The “Magic Bullet” for Language Therapy

language therapy strategies for vocabulary

Have you ever said to yourself, “I wish I could just find that magic bullet that would solve all of these impossible cases I’m treating?”

I think we all have at some point. Many of us feel like we don’t have a good system for some of the clients we treat, especially the ones with language disorders.

Feeling like this is no fun.

We feel like we aren’t doing our jobs.

Then we feel guilty, because we know it’s our job to help…and we beat ourselves up…because we know we’re supposed to be able to solve the problem.

So we end up scrambling, and spending a lot of time planning and preparing, when we could be spending more time with our students, OR recharging and having a life outside of work.

For many of you who’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know my goal is to solve this problem…so you don’t end up like this by the end of the week:


I’ve learned over the past few years since I’ve been engaging on social media and with my own readers, that SLPs as a whole are incredibly generous in sharing their ideas, opinions, and knowledge. I’ve been blessed by those who share their thoughts about the needs of those clinicians working their tails off to help kiddos in need.

Many people have shared that they’d like some type of “curriculum”, or framework for treating language disorders. At the very minimum, people at least want tools they can use to give them a head start, so they can focus their energy on high-impact tasks (like direct therapy time).

Though I don’t like to admit it, back in the day I wished that there was some “go-to” protocol I could use for language therapy, so I knew EXACTLY what I should be doing.

That’s why this site is dedicated to providing resources for SLPs treating language disorders, so they can to help their students meet their goals and succeed in school…and show you ways you can do that without working all night and weekend.

I want to help you feel less like that person lying next to her laptop in frustration, and feel a little more like this after a day’s work (me and my stepdaughter visiting Half Moon Bay, CA):


The bad news is that there is no one “magic bullet”. The good news, is that it’s possible to get better results by focusing on the right things.

And while I can’t promise that everything I provide or recommend will be the magic answer that solves all of life’s problems, I can promise to get you one step closer.

I’m going to do that today with my “Top 5” staple therapy practices for language.

They’ll also help to create a framework for language therapy, so you don’t feel like you’re jumping around from skill to skill.

When I make recommendations for using materials like these, it’s based on two things. First, published research in peer-reviewed journals. Second, I base it on what worked for me and other SLPs who have used similar tools. Both are equally important.  We need to tie it back to the research, but also consider those anecdotal reports that help us make the techniques feasible.

For my fellow research geeks, I’ll start with the empirical evidence.  I won’t go in to the details of the studies, but I’ll tell you the takeaways and cite the articles so you can look that up on your own time if you choose.

These findings, in addition to my experience working directly with students, inspired me to create several of the free resources available to me readers.

Let’s start with some guiding principles to consider when planning your treatment.

Direct instruction: It works.

Research supports direct instruction of robust vocabulary for school age children. In multiple studies, children have been able to learn and retain vocabulary knowledge when given direct explanations of words compared to exposure alone (Biemiller & Boote, 2006; Marulis & Neuman, 2010). Children also learn vocabulary through exposure, but some kids, especially those with disabilities impacting language like the ones we treat, require explicit instruction In other words, we need to be more purposeful and direct about the way we introduce new words.

If you’re not sure how to pick the right words to target in therapy, you can watch this free training here. 

Don’t drill and kill; drill and practice instead.

Next, children have a more “robust” understanding of words when they have opportunities to use them. This means we can take direct instruction a step further. In the published research, this has been referred to as “active and extended use” of words, and this would involve any task that requires a student to use or think about a word (Walsh & Blewitt, 2006). The key take-away here is that our students benefit from practice during functional activities that require them to think about words.

Be sure to add the “meta”

Last, metalinguistic awareness training can improve vocabulary skills, which can have an impact on academic performance (Zipke, Ehri, & Cairns, 2009; Zipke, 2012).  The term “meta” has meant “higher, or beyond, in pursuit or in quest of” (Harper, 2017), however in recent years, the term has meant “having an awareness of”. “Linguistic” refers the study of language, so the term “metalinguistic awareness training” has been used to describe techniques that draw awareness to linguistic rules (Roehr, 2008).

Research has shown that metalinguistic awareness training can result in better retention of vocabulary, and can facilitate independent word learning (Zipke et al., 2009; Zipke, 2012). This is huge for our students…because part of the reason they need our services is because they aren’t learning words at the same rate as their peers. Any type of strategy we can give them to close this gap is critical.

Now, for the “staples”…

This is the part where I take the research I just shared, and show you how that should look in your therapy room. Of course, because I’m a geek, I still will tell you some more research below each one.

Here are my “Top 5” practices that will help you cover your bases in language therapy EFFICIENTLY, so you know you’re meeting your students’ needs.

Staple #1: Give your students multiple opportunities to say the words you’re studying. 

Yes, this sounds ridiculously simple.  There is a logical reason behind it. Providing this practice in oral language helps our students to form phonological representations of words.

According to Sutherland (2006), a phonological representation “describes the underlying sound structure of specific words stored in long-term memory”, and includes information about the words phonemic and phonetic structure.  We can help our students fine-tune these phonological representations by making sure they have a chance to say the words they’re studying (Perfetti, 2007).  This would fall under “active use” of words, and in the next four practices, you’ll see some ways you can get your students using the words in different ways.

The remaining practices incorporate “active use”, “direct instruction”, and “metalinguistic awareness.”

Staple #2: Give your students opportunities to practice words in writing.

Again, this is an oversimplified version; but it will help get you moving in the right direction. Part of “knowing” a word is being able to produce and recognize it in print. And because written language is a rule-based system, our students need opportunities to learn and use those words in order to read and spell effectively (Kucan, 2012).

Staple #3: Do morphological analysis with your students.

What that means is that we should draw our students’ attention to the morphemes in words, and also show them how morphemes can impact meanings of words. For example, if you start with the word “challenge”, this word can function as a noun or a verb, but when we change the word to “challenging”, it can function as a verb or an adjective. Fostering awareness and studying morphology can increase vocabulary and independent word learning (Kiefer & Lesaux, 2007).

Staple #4: Encourage students to say and write words in sentences, with different sentence structures.

This fourth practice can be done in conjunction with the previous three. We are obviously encouraging students to say and write words here.  Additionally, studying morphology, such as the word’s class or tense also impacts the way it’s used in a sentence.  This gives us the opportunity to teach our students syntactic structure, so that they not only know how to say or write words; but also so that they know how to put them in to sentence (Nippold, 2016).

Staple #5: Practice describing and defining words.

This practice is often referred to as semantic feature analysis if you use a certain protocol, and can help students attach semantic attributes to words.  In laymen’s terms, that means we fine-tune what we know about the word. As we’re exposed to words, we gradually refine our semantic representations (Perfetti, 2007). Explicit instruction that teaches students to describe words using specific semantic features (e.g., category, function, physical appearance) has also been shown to facilitate this process even more (Beck & McKeown, 2007; Munro, Lee, & Baker, 2008).  This means teaching our students to describe words using different pieces of information can have a huge payoff.

Now that you know what you should do, let’s talk about what NOT to do.

Don’t try to do it all.

Don’t worry about covering ALL the words students need to know, or feel like you need to cover all the words in the 30 Tier 2 Words list (or any word list for that matter). This list is merely a recommendation to get you started, so you’re not starting from scratch.

Your purpose is to get your students to think about language differently so they can learn more effectively, not memorize. It’s more important HOW you target these words, rather than which of these words you cover.

Believe me, I used to try to cover it all…and I made myself crazy. I also felt rushed, and my students didn’t fully benefit when I was jumping from one thing to another too quickly.

Don’t forget to be flexible.

Next, don’t solely rely on how I’ve categorized these words for you. I’ve included nouns, verbs, and adjectives to encourage you to work on different types of words.  You’ll notice that there is flexibility in the way words can be categorized depending on the context. For example, the word “leisurely” is often used as adverb, but is also used as an adjective in some situations.

There are other examples of words that have multiple functions or meanings in the list, but the point is that we want to teach our students to use words flexibly.  Just because I’ve listed a certain word under “verbs”, doesn’t mean you can’t show your students how it can function differently in another context. This is where that metalinguistic awareness comes in.

Don’t be so hard on yourself.

Last, don’t feel like you have to know all the answers…about anything. No one does. Sometimes the best way to learn is to get in there and get your hands dirty. My guess is that you’ll learn some new linguistic rules along with your students.

For those of you who want to take this a step further, you can join my mailing list for weekly therapy tips and also get access to this free training about selecting vocabulary targets for therapy. 

tier 2 vocabulary; school speech therapy; language therapy techniques


My reference list, for my fellow nerds (I know this heading does not follow APA format. Sometimes you’ve got to live on the edge and break the rules). 

Beck, I.L., & McKeown, M.G. (2007). Increasing young low-income children’s oral vocabulary repertoires through rich and focused instruction.  The Elementary School Journal, 107, 251-271. doi:10.1086/511706

Biemiller, A., & Boote, C. (2006). An effective method for building meaning vocabulary in primary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 44-62. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.98.1.44

Harper, D. (2017). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved March 18, 2017, from

Kiefer M. J., & Lesaux, N. (2007). Breaking down words to build meaning: Morphology, vocabulary, and reading comprehension in the urban classroom. The Reading Teacher, 61(2), 134–144. doi:10.1598/RT.61.2.3

Kucan, L. (2012). What is important to know about vocabulary? The Reading Teacher, 65, 360-366. doi:10.1002/TRTR.01054

Marulis, L. & Neuman, S. (2010). The effects of vocabulary intervention on young children’s word learning: A meta-analysis. Review of educational research, 80, 300-335. doi:10.3102/0034654310377087

Munro, N., Lee, K., & Baker, E. (2008). Building vocabulary knowledge and phonological awareness skills in children with specific language impairment through hybrid language intervention: A feasibility study. International Journal of Language, Communication Disorders, 43, 662-682. doi: 10.1080/13682820701806308

Nippold, M. A. (2016). Later language development: School-age children, adolescents, and young adults (4th Ed.). Austin, TX: Pro-Ed. Inc.

Perfetti, C. (2007). Reading ability: Lexical quality to comprehension. Scientific Studies of Reading, 11, 375-383. doi:10.1080/10888430701530730

Roehr, K. (2008). Linguistic and metalinguistic categories in second language learning. Cognitive Linguistics, 19, 67-106. doi: 10.1515/COG.2008.005

Sutherland, D. (2009). Phonological representations, phonological awareness, and print decoding ability in children with moderate to severe speech impairment. (Doctoral thesis, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand) Retrieved from:;sequence=1

Walsh, B.A., & Blewitt, P. (2006). The effect of questioning style during storybook reading on novel vocabulary acquisition of preschoolers. Early Childhood Education Journal, 33, 273-278. doi:10.1007/s10643-005-0052-0

Zipke, M. (2012). First graders receive instruction in homonym detection and meaning articulation: The effect of explicit metalinguistic awareness practice on beginning readers. Reading Psychology, 32, 349-371 doi: 10.1080/02702711.2010.495312

Zipke, M., Ehri, L.C., & Cairns, H.S. (2009). Using Semantic Ambiguity Instruction to Improve Third Graders’ Metalinguistic Awareness and Reading Comprehension: An Experimental Study. Reading Research Quarterly, 44, 300-321. doi: 10.1598/RRQ.44.3.4

Here’s one more chance to grab your free word list and join my mailing list, just in case you’re the type who likes to scroll to the end quickly. 🙂

tier 2 words for language therapy, language therapy techniques



4 Responses to “The “Magic Bullet” for Language Therapy

  • Laura Zalnis
    10 months ago

    Hi Dr. Karen!
    I would love to be able to participate in your live webinar, but our special education team is presenting to our school board that evening. We have a meeting after school to nail down all our parts of the presentation, so the day will be long and hectic. Will your webinar be recorded and available to view at a later date? Please?
    Thanks for considering it!

    • Yes Laura, it will! There is going to be a replay link sent out the next day. There is a bonus for people who show up live, but I understand that people are busy so that’s why I’m offering the replay!

  • This is amazing and really hits home! I am an aspiring SLP (just got accepted into a master’s program and currently work as an SLT/SLPA). Will you be covering goal writing at all? I would love to learn a way yo write goals that are not only age-appropriate and need-focused, but also target the skills explained in this post.

    • Hi Rachel! Thank you so much for your kind words! I will hit goal writing briefly, but more so in a high-level framework which will help you make better decisions. I hope that makes sense. At the end of the webinar, there is an opportunity to sign up for a paid course that does go in depth about writing goals, and also includes a goal bank (although it follows a bit of a different format that other goal banks). This is such a common issue for language, because there is so much we have to cover. Great questions.

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