The Power of Meta: Vocabulary Booster

When we treat language impairments, it can seem like we have the weight of the world on our shoulders. That’s why I’ve created The Power of Meta: Vocabulary Booster, a free 30-page manual for treating school-aged language disorders.When we’re working with students who have language issues, there are so many things we need to address in so little time, and the task ahead of us can seem daunting.

As therapists, we tend to be problem solvers. We are “fixers”. We like order, and when we see something out of place we want to put in back where it belongs. So much, in fact, that we find ourselves diagnosing people in day-to-day life.

Have you found that you’re hyper-aware every time someone makes a subtle grammatical error? Or do you find boosterpic1yourself diagnosing your friends and family at social events?

I know I do. The thing is that sometimes, that once we develop this radar, we just can’t seem to turn it off. And because we are perfectionists, we just want to fix it all. Every. Little. Detail.

This can often be a good thing. We need to be detail-oriented to do our jobs well and to diagnose language impairments. There are SO many different skills that individuals with language issues need to address, and we are experts at identifying exactly what they are.

Unfortunately, perfectionism and attention to detail can be a double-edged sword. Once we know all these deficit areas exist, we worry about them all. So instead of having a systematic process for treating these issues, we become overwhelmed and feel unprepared because it just never seems like we’re doing enough.

But I’m going to tell you a secret that will set you free. Ready to hear it?

You don’t have to fix everything.

So relax. Take a breath. You don’t have to do it all.

Here’s a rule for life you can adopt that can help you focus on the tasks that make the greatest impact rather than trying to address every single deficit. It’s called the 80/20 rule. This wasn’t a concept that originated in our field, but we can use it to become more productive.

A basic explanation is this: Do the 20% of the work that accounts for 80% of the results. This concept is discussed frequently by lifestyle design gurus like Tim Ferriss who wrote about this rule in The Four Hour Work Week.

Ferriss applied this principle to his business by focusing on the 20% of his activities that accounted for 80% of his income, which resulted in a massive increase in revenue. The 80/20 rule has been applied to other areas as well, such as fitness. For example, you want to do the 20% of the exercises that account for 80% of your fitness gains.

We can apply this principle to teaching and learning, which is how we can help our students meet their therapy goals AND keep our sanity in the process. In other words, you focus on the small percentage of treatment techniques (this would be your 20%) that would account for 80% of your students’ gains.

Now, do I literally mean that you will be able to measure EXACTLY 20% of your activities, and will you be able to sit down with a spreadsheet and be able to measure 80% of your treatment gains? No, I don’t.

80-20The point is not to overthink and obsess about this. Instead, just be strategic, and be aware of what things are getting the best results-and eliminate the things you feel like you “have” to do if they aren’t proving to be a good use of time.

I’m going to talk specifically about how to apply the 80/20 rule when treating language impairments, because that is such a huge part of any SLP’s caseload if they are working with children.

One of the biggest areas of struggle for our students with language disorders is that they have weak metacognitive and metalinguistic skills.

Being “meta” refers to thinking or conscious awareness. Because “cognition” refers to our thought processes, “metacognition” is our awareness of our own thoughts and the way we learn. “Metalingusitic” refers to our awareness of our thoughts relating to language, its rules, and how we use it (Zipke, 2012).

Because language and cognition are so intertwined, it can be difficult at times to differentiate what is a metalinguistic skill and what is a metacognitive skill, and we don’t need to lose sleep trying distinguish the two. The most important thing we need to understand is that teaching our students to “be meta” can be that critical 20% where we direct our focus.

Why is being meta so powerful?

It’s not possible to spoon-feed every single word or language skill that students will need to learn. Instead, we can focus on building metalinguistic awareness so that students can become independent learners capable of gaining new information themselves. When we teach students to pay attention to linguistic details, they gain metalinguistic awareness (Kucan, 2012; Zipke, 2012).

Here are some ways we can draw attention to add a “meta” focus:

  • Teaching students that words are made up of phonemes and that can change meaning by comparing minimal pairs (Kucan, 2012).
  • Analyzing meanings of root words, and how their meanings and part of speech change when we add prefixes or suffixes (Cunningham, 2009).
  • Exploring differences in homonyms or homophones and studying how spelling differences or contexts signal changes in meaning (Zipke, 2012).
  • Explaining meanings of words and using them in sentences to draw awareness to syntactic structures used for different parts of speech (e.g., you may see an article in front of a noun, or you may place adjectives in different parts of a sentence in reference to a noun; Marinellie & Johnson, 2002).
  • Discussing semantic features such as function, physical characteristics, location, associations to help students have more detailed understanding of words (Beck & McKeown, 2007).


I could write you an entire book about metacognitive and metalinguistic strategies, but I still wouldn’t cover all of them-so I know it feels like these examples just barely scratch the surface.

To help you take the next step in adding a “meta” focus to your therapy, I want to give you something you can implement right away. That’s why I’ve created The Power of Meta: Vocabulary Booster. This tool outlines a key resource I’ve used for years, but I’m summed it up so that you can use it immediately.

Let me tell you why I’ve developed this protocol.

A major area impacted in students with language is word knowledge, and these low vocabulary skills are correlated with reading comprehension difficulties (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997). Students with weak vocabulary may have more difficulty tying new concepts to prior knowledge, which makes it difficult for them to progress at the same rate as their typically-developing peers (Graves, 2006).

Due to the adverse impact poor word knowledge has on reading comprehension and academic performance, improving vocabulary skills should be high on your priority list.

One of the most obvious ways to help students learn new vocabulary words is to practice defining and describing them-so that’s where I’ve directed my focus with this free tool.

First let’s consider what happens when we ask a student with a language delay or impairment to define a word. More often than not, they either give you a “deer in headlights” look because they have no idea where to start, say a bunch of vague information that doesn’t really tell what the word means, or they just repeat the word they’re trying to define because they don’t grasp the syntactic structure required to correctly define a word (for example, if I ask them to define cat, they just say “It’s a cat.”).

Any of the above behaviors indicate we need to teach students to define and describe, and we have a couple of options for addressing word-defining in therapy. One option is to directly teach individual words, because we know this is effective for students of all ability levels (Beck & McKeown, 2007). The problem is that there are a lot of words our students don’t know, and it’s virtually impossible for us to explain all of them.

So here’s another option which has the potential to be the 20% that will account for 80% of your results:

Instead of just teaching word definitions, teach students how to define words. This means focusing on both the content (word meanings), AND the format (syntactic structure surrounding the content).

Adding this syntactic component can improve metalinguistic awareness; which makes children better able to learn definitions of words independently (Marinellie & Johnson, 2002).

Awareness of sentence structure will help students more successfully retain information, which will help them remember definitions for unfamiliar words, and will also help them describe words correctly (Kucan, 2012).

The Power of Meta: Vocabulary Booster will help you address vocabulary and syntax all at once, so students develop the necessary metalinguistic skills needed to define words. It includes the following tools:

  • Meta Definitions Rating Scale-Unlike many other formal measures, this vocabulary rating scale gives you a deeper understanding of your students’ vocabulary knowledge beyond just naming and identification. It’s also useful for measuring progress in therapy over time, and flexibility to measure your students’ knowledge of vocabulary relevant to their curriculum or environment.
  • 4 Noun Definition Syntax Templates-When students struggle with vocabulary, we need to help them grasp both the content (word meanings) AND the format (syntactic structure) of definitions. These printable templates will help you do just that. You can reuse these as often as you want with words that are appropriate for your students’ ability levels.
  • 96 Tier 2 Nouns Flash Cards-When we teach our students definition format, we need to practice using words that will help students learn more difficult concepts. Using Tier 2 words as targets can help us build curricular content knowledge and target syntax all at once. These flash cards include nouns organized by grade level for grades K-5.
  • Two Bonus Sections– Including an orthographic awareness worksheet and other supplemental resources to boost your students meta skills.

I’m sharing one of key protocols I use in therapy that helps me stay true to the 80/20 rule. I’d like to pass it on to you so you can apply this principle to your life.

As I’ve adopted the 80/20 principle, I’ve found that I’m able to spend time and energy on activities that produce the best results and eliminate ones that aren’t as effective. This means letting go of wanting to do it all and fix everything, reducing the clutter, and focusing my energy on my most powerful tools. I’ve been more efficient and effective-and I work smarter not harder.

I hope you take the time to download this tool-and if it’s helpful I’d love if you would share it with your colleagues.

Here’s to your increased productivity and success!

~Dr. Karen


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