How do you address written language during speech therapy?

writing strategies for school speech therapy

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone through my students’ writing samples and wanted to pull my hair out. Sometimes it’s such a disaster I don’t even know where to start. The grammar is a mess. Spelling errors are everywhere.

And their writing is filled with words like “stuff”, “things”, or my personal favorite, “nice”.  These are like go-to words for our students with language issues because they’re like a safety net.

Our students know how to use them correctly, they know how to spell them, and they don’t have to work that hard to retrieve them.

But we know that to pass their written assignments, letting our students take this easy route just isn’t going to cut it.

The written language issue can be such a conundrum for us as SLPs, because we don’t have a 40 minute Language Arts period every day with our students to teach an entire writing unit with our students.

Instead, we may get a rushed 40 minutes a week if we’re lucky, and that’s on a week that doesn’t have any scheduling conflicts that get in the way of our sessions.

This means it seems literally impossible to address written language; even though we know our students are floundering in class…and we know that language is the culprit.

That’s why I’m going to share a quick tip you can use to hit one of the root causes behind poor writing…weak vocabulary.

But I’m going to get a little more specific, because the term “vocabulary knowledge” can encompass a lot of different skills. I talk more about the essential first step to effective vocabulary intervention in this free video training. Click the button below to get the training.

When we think of vocabulary skills, and then consider many of our formal assessment tools, we find that we often assess student’s word knowledge by asking them to name and identify words. Scores on these assessments may be correlated with writing skills, but we know that we need to think beyond these basic tasks if we’re going to make an impact.

So I’m going to back up for a second and ask you something.

What happens when you ask your students’ to define a word?

Let’s look at an example from one of my students, when I was asking him to explain the meaning of a verb:

Me: “What does it mean to explore?”

Student: “It means you’re going exploring.”

Me: “Yes, but what does the word ‘explore’ mean?”

Student: “You go exploring in the woods.”

Me: “Right. Pretend I don’t know what it means to explore. What would you tell me?”

Student: “You can take your magnifying glass.”

Can you see the problem here? My student was using the word in a grammatically correct sentence, was mentioning appropriate locations where we might “explore”, and even mentioned an associated object. He gave me everything but the information that I wanted, which was a direct definition of the word.

This happens time and time again for our students. They’re so close, yet not quite on the mark with the way they answer and explain things-and on academic tasks this might mean the difference between passing a test with a decent grade and completely bombing it.

So let’s go back to the example. What was the problem?

The problem was that the student didn’t know the rules for explaining a verb’s meaning, so he was beating around the bush and not giving me what I wanted.

What the student should have done was give me a synonym for the word I was asking him to define. It seems like common sense that we don’t define a word with the word itself.

Obvious to us, but not to our students.

This skill is so easy for us that we don’t even realize when we do it. Which means we don’t always know how to break it down and explain it to our students when it isn’t so easy for them.

So let’s get meta about words, and define the unwritten rule: When you are explaining the meaning of a verb or adjective, you can use a synonym.

Plain and simple. If you’re going to tell someone what a word means, you can’t just repeat the word or making vague reference. You need to give them another word that means the same thing. We need to tell this to our students directly, because they don’t get it. 

Once we teach our students this rule, we need to give them lots of practice-because otherwise we’ll run in to another problem: They can’t think of a synonym. So they add the dreaded vague words like “stuff”, and “things”, or “nice”.   If it’s a verb, you might get things like “do”, and “go”. Either that or you’ll get the deer in headlights look because your student won’t know what to say.

So what we need to do is first work on teaching our students the rule, which is that they can use a synonym to explain a word, and then we need to give them practice coming up with synonyms so they can actually apply the rule.

Now let’s get back to writing. What do word definitions have to do with it?

Well, once we’ve taught our students how to describe word meanings using synonyms, we need to take it to the next step and show them how to apply the skill.

During writing is a perfect opportunity. And this is great way to take our student’s writing samples from vague and incoherent to expressive and specific.

There are a couple different ways to do this depending on how much time you have. Here are a couple suggestions:

1.Ask your students to write sentences using target verbs/adjectives. Then ask them to substitute another verb/adjective that means the same thing.

2.Make revisions on your student’s writing samples that they’ve completed in another class. Go through and find different verbs/adjectives and practice substituting vivid verbs and adjectives.

3.Have your students write a short paragraph about a specific action or situation. Challenge them to not use the same verb/adjective more than once.

These are just a couple of options, but I hope this helps you see how this works.

A couple things to note-there are other ways to define verbs and adjectives, such as using an antonym or synonymous phrase. There are also other ways to improve writing, so this is definitely not the only way to get the job done.

But the reason I’m sharing this specific strategy is because focused “meta” vocabulary intervention so powerful, and on top of that is feasible for us…so we actually see results even with the limited time we have.

Now, let’s take a moment and review what I’ve just shared with you. Here’s the process in a nutshell.

1.Teach students that they can define certain words (e.g., verbs/adjectives) by stating a synonym (e.g., “To explore means to look or search.”).

2.Give students practice so they understand the format and can build their repertoire of synonyms.

3.Practice these skills in functional contexts (such as during writing)

I dare you to give this a try and see if it works!

The essential first step to building your foundation for language therapy is choosing the right words to target. I talk about how to do that in the free training below.

Click the button in the image below to get it delivered to your inbox (you’ll also be added to my email list, so you’ll get weekly tips and strategies for language therapy).

~Dr. Karen

tier 2 vocabulary; school speech therapy; language therapy techniques


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