Why Some Children Struggle With Vocabulary, And How To Support Them In The Classroom

 Why Some Children Struggle With Vocabulary, And How To Support Them In The Classroom

Typically developing school-aged children can use a word after hearing it once – they quickly work out what it means from the context and their knowledge of the world. They do not need to hear how to say the word again. However, others can’t acquire words so easily or quickly, especially abstract words, e.g. absorb, after, although, transparent. The difficulties these children experience fall into the following categories:

  • Understanding what a word means
  • Understanding how to use the word in sentences
  • Storing the word in their mental dictionary

How A Typically Developing Child Learns Vocabulary

When a child stores words in their personal vocabulary, they do the following:

– Store information about the meaning:

  • Put it in the correct folder (into the correct category or group), e.g. we would file table in our furniture folder.
  • Describe it so we know what it looks like, e.g. it has four legs, a flat top, it can be square, rectangular or round, etc.
  • List where you find it, e.g. in a kitchen, in a dining room, in restaurants, etc.
  • Link it to other items to make connections between words, e.g. table and chair – you sit on a chair at a table to eat meals; table cloth – you can put a cloth on a table at meal times; lay the table – put knives, forks, spoons, etc. on it.
  • Link it to similar and different/opposite items, e.g. a desk is similar to a table but it isn’t the same as you don’t eat at a desk.

– Store information about how to use the word in a sentence, for example the grammar:

  • Verbs we can use with the word, e.g. you can lay a table, clear a table, wipe a table, sit at a table, etc.
  • Adjectives we can use with the word, e.g. a wooden table, a new table, a sturdy table, a big table, etc.
  • Nouns we can use with the word, e.g. the table’s in the kitchen, the fishfingers are on the table)

– Store information about how to say the word:

  • How many syllables the word has, e.g. ta- ble (2 syllables)
  • What the first speech sound is, not the first letter
  • What the last speech sound is, not the last letter
  • How many speech sounds the word has, e.g. t-a-b-le (4 sounds)
  • A rhyming word, e.g. Mable rhymes with table

Although that is a lot of information to store about each word, for many children the process is easy. However, for others it is not so straightforward and these children can need help to learn this information and remember it.

Word-Finding Difficulties

When children have some information about a word, but not all the information they need in order to learn the word, they are at risk of having word-finding difficulties. Word-finding difficulties occur when a child looks inside their mental folders for a word that they want to say, e.g. table, but because they don’t know enough about the word, they might do the following:

  • Say a similar sounding word, e.g. tablet, tumble, etc.
  • Describe it, e.g. ‘You can eat your meals on it, we’ve got a round one in the kitchen’ as they try to find the word
  • Use the wrong word, e.g. I put it on the sofa, no, not the sofa. I put it on the chair, etc.
  • Say parts of the word, e.g. ta, tap, tan, or say nonsense words that bear some resemblance to the real word, e.g. teeble, toople, tadle.

Ideas To Support Learning Vocabulary In The Classroom:

1. Give Information About The Word

Giving children information about how to say the word and/or what it means can help a child to look through their mental folders of words and find the one that they want to use, as it directs them to the right place.

For example, if the child is trying to find the word table, but can’t, try providing information about the meaning – say “the thing you eat your meals on.” If the child can say the word after receiving information about the meaning, this tells you this is the area that they need support with.

Other children might be able to say ‘table’ after receiving information about how to say the word – try saying, “the first sound is t, it has two syllables” as a prompt. If the child is able to say the word with this support, it tells you that the area of weakness is around how to say the word.

2. Build Links and Associated Words

If a child can’t find a word after clues about the meaning and the sound structure, then you know that they do not know this word. The difficulty is not that they can’t find it, the problem is that it is not in their personal vocabulary folders.

When we learn words, we link them to other words that they are connected to in some way, for example, words with a similar meaning, verbs that we can use with the word, where we might see or hear the word, etc. We do not store words in isolation in our vocabulary, we have lots of connections and links between the words we know, which makes it easier and faster to find words that we want to use.

A child can have difficulties finding words if the links are weak or if there aren’t many links between the word they want to use and associated words. Try talking around words, rather than just describing what they mean. To build links that will help remember the word ‘table’ you could say:

  • “Can you think of two more bits of furniture you can find in a kitchen?”
  • “We can buy a table, what else can we do?” (lay a table, clear a table, etc.)
  • “A table usually has table has four legs. Can you think of another piece of furniture that has four legs?”
  • “Tables have legs, what else has legs?”

Remember, when you introduce a new topic word, work on:

  • What it means
  • How you say it, e.g. syllables, first and last sound, how many sounds the word has
  • Linking it, e.g. what is it similar to, what is it different to, who uses it, what verbs can we use with it, etc.
  • Using it, e.g. put the word in a sentence

3. Use visuals

  • Word maps – there are many examples on the internet. Word maps Word Mapshelp the child make links and remember words. You can use them as whole class tool and as personal resources for individual children.
  • Vocabulary Pot – regularly ask questions about topic words, e.g. have a pot with vocabulary questions in it (What does it look like? Where do you find it? What does it do? How many syllables does it have? Etc.). Pull out a question to ask about a topic word, pupils can answer it in pairs.
  • Word frames – see word frames in Free Resources section on this website. Laminate the frames and put on the wall or whiteboard and use when an opportunity arises. For example, if you are talking about the Romans, ask the class to think of three verbs we could use with a Gladiator (to train, to fight, to win, to loose, to watch gladiators, to enrol to be a gladiator, etc. This will help children make links between words and it will make it more memorable.
  • Games – Review words you are working on using games. For example:

Teams make clues for a topic word, present these to the class and the class guesses what the word is. For the word ‘gladiator:’ “It’s a person. It was usually a slave or a prisoner. They had to fight in an amphitheatre. The Romans loved watching this. It is a long word, it has four syllables. It starts with the sound ‘g.’ What is the word?”

Play noughts and crosses with words you have been working on. Each player, or team, has to explain what the vocabulary means, or answer a question about the word, or use the word in a sentence – you can vary the task. If they are right, they can put their nought or cross in the box and the next team / player has a go until a player / team has a line and wins.

A gladiator To invade A banquet
To defeat An amphitheatre A chariot
The Emperor A toga The Senate


Play Speech and Language Therapy Hangman. Choose a topic word, e.g. ‘invade.’ Draw spaces for the number of words, e.g. __ __ __ __ __ __ Players guess letters in the word. When they have guessed the word, choose at least three questions from this list to ask about the word:

  • How many syllables does it have? (in – vade (2))
  • Can you sound it out? (i-n-v-ay-d (5 sounds))
  • Can you tell me a real or a nonsense word that rhymes with it? (shade, obeyed, evade, delayed, made, repaid, upgrade, handmade, played, lemonade)
  • Explain what invade means.
  • Can you think of a word that means something similar? (plunder, raid, attack, assault, loot)
  • Can you think of a word that means something different? (help, support, protect, aid)
  • Can you make a sentence with this word?
  • Can you think of two things you can invade? (invade a country, invade someone’s personal space, invade an area, invade a room)
  • What could you use this word to talk about? (wars, personal situations, e.g. a sibling invading your room)

Play a revision game with dice instructions – see below. The child rolls the dice and has to answer the question about a topic word.

      Roll the dice    Follow the instruction
 Dice One Draw a picture of the word
 Dice Two Think of a word that means something similar
 Dice Three Act out the word
 Dice Four Say the word in a sentence
Dice Five Think of a word that means something very different
 Dice Six Think of something you can talk about using this word


Draw a picture: if you have a vocabulary box or a vocabulary bag, players can take a word and then draw it for the other players to guess. You can add questions as in hangman, e.g. the person who guesses what the picture is has to answer a question about the word.

If you would like more advice on how to support children learning vocabulary, please get in touch to see how I can help.


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Web design by anthea.morrison@mac.com