Throwback (2005): One word at a time: Building receptive vocabulary

Assessing and treating receptive vocabulary deficits in children with DLD* can be difficult. Especially as students get older and are struggling to keep up with curriculum vocabulary—where does a busy SLP even start?! This Throwback Review from Parsons et al. describes an easy-to-implement approach that can be tied in with what your students with SLI are being taught in the classroom.

These authors set out to determine if using a phonologic–semantic approach to teaching 18 curriculum vocabulary words, one per session, would improve two fourth graders’ understanding of both targeted and untaught words from the same unit of study. The full article includes a “10 Steps to Becoming a Word Wizard” session outline and a visual organizer used for each target word, but essentially, each session included four main elements:

  1. Draw on the child’s background knowledgeHas he heard the word somewhere before?

  2. Identify phonological characteristicsWhat sound does the word start with? What does it rhyme with? 

  3. Use practical activities to build the child’s semantic knowledgeFor example, your student could explore the room looking for “corners” or act out concepts such as “sell” or “horizontal.”

  4. Review and reinforce the information just taught—First with cues, then without.


Although this treatment didn’t impact the fourth graders’ standardized vocabulary scores, it did significantly increase the number of curriculum vocabulary words understood—even ones researchers didn’t target! Cool, right? Additionally, the types of errors changed after treatment. Before the intervention, both students incorrectly matched the target word to words that were either semantically related, phonologically similar, or completely unrelated. But after intervention, students’ errors were only with semantically related words. This means that they knew enough about the target word to understand which words were kind of similar in meaning and not be fooled by the phonologically similar or unrelated choices! The full article will definitely get you thinking more deeply about your vocabulary assessment methods: are you treating vocabulary as pass/fail or are you examining vocabulary depth?  (For more on this topic, see our previous review!) 

Keep in mind that this study was limited—it included only two subjects and had no follow up testing to assess how well children retained the taught or generalized vocabulary. But given the relative lack of research on teaching receptive vocabulary in older children with DLD, this is a great place to start. Especially with the authors’ supplemental materials in hand. 

*Children in this study had developmental language disorder and average IQ scores—thus, the traditional SLI definition.


Parsons, S., Law, J., & Gascoigne, M. (2005). Teaching receptive vocabulary to children with specific language impairment: A curriculum-based approach. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 21(1), 39–59.