How to teach your students to generalize, even if you’re doing pull-out therapy.

syntax and writing for school speech therapy, pull-out and push-in therapy for speech therapists

Generalization is like the Holy Grail for speech therapists.  All we really want in life is for what we do in the therapy room to transfer to other settings. Yet for many of us, generalization is like a mirage that continues to elude us and our students.

Part of the problem is that therapy can be like a vacuum; a contrived situation unlike the functional settings where students actually need to use and apply their language skills. We know this, and constantly wonder what else we should be doing.

We “should” be making more time to talk to teachers more, so we can align our therapy to the classroom activities. We “should” be doing more “push-in” or “in-class”, or “co-taught” therapy minutes in students’ classrooms or other functional settings. We “should” be spending more time analyzing the classroom setting and doing observations. There’s an endless number of “shoulds” we could add to our plates-but sometimes we’re up against a wall.

Our days are jam-packed, and we don’t want to miss more therapy by scheduling an observation or meeting with a teacher. Some teachers simply aren’t open to having us co-teach language lessons. Other teachers are happy to have our help, but scheduling conflicts make it difficult to “push-in” on a regular basis.

Should we be doing our best to do all of these things? Of course! But there are times when it just isn’t possible.

So here’s my first piece of advice. Stop “shoulding” on yourself! All we can do is our best-which may or may not be the ideal situation given circumstances we can’t control.

The thing is, you don’t have to be perfect. All you need to do is be helpful and effective. And here’s the good news. You can still do this, even if you’re stuck delivering mostly “pull-out” services and don’t have a lot of time to consult with teachers or parents.

Let’s stop “shoulding” on ourselves, and focus on one thing we can control: What we do in therapy.

We can improve generalization if we focus on the right skills in therapy, and if we shift our focus from the standard “drill and kill” activities and teach our students how to apply the discrete language tasks.

I’m going to break this down into the “What”, the “Why”, and the “How”, so you can see how to modify some of the things you may already be doing to get better results.

The “What?”: What skills do you want to target?

We first need to consider the language skills you are wanting to address based on the standards and expectations, and your students’ needs. There are tons of examples, but I’ll just pick a couple common ones to illustrate my point. Here are three examples of common language skills often addressed in therapy or in school:


Many of these skills are commonly addressed in language therapy, and some are expected in the classroom as well. These skills are all important, but if we just ask our students to complete them in a “drill and kill” fashion-for example sorting items into categories, or rote-naming of opposite words; our students may not be able to apply these skills. Don’t get me wrong-for many students we need to start with these basic activities to give them a foundation (especially our lower-functioning students). But for many of our more capable students, we fail to help them make connections if we stop here. In order for these tasks to be effective we need to understand why these skills are important.

The “Why”-Why are we working on these language skills?

In order to be able to use language flexibly, we need to understand all of the rules.  As competent language users, we know these rules so well that we process information in a split-second without consciously realizing it. Let’s take a look at some of the rules we apply relating to the three concepts I mentioned above: parts of speech, categorization, and synonyms/antonyms.

First I’ll address parts of speech. Naming and identifying nouns, verbs, and adjectives (or other parts of speech) seems rote and irrelevant at times, but it’s actually very important-especially for students who struggle with language.  When we use words, we subconsciously know what their function is, which informs how we use it.

Let me give you an example. When I say the word “slice”, you know that can be a noun. You know that if this word is functioning as a noun, it means “a piece of something.” You also know that in order to use this word correctly as a noun, it can be the subject or the object of a sentence, and that it may have an article in front of it; such as in the sentence, “I would like a slice of pizza.”

You also know that “slice” can be a verb, which could mean “to cut”, and you know that you can use a grammatical morpheme to change its tense, such as in the sentence, “I sliced the pizza.”

A proficient language user can process and apply these rules efficiently and automatically with minimal cognitive effort. Unfortunately, many of the students we see with language disorders may not make these connections. We need to teach the basic foundational skills and walk them through all the rules of use. This is why we teach parts of speech.

Next I’ll talk about categorization? Why do we want our students to do this? We know that it’s about building vocabulary, but let’s go deeper.  One critical reason we want our students to be able to state categories is because we want them to be able to explain and define words.Working on categorization can improve defining skills, particularly for nouns.

Let’s walk through that process with an example for the word “Earth”.   If someone were to ask you “What is the earth?”, or “What does earth mean?” our first instinct (if we have strong language skills), is to state the category.   For earth, we might explain what it is by saying, “Earth is a planet”.  We may add some other details, such as the function, physical attributes, or location, but stating the category is the fundamental piece of information we need in order to fully explain a noun’s meaning.  We know this on an implicit level, but we don’t often think about it because it comes so easy to us. This higher level application doesn’t come naturally to our students, so we need to talk through these implicit thought processes with them.

Last, let’s look at synonyms and antonyms. Why do we need to know how to state words that have the same or opposite meanings?  Like categorical information, synonyms and antonyms are fundamental to explaining what words mean and showing what we know-particularly when we are defining verbs or adjectives.

For example, if someone were to ask you to define the word “Sprint”, you would automatically know that you need to tell them a different verb that has a similar meaning.  You may say, “Sprint means to run fast.”  If you were asked what “delighted” means, you would know you need to say a synonymous word or phrase, such as “Delighted means very happy,”  or a phrase that is the opposite, such as “Delighted means you are not sad.”  We may mention other semantic information or relevant details to elaborate, but being able to use a synonym or antonym with the appropriate sentence structure is key to successfully demonstrating our word knowledge.  We need to do this both when someone asks us directly to define a word and when we are writing, so that we are using diverse vocabulary.

The “How?”: How do we move from “drill and kill” to application?

This is the million dollar question-especially if we are using a pull-out model most of the time. I talk about this in this post, which I jokingly call the “magic bullet” for language therapy, and you can also use metacognitive strategies like semantic feature analysis.

The quick and dirty answer is to come as close as you can to recreating the tasks required of the students in the classroom or other functional settings. I’ll tell you some ways you can start doing this with these three language skills I’ve mentioned.

What you want to do is integrate these skills into your sessions when you are directly teaching words and showing students how to define them.

Let’s look at a noun example. Here’s a word I discussed earlier: “Earth”.

You can start out by asking the student what the word means to assess your student’s level of knowledge. If they give you a correct definition, or at least a partially correct definition, great! Give them some feedback and see if you can expand on it. I often build defining ability by making kids more aware of semantic features when I want to get a deeper sense of the student’s vocabulary knowledge (beyond simply word-naming and identification).

Regardless of your student’s ability define the word, start out by identifying the word’s part of speech (e.g., noun, verb, adjective, or other). That will help us figure out how we explain it.

Once we have identified that “Earth” is a noun, we need to think about how to put our sentence together to explain what it means.  For nouns, I have some definition templates that I use for teaching the Aristotelian definition structure which looks like this: “An X is a Y that Z.” X stands for the target word, Y stands for the categorical information, and Z stands for any other semantic information that would be helpful to elaborate the word’s meaning; however the “meat” of the noun definition lies in naming the category; so this is the part we want to emphasize the most.

I like to start out by explaining this template, explaining what a “category” is, and giving a couple examples. I might show students that we could explain “Earth” by saying, “The earth is a type of planet where we live.” You’ll notice you have to make some subtle modifications to the syntactic structure (e.g., substituting “where” for “that), but giving a basic template can really help your students to understand the basic outline. Go through this process for a couple of different nouns, starting by modeling, then gradually fading your assistance until your students can be more independent. If you student does a pretty good job defining the word, point out the things they did that were correct and model ways to elaborate.  If they were way off, you may need to spend more time showing and giving examples.

I like to start out with “easy” common words when showing the students the format, and then move up to more abstract terms once I know students understand the structure.

Here’s a couple more noun definition examples to show how to use this format:


If you look this activity above, notice how we had the opportunity to practice parts of speech at the beginning, and then we immediately applied this information when we thought about how to structure our word definition. Then we required students to think about the category when we came up with the definition, and again gave an opportunity to use the skill in context.

For verbs and adjectives, you’d follow a similar sequence, however once you identify that the word is an adjective or a verb you will need to show the students a different syntactic format to define the word. This is where synonyms and antonyms come in. In order to define a verb, you typically use “to be”, such as the example, “To sprint means to run fast.” For an adjective, you may use, “Target word means (synonym/synonymous phrase)”, such as “Ecstatic means really happy,” or “Target word means (not antonym/phrase with antonym),” such as “Petite means you aren’t very tall.”

Here’s a couple more verb and adjective examples:adjectiveverbs

Taking students through this activity allows you to address basic skills of grammar, such as naming the part of speech or stating a synonymous term, and then to immediately show students how to apply the skill.

If we have a clear picture of the “What” (skills our students need to know) and the “Why” (the reason we address these skills), that leads seamlessly into the “How”, or the ways we teach students to think about and use language.  When we keep these key principles in sight, we have the power to make great change, regardless of the service-delivery model we are using.

If you’ve stuck with me this long, I want to give you a tool that you can use to get started with this process. Before we can start using strategies like syntax instruction and semantic feature analysis, we want to develop a core list of target vocabulary.

I talk about how to do this in this free video training. 

tier 2 vocabulary; school speech therapy; language therapy techniques


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