Vocabulary Interventions

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It’s pretty basic: to be good at using language, oral or written, you gotta know a lot of words. Whether you work with preschoolers, high schoolers, or anywhere in between, it’s a fair bet that you’re working on vocabulary goals. Now vocabulary isn’t too intimidating, compared with some corners of our field—but are we doing it right? Which words should we teach? What methods work, and how much therapy is needed to make progress? Are there research-backed programs and activities out there we can implement without tons of planning? (Spoiler: yes!). This set of research reviews can help answer these questions. Four reviews focus on younger (preschool through Kindergarten) learners, while two describe interventions for adolescents, and two others look specifically at bilingual children. All contain specific intervention programs, strategies, or tools you can bring back to your therapy room. Because there are countless words to learn, and our therapy time is precious.


Vocabulary instruction: what works?

Ahh, vocabulary. It seems like we are always seeing questions on social media about how best to do vocabulary intervention. Well, get ready to link a citation in the comments, because Hadley et al. not only examined strategies for supporting vocabulary growth with preschoolers, but also went ahead and practically gift-wrapped a program you can implement with a little planning!

First, we need to talk about vocabulary depth, which is how well a person knows words, not just how many words the person knows (that’s vocab breadth). A deep vocabulary requires making a bunch of connections between words and concepts and tying them all together in meaningful ways in a given context. We gain vocabulary depth by fitting new words into our existing semantic networks and re-mapping as we go. In theory, it will be easier for a child to learn a new word if that word will fit into a system or category the child has already learned well.

So what supports depth of vocabulary knowledge?

  • Multiple exposures to words in varied contexts/activities

  • Explicit information about the meanings of words

  • Using perceptual features or function to form categories

  • Relating words thematically (e.g., for dinner: meal, family, food, evening, cook, eat, tasty, etc.) or in a taxonomy (strawberries are a type of berry, which is a fruit, which is a type of food…)

The authors used a book reading and guided play intervention with small groups of preschoolers (not on IEPs, FYI) to teach both thematically and taxonomically related vocabulary words by giving kid-friendly definitions, showing pictures, and using dialogic reading strategies while reading informational books about plants and vegetables. After book reading, the children engaged in guided play using props related to the book (farm set, toy vegetables and plants, seeds, cooking stuff, etc.). Children were encouraged to act out concepts from the selected books, and then they were given opportunities to construct their own play themes using the same props.

Results revealed that students were able to talk about the vocabulary words in more detail after intervention, and seemed to learn taxonomically related words more deeply than words related thematically. The authors suggest that “vocabulary instruction can be considered not only as a one-by-one proposition in which a single word is taught and learned but also as a systems-level approach in which broader networks of related concepts are introduced together to maximize learning.” 

Hadley, E. B., Dickinson, D. K., Hirsch-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2018). Building semantic networks: The impact of a vocabulary intervention on preschoolers’ depth of word knowledge. Reading Research Quarterly. doi: 10.1002/rrq.225.

Using gesture to support preschool word learning

This article shows that, when teaching 3–4-year-old children new words, it helps to accompany the word with an iconic gesture (looks like what it means). For teaching nouns, they alluded to the shape of the thing (e.g. indicating horns to teach word for deer). For teaching verbs, they indicated the manner and/or path of the action (e.g. making slow, tip-toe motions with hands to teach the verb creep). The word­–gesture combinations were embedded within stories, play, and video story retells. They found that the iconic gestures aided word learning, but that non-representational gestures, or those used to gain the child’s attention, did not. They also found that the benefit was consistent for both typically-developing children and those with developmental language disorder.

Vogt, S., & Kauschke, C. (2017). Observing iconic gestures enhances word learning in typically developing children and children with specific language impairment. Journal of Child Language. doi: 10.1017/S0305000916000647.

Word learning and exemplar variability in preschoolers with language disorder

Do you have young children with developmental language disorder (DLD) on your caseload? Eighteen 4- and 5-year olds with DLD in a recent study learned new words with this treatment—and, even better, retained their word learning after three weeks.

The preschoolers with DLD were assigned to one of two groups. Both groups were exposed to real objects that represented the target vocabulary words, one- or two-syllable nouns, such as “hinge” and “tassel.” The only difference between the groups was the variability of the objects that the preschoolers were exposed to. For example, the no-variability group was taught the target word “hinge” with three very similar hinges. Alternatively, the other group was exposed to hinges that varied in size, color, and/or texture.

Training consisted of just 18 presentations of each target word—six presentations of each of the eight target words in three sessions within a three-week period—during fun activities such as building a robot and a pirate treasure hunt. The six presentations included the following:

  • a sentence from the activity directions

  • a statement

  • an imperative command

  • a question

  • a natural fifth and sixth presentation, based on the context of the activity

While both groups showed word learning gains during testing, the group exposed to a variety of objects during training performed significantly better during retention tasks three weeks later.

Check out the “Learning Activity” section of the article for examples of the models that you can implement during therapy along with examples of objects to represent the words you are teaching. Also, do note that there were individual learning differences—some children learned more target words than others. 

Aguilar, J. M., Plante, E., & Sandoval, M. (2017). Exemplar variability facilitates retention of word learning by children with specific language impairment. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. doi:10.1044/2017_LSHSS-17-0031.


How many exposures required to learn a new word?

Interactive book reading* helps children learn new words. But does the same strategy, and same amount of instruction, help children with developmental language disorders, too?

_Identifying the presence of [language disorder] in [dual language learners] is a challenge; overidentificaiton and underidentification... are frequent._.png

In this study, 27 kindergarten children with nonverbal cognition > 16th percentile and language scores < 10th percentile participated in an interactive book reading* therapy program. To examine the effect of program intensity on word learning, the researchers exposed the children to four different therapy amounts. At the low end, the child would receive three instructional opportunities with a word, across four 20–30-minute treatment sessions (12 total exposures). This was the level that others have used to successfully teach new vocabulary to children from low-income households. However, for children with developmental language disorders, this study found that low level of word exposures to be inadequate. Instead, children with language disorders required 36 exposures to new words to learn them. Just how much therapy is this? Here, it was provided via six instructional exposures to the word per session (e.g. definition, synonym, example sentence, in-text), across six therapy sessions (6 x 6 = 36). Note that they tried a higher-intensity level, too, but learning plateaued. So—look at your lesson plans. Is that roughly what you’re providing? 

Note also that that these kids, on average, learned just a portion of the words treated. Also, not all responded well—“Children with lower phonological awareness, vocabulary, and/or nonword repetition scores were less likely to respond positively to the treatment.” Thus, aspects of the treatment, other than intensity, will need to be adjusted and examined to maximize the learning benefit.

Now here’s the exciting part—in the supplemental materials that accompany this article, the authors provide highly-detailed treatment protocols. The scripts tell you exactly what books they used, what words they targeted, and how, allowing you to efficiently replicate the treatment! 

*Interactive book reading is when an adult reads the text as written, but inserts questions, comments, and other dialogue to teach the text.

Storkel, H.L., Voelmle, K., Fierro, V., Flake, K., Fleming, K.K., Romine, R.S. (2016) Interactive Book Reading to Accelerate Word Learning by Kindergarten Children With Specific Language Impairment: Identifying an Adequate Intensity and Variation in Treatment Response. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. doi:10.1044/2016_LSHSS-16-0014.


Vocabulary intervention for at-risk adolescents

So much of our attention to word-learning is on young children. However, vocabulary is pivotal for adolescents, too. Across age ranges, there is “… evidence for an association between vocabulary knowledge and academic attainment…”.

In this treatment study, thirty-five 12–14-years-old kids, all in low-ability classes and not making expected progress, were enrolled for intervention. None were receiving SLP services at the time. However, when you examine the group’s standardized language scores, they overall had low-average/borderline language skills, with some higher and some lower than this.

Intervention consisted of 10 weeks of once-weekly, one-hour, small group sessions. The students were taught one targeted word per week. The targeted words were Tier 2—so abstract words that occur in multiple contexts, across the curriculum, and are thus have potential to be quite impactful. One word per week may not seem like much, but “…while the sessions targeted one word (e.g. evaluate), the session included information on related words (e.g. positive and negative) as well as derivatives (e.g. evaluation, evaluated)…” So there was a high level of intensity on one targeted word (previous research has shown this is necessary), but with extra vocabulary and morphological instruction, as well.

To teach the target words, intervention tasks included things like defining, using the words in sentences, concept mapping, experimental activities, and challenges to use the words in real life. And—GOOD NEWS!—all their session descriptions and activities are freely available online. No joke; you can go download and use all of them. See here. (Psst—there are also some great links out from this website, too, to other research-based resources, like this. It’s great stuff.)

So how did the researchers measure if the students had learned a word? Post-intervention vocabulary knowledge was measured using their Word Knowledge Profile (takes 10–20 minutes to complete, also available on their website, with scoring examples). Do note that, though their study showed correlation between the Word Knowledge Profile and the standardized language measures, the Word Knowledge Profile is not itself standardized.

Results showed that, “…participants significantly improved their knowledge of target words, as indicated by their increased ability to describe the targeted words’ meaning…”. The authors highlight the“…potential consequences of poor vocabulary skills for literacy skills and educational attainment,” and that, “…explicit teaching of such vocabulary is needed…”

Spencer, S., Clegg, J., Lowe, H., & Stackhouse, J. (2017). Increasing adolescents’ depth of understanding of cross-curriculum words: an intervention study. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders. doi: 10.1111/1460-6984.12309.

Can older children with language disorders improve vocabulary in just 30 minutes a week? (Yes!)

Targeting vocabulary skills with older children with language disorders seems like a no-brainer. However, according to Wright et al., “We know of no studies specifically aiming to improve receptive vocabulary in secondary-aged children with identified [developmental language disorder (DLD)].” Yikes. To address this evidence gap, the researchers set out to see whether 25 secondary age (i.e., 9- to 16-year-old) children with language disorders (18 with DLD, 7 with autism) could learn to understand and use new words.

Children received 7 weeks of one-on-one intervention, with one 30-minute session and one 5-minute review session each week. SLPs taught the children 10 nouns and 10 verbs (words like “customer” and “avoid”) through explicit instruction and games, and SLP assistants assessed them on their knowledge and use of the words using a variety of tasks, as well as children’s own ratings of how well they knew the words. The researchers provide a fabulous description of the treatment sessions in the methods and a list of words, scoring examples, and treatment tasks in the appendix.

Results showed that children improved their knowledge of taught words (measured by identifying whether the word is a word, answering multiple choice definition questions, using the word in a sentence, and giving the word’s definition) compared to untaught control words. Children also self-reported greater knowledge of the taught words. As expected, children showed better learning for nouns than verbs. Overall, children learned an average of 4 words out of 10 in a relatively short time. Best of all, the treatment was conducted by the participants’ usual SLPs under normal circumstances (absences and all), which suggests that it can be effectively implemented in everyday clinical practice.

If this topic is up your alley, check out this review from 2017, too!

Wright, L., Pring, T., & Ebbels, S. (2017). Effectiveness of vocabulary intervention for older children with (developmental) language disorder. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders. doi: 10.1111/1460-6984.12361.

Building bilingual children's vocabularies: How much teaching do we really need to be doing here?

We know that bilingual children’s vocabulary predicts long-term literacy outcomes. In this study, teachers taught higher-level English words (e.g., illness, clung, fierce) through storybook reading activities to low-income second graders* who spoke Spanish at home. The complete word lists, books used, and an example lesson are in the article’s supplemental materials. Each word was taught by one of three methods:

_Identifying the presence of [language disorder] in [dual language learners] is a challenge; overidentificaiton and underidentification... are frequent._ 7.07.27 PM.png
  1. Extended instruction: Teachers pre-taught words in English and Spanish and provided additional examples and practice during and after reading

  2. Embedded instruction: Teachers defined words in English during story reading and provided songs and writing practice after reading

  3. Control: Teachers read words in the story but provided no additional explanation

Children learned the most words through extended instruction (the one with the most examples). But, the authors pointed out what we all know—there are soooo many words for children to learn, and only so much time to teach them. Luckily, the less intensive embedded instruction method also led to good learning compared with the control condition. In the real world, this level of teaching may be good enough.

*Note that the authors didn’t assess children’s L1 (Spanish) language ability, so we don’t know how many children (if any) had developmental language disorder (DLD). See here for guidance on diagnosing DLD in bilingual children, here for tips for giving vocab tests to children with DLD, and here for more resources on bilingual intervention.

August, D., Artzi, L., Barr, C., & Francis, D. (2018). The moderating influence of instructional intensity and word type on the acquisition of academic vocabulary in young English language learners. Reading and Writing. doi: 10.1007/s11145-018-9821-1.

Bilingual or English only? How to teach vocabulary to dual language learners

We often hear about the benefits of bilingualism, but we can’t overlook the challenges it can bring. Some children begin learning a second language (L2), while their first (L1) is still developing. As early as preschool, these children—called dual language learners (DLLs)—can fall behind their monolingual peers in important areas, including vocabulary development. In order to ensure that this lag doesn’t continue, it’s crucial to provide effective vocabulary instruction as early as possible.

In this study, Méndez et al. tested whether a bilingual vocabulary instructional approach or an English-only approach would better improve the English vocabularies of preschool-aged Spanish-English DLLs. The only difference between the two approaches was the language(s) of vocabulary instruction. For 5 weeks, the preschoolers participated in small-group shared readings targeting 30 English words. Some key features of the intervention included repeated readings of culturally-relevant stories, many exposures to target words, multi-modal presentations, and child-friendly definitions.*

After 5 weeks, they found that the preschoolers learned more English and Spanish vocabulary from the bilingual approach than the English-only approach. By presenting information in both Spanish and English, it seems that the preschoolers were able to leverage their L1 knowledge to support learning in L2. The authors also found that the bilingual instruction was effective regardless of gender or the initial vocabulary skills of the preschoolers before instruction.

So, what’s the takeaway here? Even if you don’t have DLLs on your caseload at the moment, chances are you will in the future, so this matters for all of us. In order to be most effective, vocabulary instruction for preschool DLLs should include input in both languages. English-only instruction will not lead to better vocabulary outcomes for preschool DLLs. For the monolingual SLPs out there, don’t let this scare you! Think of it as an opportunity to get creative and collaborate with other professionals, family members, or L1 speakers in the community in order to support L1 development and L2 learning. 

*If you want to learn more about the specific instructional approach, the same authors provide more details in an earlier publication with a different group of preschool DLLs. Or, if you’re interested in SLPs’ roles regarding dual language learners, ASHA provides some great resources.

Méndez, L. I., Crais, E. R., & Kainz, K. (2018). The impact of individual differences on a bilingual vocabulary approach for Latino preschoolers. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. doi: 10.1044/2018_JSLHR-L-17-0186.

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