make sense.
Below is an example activity sequence for developing a robust, multi-week unit based around a picture book to give an example of where vocabulary work might fit into a language therapy system. I’d also recommend previewing important vocabulary words during the “preview” step.
In this example, you might introduce the topic or book and then preview the activities, targets, etc… for the unit.
Next, you’d read the story and discuss the macrostructure (big picture) of the story.
Then, you’d do direct teaching of both vocabulary and syntax skills (including activities like those shared above!)) related to the story.
Last, you’d look at overall comprehension of the story and write a story of your own.
Having topic continuity across activities and targets for several weeks promotes skill development and language growth because your students continually revisit and build on knowledge they’ve built in previous weeks.
Check out my story units and themed therapy units below to see examples of contextualized units made specifically for speech and language therapy sessions.
All of these units have themed vocabulary activities built in including categorizing, describing, and direct vocabulary word teaching worksheets.