It’s okay to not know the answer…

fighting slp burnout; vocabulary and metalinguistics for language therapy

It seems like no matter how much time we spend organizing ahead of time, there are always those moments when we get stuck in therapy.

We all have those days when we’ve made sure all our flashcards were perfectly organized and laminated, we’ve made copies of all necessary handouts and worksheets, and we’ve even planned a great reinforcement game that will make the session super engaging.

It seems like we’ve thought of everything…yet as the session gets going, you start to fumble…because our students start to struggle and we don’t know how to help.

If you’ve ever experience this situation, I have several bits of good news.

The first one is this: You’re totally normal!

Every single SLP has felt unprepared or unsuccessful at some point when treating language disorders. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.

Ready for the second?

This is not only okay, but can also be a good thing.

I’m about to tell you why, but first let me tell show you with a situation that’s popped up for me as I’ve working on teaching my students to be “meta” with language.

It’s happened when I’ve been working on categorization.

One very common goal for students with language issues is the task of naming categories of items. We do this because it helps students with vocabulary delays attach semantic features to words, which aids in storage and word retrieval.

The problem I’ve had is that I sometimes go to ask the students the category of a word…but then for some words I don’t always know the correct answer.

It’s pretty easy to categorize common items, like “dog” or “shoe,” but if we truly want to build our students’ vocabulary skills, we need to eventually do this task with more challenging words, such as Tier 2 words like the ones in this free resource. 

But…when I get these more difficult words, I’ve had times I don’t really know how to categorize them or explain them to my students.

I’d be breezing through easy words like this:
“A dog is a kind of animal.”
“A pencil is a kind of writing tool.”
“Broccoli is a kind of vegetable.”

Then I’d bring out the harder words, like the ones in the 30 Tier 2 Words for Language Therapy download and my session would turn in to a train wreck.
“Recreation is a kind of….um….let’s skip this one.”
“A memory is a…..hmm….”

I’d panic, try to think of how to explain, then awkwardly transition back to easier words that weren’t really beneficial, or wing it and pull out some other random activity.

I’d go from organized to hot mess in less than 5 minutes.

This brings me to my first point. If you don’t always know how to explain language rules to students, you’re totally normal.

It’s happened to me. And I’ve gotten a bunch of emails from other SLPs recently, asking how to explain categories for these more difficult words…so it’s happened to them too.

Let that ease your mind.

Now let’s identify the reason this might be happening, so we can figure out what to do when it does.

It might not be the reason you’d expect.

The problem is not that we’re unintelligent,

It’s not that we’re not educated enough.

It’s not that we’re unorganized or unprepared.

It may be because we are really good at using language. Almost TOO good.

I know that makes no sense, so let me explain what I mean.

We use vocabulary proficiently, without thinking about how or why we use the words we do.

We’ve become so good at applying linguistic rules that we don’t have to devote conscious cognitive resources to using them.

When you do something effortlessly, it can be difficult to explain how you are doing it. Especially if you have to break it down for someone who doesn’t get it at all.

But the best way to start doing this isn’t by spending hours upon hours planning every single linguistic detail you’re going to explain.

Instead, we need to put ourselves in our students’ shoes. This is how we help them learn to be meta about language.

When you come to those difficult words, and you don’t know the answer, resist the urge to shove it aside and come back to it when you’re better prepared.

Instead, do what you’d want your students to do when they don’t know the answer. Problem solve. Talk yourself through it. Figure out what you need to do to find the answer, and then go do it. Right in front of your students. Bring them along for the ride.

Let’s go back to the example I gave with my therapy.

Of course I know what “memory” and “recreation” mean, but do I ever stop to think about how, when, or why I would use those words? Do I ever stop to think about what they mean? Doubtful.

I know all these things on some level, but implicitly. The problem is, my students aren’t at this level yet. And one of the most effective ways to get them there is to make the implicit explicit.

With the categorizing activity, it might be helpful to get your thoughts together and come up with the categories beforehand so you don’t fumble like I did.

You can always be proactive like this and try to think ahead. But even if you do, I promise you this…

You will not think of everything. And that’s okay.

Language has so many rules, they will continue to pop up in your therapy sessions all the time. So while you should do your best to come to your sessions prepared, you can do something else that may be even more powerful:

Get comfortable not knowing the answer.

Don’t hold back on tackling those challenging skills to your students because you’re worried you won’t explain it the right way, or you’re worried you won’t do a good job. The only way to get better at this is to jump right in.

Just think about the teachable moments that may present themselves when your students realize that you aren’t perfect, you don’t know everything, and you’re okay with it because you know how to find the answers.

Let’s go back to the example from my therapy session. Here’s what I could have done instead.

“Recreation is a kind of…hmm…this is a tricky one. I’m not sure I know the answer. I wonder what I could do about this.”

*Here we could have a short discussion of what we could do, or I could model the self-talk I’d go through to come up with a solution. I could say something like,

“Hmm, I’m not sure about this answer. I bet I could look it up and find it.”

*Then I could talk through or model the steps here, such as looking it up using an online dictionary, or paper dictionary. This would give me the chance to show students how to look for categorical information in a definition as well, which is a great meta skill.

Just in case you were wondering, I did have to look “memory” and “recreation” up using an online dictionary. The dictionary definitions did show categorical information, but we had to talk through it to figure it out.

For memory, the dictionary said it was a “mental faculty”, or “the act of remembering”, which didn’t give much clarity. The category I settled on for purposes of explaining it to the kids was “a type of action, which helps you recall something.” In this case, “action” is the category, but we added another clause to explain more.

For “recreation”, the dictionary definition listed “pastime”, “diversion”, or “exercise.” Those are all possible categories, but the one I’d use with my students might be “it’s a type of activity”, or “hobby”.

You can always start using those more advanced categories when the students are ready. The important part is to teach the process of finding the answer.

Once you do this a couple times (for this specific example and for others), you’ll start to get the hang of it…and hopefully so will your students.

The bottom line is this; language is messy. We have to teach our students to expect the unexpected, and to be flexible.

So don’t be perfect. Be “meta”.

~Dr. Karen

P.S. If you’re struggling to figure out which words to target when you work on categorization, check out this free training where I’ll show you how to do it.

tier 2 vocabulary; school speech therapy; language therapy techniques


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