Many children with special needs have delays in their vocabulary development. Neurotypical children tend to pick up language from hearing it spoken and many do not need explicit teaching in their younger years. As they get older, language arts and English classes teach vocabulary more directly. Many children with special needs need to be directly taught basic vocabulary. There are many ways you can expand vocabulary for your child with everyday activities in your home and the community. If your child receives speech and language services at school, you may want to talk with your child’s speech therapist about coordinating categories for vocabulary development. You can use items and activities that your child is interested in to expand their vocabulary. You can also use outings in the community as vocabulary enrichment activities. Expanding your child’s vocabulary can help to boost their self esteem and their ability to communicate with others as well as help them with overall academic performance.
If your child is receiving speech services through their Individualized Education Program (IEP) it is advisable and will ,hopefully, be beneficial to talk with the speech therapist about whether you can coordinate vocabulary development by focusing on a topic or category each month or each quarter, based on your child’s needs and abilities. Broad categories such as kitchen items, art supplies, sports equipment or types of sports, body parts, school supplies, toys and games, outdoor items, clothing, food, community establishments and/or community helpers and even prepositions are good ones to use. Whether your child is verbal or nonverbal, it will be helpful to talk with your child’s speech therapist about items, activities and topics your child is showing an interest in.
The speech therapist will likely be working on a variety of skills with your child in school, based on their communication goals and objectives. Coordinating a vocabulary calendar can help you know where to focus. This may also be a great way to set up regular communication with your child’s speech therapist so you can keep track of progress, too. If you notice that your child has a new interest, sharing this with the speech therapist may also help him/her to have more success with your child in the school setting. Many speech therapists will also send home speech homework or a home program, if you request this. If this is something you would like, ask for it to be included in your child’s IEP at the IEP meeting. Children with learning difficulties need as much repetition as possible to integrate new concepts into their long-term memory so if you and the school personnel are working on the same overall concepts it will be beneficial to your child.
You can easily use activities or items your child likes to expand their vocabulary. This does require that you are interacting with your child during the activity rather than sending them off to play by him/herself. Planning a certain time each day for vocabulary development may be helpful for some people, while others will want to embed it into many activities they do throughout the day. You have to find the right balance and style for you and your child. If you have a sitter watch your child before or after school, you can also ask them to spend a certain amount of time working on vocabulary development. The key to this type of play-based intervention is to make it seem natural to the child. You want the learning and labeling to be seen as part of the play.
Following are a few examples of how to incorporate vocabulary development into daily play activities. If your child likes to do art projects then when you get supplies out, encourage him/her to ask for what they want. If they point at, grab for, say an incorrect name or ask what something is, say something like, “These are scissors. Scissors. What is it?” Then have them repeat the name again before giving it to them. During the activity, make it a point to ask for the scissors so they hear the word again and then when they need them again they should ask you for them again, by name. If your child likes to play with Lego’s and you want to work on prepositions, you can naturally build new terms into your play. For example, “What color is under the red one?” or “Put this one next to the tree” or “May I have the long one behind the box”. Then for each preposition model or point out the placement and get your child to do the same and then label it. If your child likes to play with dolls, you can work on body parts or clothing items while you are playing together using the same strategies discussed above.
Household routines can also be used to learn new vocabulary in a fun way. If your child likes to help with cooking or to be in the kitchen with you, you can teach them new vocabulary in the following categories; furniture, dishes and utensils, foods, bake/cookware, large and small appliances and cleaning supplies(if appropriate) . This can be done during food preparation, while setting or clearing the table, while cleaning, and/or while putting away groceries. If your child likes to take baths you can teach them new vocabulary for toys they like to play with as well as items you find in the bathroom, such as; toilet, towel, soap, shampoo, shower curtain, etc.
Another way to expand your child’s vocabulary is when you are out of the house, either doing fun activities or running errands. You can turn any outing into a learning experience through orchestrating it into a game or a scavenger hunt. For example, if you are in the grocery store you can say something like, “Let’s see how many yellow things we can find in the store today.” Then as your child points out yellow items, label them for your child and ask them to repeat the label. This can be done in most locations by giving your child a descriptor that he/she already knows (such as a color, shape, size, texture, function) or you can use it to teach new descriptors. This also helps build a community awareness for your child-they learn that the grocery store, the doctor’s office, the post office, the drug store, restaurants and other places you go to are more than buildings and places to be bored at. Occupying them with an activity such as this can also decrease meltdowns, especially if you have some kind of built in reward for “playing the game well”.
I encourage you to unofficially assess your child’s vocabulary during the day to see where he/she needs expansion. Ask him to pass you the spoon. Ask her to put the scissors next to the box. Ask him where the milk goes. Ask her what you are looking at. Ask him which orange is bigger. Ask her where you need to go to get medicine. This helps you to know which labels your child knows and which ones need to be developed further. Many parents have told me they were surprised that their child did not know the difference between a fork and a spoon, or did not know that “next to” means beside, or that the cold rectangle thing in the kitchen that milk is stored in is called the refrigerator or that the paper thing you’re looking at in the doctor’s office with pictures and words is called a magazine or that two of the same items can be distinguished based on “bigger“ or “smaller” or that the place you get medicine is a pharmacy(or a brand name store such as CVS or Walgreens).
Share with us how you help to expand your child’s vocabulary. What strategies have you found most helpful?