To my school-based SLPs, I’m sure you’re familiar with something that looks like this:
Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
Most of us are now required to write IEP goals and provide therapy that is what they called “standards-based.” Meaning, whatever standards your particular state has been adopted provides the guidelines for what is considered meaningful treatment targets for our students. At first glance, trying to make our therapy “fit” the academic guidelines our states’ provide may have seemed frustrating, overwhelming, or just nonsensical. However, over time, I think we have begun to realize our place in this world. And from my point of view, that role is foundation.
I’m not qualified to teach my students high school level literary analysis skills. Sure, I’ve been there. I’m sure I could give it a good go, but at the end of the day, I’m not a classroom teacher. Classroom skills are not my specialty. I’m a clinician. Foundational language skills are!
What becomes important, then, is understanding what foundational skills our students need in order to access that standard the English teacher is teaching. Sometimes, that’s easier said than done. But today, I want to start with anchor standard L.5, as you see above: figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
What does that sound like but our good friend, the Language Processing Hierarchy!
Developed by Gail J. Richard and Mary Anne Hanner and assessed in their standardized assessment, Language Processing Test-3, this little ladder of skills forms the foundation for knowledge students need in order to understand and use the information in L.5.
When assessing and treating language processing skills, much like climbing a ladder, it’s vital to start at the bottom and work your way up. In this case, that means beginning with Labeling.
Research shows that babies really start naming and labeling objects around the age of 2. This is when we start to see that explosion in expressive vocabulary, as it increases to at least 50 words and phrases begin to emerge. I’m sure you’ve noticed children this age “reading” books by pointing at pictures and naming them, wanting to label items in the grocery store, and naming their favorite animals. This is an incredibly important and necessary part of language development, as they begin to associate what they are seeing and hearing about with the label that accompanies it. Before, “ba” might have meant bottle, pacifier, and mom. Now, they’re beginning to realize that there is a special name for each of these items and love to use it!
Sometimes, however, our students struggle with this first step. You know that feeling of things “being on the tip of your tongue”? For some students, they’re familiar with items… but can’t always generate the label for it. If you think of it like a filing cabinet of information, your brain must go from knowledge of the item – say, an apple – to finding it in that cabinet. If you have a language disorder, ADHD, or some other difference that affects your ability to efficiently organize and retrieve information, the ability to find those labels may be challenging. In fact, noticing word finding difficulties could lead you to explore a more challenging disorder, such as dyslexia. So, definitely bear in mind – that child who says “um,” “uh,” “hmm,” or uses a lot of talking around words rather than words themselves, may have significant difficulties with step one of the language processing ladder.
So, what do we do? Below, I’ve listed tips for improving communication in a child with word finding difficulties, tips for improving word finding skills, and materials to use in therapy.
- It’s harder to communicate when we’re stressed or anxious. Similar to students who stutter, it’s important to create a relaxing environment while the student thinks.
- Give visual or auditory cues to help students think of the target word.
- If you see the child is really stuttering, provide the word or ask a probing question. “Do you mean _______?” Take the pressure off and let them know that their message is understood.
Improve Word Finding
- Using word webs has been proven effective by some research. Having students generate knowledge of the target word can give them their own set of cues to fall back on when labeling becomes hard.
- Read books that are repetitive in nature or include many common noun labels. Books that are predictive can also be helpful, as students learn to anticipate the coming word based on what has come before, giving them confidence.
- Play word games of all sorts! Guessing games, matching games, riddles, etc.. There are many common games that we play, like I Spy or I went to the grocery store… that encourage the use of noun labels.
- Incorporate timed activities or games with a competitive component, challenging students to think of as many words as they can. Make sure it’s appropriate though! Like mentioned above, we want to help, not create stress!
Materials to Use
- I created a Noun Labeling unit specifically for older students that focuses on a variety of label generation tasks.
- Figuratively Speeching SLP created a unit targeting specific strategies for word finding called Super Strategies for Word Retrieval. It includes strategies such as phonemic cues, visualization, and associations.
- Growing up Games created a workbook that provides a variety of label generation tasks, this time with pictures and visuals.
- K12 reader has a variety of free resources that can be used to target word finding using inference skills
- And of course, there’s the standby: HELP
Don’t forget assessment! The Language Processing Test – 3 will take you through most of the hierarchy in a standardized format. I’ve also developed a few informal assessments that include word finding components, including my Short Word Retrieval Activities and Informal Language Assessment.