Word-Finding Difficulties: Differentiated Vocabulary Instruction

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Word-Finding Difficulties: Differentiated Vocabulary Instruction

for Academic Words

Diane J. German, PhD

Jan Schwanke MA, CCC-SLP

Ruth Ravid, PhD

Word-Finding Difficulties: Differentiated Vocabulary Instruction

For Academic Words


Purpose: A Differentiated approach to vocabulary instruction was considered for learners with Word-Finding difficulties (WFD) in the speech and language room (RTI-Tier 3) and in the inclusive classroom (RTI-Tier 2).

Method: Using a pre and post test design to study treatment outcomes, ten second graders with WFD in the language room and thirty-six second graders in the classroom received Semantic and Phonologically Based (S & P) and Semantic Based (S) vocabulary instruction. Semantic and Phonologically Based (S & P) vocabulary instruction focused on teaching both word meanings and form based retrieval strategies (metalinguistic reinforcement, mnemonic retrieval cues, and rehearsal) while Semantic Based (S) was instruction focused on teaching word meanings only. Lexical factors of words taught were studied in reference to their influence on instruction.

Results: In the language room, significantly greater Expressive language gains were revealed for learners with WFD following the Semantic and Phonologically Based (S & P) Approach to instruction as compared to a Semantic Based (S) Approach. Phonotactic probability influenced success; learners found it easier to establish naming automaticity on words consisting of common phoneme sequences. In the classroom, typical learners and especially included learners with WFD manifested significantly higher expressive language gain scores following the Semantic and Phonologically Based (S & P) approach to instruction.

Conclusions: Investigations in both school contexts indicated that expressive language learning was enhanced when form based retrieval strategies were added to the semantic based teaching paradigm.

Word-Finding Difficulties: Differentiated Vocabulary Instruction

For Academic Words

Michael said: “ I feel stupid. I raise my hand to answer and then I forget it … I feel really embarrassed. Everybody’s listening. I don’t know… I had it in my head and I raise my hand and when she calls on me I forget it.”

Michael’s voice informs us that even though he studied his vocabulary, knows the word that would answer the teacher’s question, he is unable to retrieve the vocabulary needed to respond timely to the question asked. His self-reflection describes the classic definition of Word Finding, a discrepancy between knowing a word and being able to access that same word for spontaneous usage. (German, 2000; Sheng and McGregor, 2010; Messer, et.al. 2006). Michael is not alone in his frustration with his Word-Finding difficulties (WFD). Child Word Finding prevalence rates are high for as many as 25% of learners with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) have been predicted to have Word-Finding (WF) difficulties (Dockrell, Messer, George, & Wilson, 1998) and 49% (98% confidence interval, 41% to 59%) of students with Learning Disabilities have been reported to have underlying expressive language Word-Finding difficulties (WFD) (German, 1998). Further, researchers document WFD among learners with reading (Faust, Dimitrovsky, & Shacht, 2003; Messer, Dockrell, & Murphy, 2004) and written language difficulties (Scott, 2002).

Difficulties in WF can result in significant expressive language problems that interfere with communication and can impede learning (German, 2005). In particular, vocabulary learning for students with word finding difficulties, like Michael, can be challenging (Montgomery, 2007a). First, demands on vocabulary acquisition are high as learners are expected to acquire 3,000 to 4,000 words per year (Nagy & Anderson, 1984). In addition, implied in almost all curriculum state standards is the expectation that learners will be able to demonstrate ability to use learned vocabulary in such activities as describing, identifying, and analyzing learned content. Further, vocabulary learning is over arching as vocabulary skills correlate with other academic areas, like reading comprehension skills in content areas (Blachowicz & Fisher, 2004; Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998; Nippold, 2002). Consequently, difficulties with vocabulary can impact learning across the curriculum. If so, learners challenged with WF could have difficulty meeting standards for vocabulary in RTI - Tier 1 classrooms, core curriculum instruction (Wallach, 2008) as well as be at risk for school failure (Nippold & Schwarz, 2002).

It may be that typical vocabulary instruction is not enough for learners with WF. This type of instruction usually includes defining words, identifying antonyms and synonyms, studying word taxonomies (semantic mapping), and associating words in meaningful contexts. Evaluation activities usually consist of oral and/or written language tests designed to assess students’ vocabulary learning. This form of vocabulary instruction helps learners develop semantic representations for target vocabulary and results in typical learners being able to access learned words in oral and written assessments. However, because it is often reported that learners with WFD appear not to be successful in bridging their newly learned vocabulary (storage strength) and their lexical access skills (retrieval strength), they have difficulties retrieving learned words in school assessments (German, 2005). Like Michael, they have difficulty demonstrating their knowledge of learned vocabulary. It may be that learners with WFD would benefit from a differentiated approach to vocabulary instruction in the speech and language room (RTI-Tier 3 interventions) and in the inclusive classroom (RTI-Tier 2 interventions). Therefore, it was of interest to see if students with WFD would be more successful in their vocabulary learning if they received an approach to vocabulary instruction that incorporated not only activities focused on the semantic components of vocabulary but also activities centered on the phonological aspects of target words.

After all, child language research has suggested that the etiology of word finding difficulties may be either semantic-based (German, 1994, 2000; McGregor and Apple, 2002; McGregor and Waxman, 1998; Messer, et al. 2006) and/or form-based (Constable, Stackhouse, and Wells, 1997; German, 2000, 2002; German and Newman, 2002, 2004; Sheng and McGregor, 2010; McGregor, 1994; Messer, et al, 2006) depending on the nature of the learner’s word finding difficulty and the lexical factors of the vocabulary being learned (German and Newman, 2004). Therefore, for purposes of this investigation, it seemed reasonable to create a differentiated approach to vocabulary instruction that would incorporate both semantic and phonological treatments to anchor school vocabulary for meaningful and automatic usage. To measure the value of this combined method of vocabulary instruction in school contexts, students’ vocabulary learning when provided the Semantic & Phonologically Based (S & P) approach to vocabulary instruction was compared to their vocabulary learning when taught Semantic based vocabulary instruction only.

Semantic Based (S) Approach to Vocabulary Instruction

Semantic Based (S) vocabulary instruction focuses on developing a pupil’s semantic representation of the target word. Current functional models of vocabulary instruction emphasize explicit instruction of words and concepts (Montgomery, 2007b; Roth and Troia, 2006), reinforcement of metalinguistic knowledge (Nagy, 2007), mindful selection of word types (Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, 2002); and the establishment of vocabulary Instructional Routines (Archer, 2008). For example, Nagy (2007) suggests that vocabulary instruction include metalinguistic awareness activities, that is, knowing what a word is, understanding its definition, interpreting its context, and recognizing its syntax and morphology. Further, Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, (2002) encourage teachers and speech and language pathologists to be mindful of the inherent hierarchy embedded in vocabulary groups children are expected to learn. They have identified 3 word Tiers embedded in children’s vocabulary lists, basic words (Tier 1); high frequency words (Tier 2), and low frequency domain specific words (Tier 3). Montgomery (2007b) provides vocabulary lessons for all three-word groups and recommends that teachers and SLP’s select from all 3 word groups when planning vocabulary instruction. In addition, Archer

(2008) emphasizes establishing Instructional Routines when teaching vocabulary that consists of introducing the word and word meanings (student friend definitions), illustrating the word with examples, and checking learners understanding of words.

In developing the Semantic Based (S) vocabulary lessons for each word taught in this investigation, we considered the aforementioned research. First, as it related to vocabulary selection, we considered the 3 Tiers inherent in students vocabulary groups discussed earlier (Beck, et al., 2002). Because our intent was to study differentiated vocabulary instruction in a school setting, we chose to focus on Tier 3 domain specific words from learner’s science and math curriculum. In addition, each Semantic based vocabulary lesson (and Phonological based vocabulary lesson) highlighted metalinguistic features of the word learning process. Students received explicit instruction as to word meanings and applications. An Instructional Routine (Archer, 2008) was followed for each word taught. That is, the target word was introduced. “Student-Friendly Explanations” (Beck, et al., (2002, p. 35), were created to explain the meaning of the target words, the word’s syntax was determined (noun or verb), and multiple examples and non examples of the word were shared across various contexts.

Semantic & Phonological (S & P) Approach to Vocabulary Instruction

The Semantic & Phonological (S & P) approach to vocabulary instruction emphasizes both semantic and phonological properties of target words. It is focused on both establishing and accessing semantic and phonological representations of target words. The semantic portion of the lesson incorporates the activities discussed above. The phonological portion of the vocabulary lesson focused on the phonological properties of the vocabulary taught. Earlier studies in Child Language, Learning Disabilities, and lexical access models in cognitive science guided development of this portion of the lesson.

In the area of Child Language, a body of research has indicated that learners with expressive language difficulties can improve their Word-Finding skills using various phonological strategies, such as thinking of or producing target word rhymes, initial sounds and counting syllables (Best, 2005; German, 2002; Easton, Sheach, & Easton, 1997; McGregor, 1994; Stiegler & Hoffman, 2001; Wiig & Becker-Caplan, 1984; Wing, 1990; Wright, 1993). Recommendations to teach learners to become aware of the metalinguistic – morphology attributes of vocabulary words to enhance vocabulary learning have been made (Nagy 2007).

Concurrently, research in memory strategies in the field of Learning Disabilities have demonstrated the usefulness of applying mnemonic strategies (Keyword, Peg word, & Letter strategies), to improve students’ memory performance for school vocabulary on assessments that require recall (Mastropieri, Scruggs, & Fulk, 1990; Mastropieri, Sweda, & Scruggs, 2000; Uberti, Scruggs, & Mastropieri, 2003). Given the reported success of phonologically based strategies to improve WF and the advantages noted in using mnemonic strategies to enhance learners’ memory, our investigations included metalinguistic reinforcement of the target words syllabic structure and application of phonemic -mnemonics to anchor the word’s form.

Our development of form-based vocabulary instruction was also guided by architectural models of lexical access (Levelt, 1989, 1991, 1999) and the spreading-activation accounts of the processes that may occur among lexical components. Each is highlighted below.

Lexical architectural model. Use of metalinguistic reinforcement activities and application of phonemic mnemonics in our vocabulary instruction was also advised by an adapted lexical architectural model of the lexicon (Levelt, 1989, 1991, 2001) that focuses on those mechanisms thought to underlie single word retrieval (German, 2000). Theoretically, this model proposes the involvement of three levels when accessing a word: (a) the word’s conceptual structure; (b) the word’s abstract lexical representation (semantic, syntactic and form features); and (c) the word’s corresponding speech motor-program plan. Embedded in these three levels are four corresponding stages of single word retrieval. At Stage 1, a triggering stimulus (desire to retrieve the word) links to the conceptual repository for the word; at Stage 2, the conceptual structural accesses the entry’s semantic and syntactic features (the lemma) from among neighboring entries; at Stage 3, the lemma accesses the entry’s corresponding phonological features (the syllabic frame and sound units) to create the phonological schema; and at Stage 4, a motor plan is created and forwarded to lower-level articulation processes to produce the word.

The phonological portion of the S & P approach to vocabulary instruction focuses on reinforcing algorithms for lexical access of the word’s form. That is, strengthening those lexical processes involved at the juncture between Stage 2 and Stage 3 above, and at Stage 3 itself. According to Levelt (1989, 1991, 2001), eliciting a target word’s form includes accessing the words morphemic and syllabic structure and corresponding sound units. Therefore, form-based strategies for the phonological portion of the S & P approach to vocabulary instruction included metalinguistic strategies to reinforce the phonological structure of words, the syllabic frame, and segmental sound units.

Lexical spreading-activation accounts. Development of the phonological mnemonic strategies used in the S & P instructional approach was guided by lexical spreading-activation accounts of the processes that may occur among the lexical components discussed in the adapted model above (Dell, 1982; MacKay, 1987). Connectionist approaches to lexical access suggest that when a word is accessed, it is primed and activated. Priming prepares the word (node) for possible activation, and in turn, the activated word (node) primes all words (nodes) associated with it. (See Burke, MacKay, Worthley & Wade, 1991 for a more detailed report of these processes.) Priming and activation processing models provided the impetus for selecting phonological word neighbors as mnemonic cues to aid in lexical access. In priming studies of children and adults, research has reported that primes similar in form to target words facilitate activation and retrieval of target words during Word-Finding disruptions, “tip of the tongue” blocks on picture-naming tasks (Brown, 1991; Burke et al., 1991; James & Burke, 2000; McGregor & Windsor, 1996). Informed by the findings of these priming investigations, we used words similar in sound form to target word and word parts (phonological neighbors, Luce & Pisoni, 1998) as mnemonic cues. It was thought that these cues would make an implicit linguistic process (priming) explicit by requiring the student to consciously think of a word’s phonological form. Pairing syllables of multisyllabic words to similar sounding words was also hypothesized to cue those word parts (e.g., x to cue hex in the word hexagon). As an added benefit, it was thought that conscious linking of phonological neighbors to target words/syllables as facilitative cues, not substitute words, might reduce the otherwise competitive affects of phonological neighbors of target words (German 2002; Sevald & Dell, 1994; Burke &Shafto, 2004).

Therefore, the form-based mnemonic strategies used in this investigation taught learners to associate evasive words or word syllables with cue-words similar in sound (same sounds cue, X is gone to cue hexagon in a Math unit). Use of these form-based mnemonics differs from the semantic portion of the vocabulary lesson as semantic based instruction cues the semantic attributes of the target word (e.g., word meanings using cues like six sided to remember the target word hexagon) while form-based mnemonic strategies cue the phonological representations of the target word. Lastly, to stabilize the target word’s metalinguistic structure and the students’ application of mnemonic cues, rehearsal strategies were employed (German, 2002, 2005).

Nature of the Target Word

In addition to studying approaches to vocabulary instruction, we also considered the lexical factors of the words taught to see if these word properties might influence the ease with which the words were learned in either the S or S & P vocabulary lessons (Montgomery, 2007b). Our choice of lexical factors to examine was motivated by work on adult perception (Luce & Pisoni, 1998), sound learning (Storkel & Morrisette, 2002), and on earlier studies of word production in children (German & Newman, 2004; Newman & German, 2002). We considered both the word as a unit (lexical representation of the word) and the individual sound units and sound sequences (phonological representation) (Storkel & Morrisette, 2002). Relative to the former, word frequency was considered; relative to the latter, phonotactic probability and target word length were considered. These factors are highlighted below.

Word frequency. The frequency with which a word occurs in the language can influence the ease with which it is recognized and accessed. Numerous studies have reported that low frequency words tend to be recognized and produced more slowly and with less accuracy than more common words (Dirks, Takayanagi, Moshfegh, Noffsinger, & Fausti, 2001; Jescheniak & Levelt, 1994; Lachman, Shaffer, & Hennrikus, 1974; Luce & Pisoni, 1998; Oldfield & Wingfield, 1965). This effect of word frequency has been found not only in young adults, but also in children (Newman & German, 2002, 2005) and in older adults (Spieler & Balota, 2000). Further, both children with Word-Finding difficulties and typically-developing children have been shown to have more success naming words that are more common in the language (Newman & German, 2002; German & Newman, 2004) and word frequency has been reported most salient in sound learning (Storkel & Morrisette, 2002). Further, German and Newman (2004) reported that target word frequency might have an impact on learner’s error patterns, reporting more lemma-related semantic errors (semantic substitutions, starfish for octopus) and form-related blocked errors on high frequency words, while form-segment-related phonologic errors (phonological substitutions, biniculer for binoculars) occurred more often on lower frequency words.

These findings suggest that the frequency of occurrence of a word can influence successful use of that word. Therefore, it seemed meaningful to consider the frequency of occurrence of the vocabulary taught in this investigation also. Of interest was to see if our students’ response to instruction would vary based on whether the words being taught were low or high frequency in occurrence.

Phonotactic probability. Phonotactic probability refers to the frequency with which a sound or sequence of sounds occurs in the language. Where as target word frequency focuses on the word as a unit, this lexical factor focuses on the word’s individual sound components. Some sounds of words are infrequent (such as the /∆/ in azure) where as others are quite frequent in the language (such as /s/). Similarly, some phoneme sequences are rare, like /mt/ in dreamt, while others are common, like /nt/ in hunt, grunt, or punt. Phonotactic probability has an impact on repetition, recall, and production abilities; adult listeners are faster at repeating words that are high in phonotactic probability (Vitevitch, 1997); children’s serial recall is more accurate for nonwords having high probability (common phoneme sequences) (Gathercole, Frankish, Pickering, & Peaker, 1999), and younger learners are more typically successful in recognizing and producing words with common phonological sequences (Storkel & Morrisette, 2002).

In this investigation we examined whether the phonotactic probability of the target words taught, the frequency of which the word’s sounds occurred in the English language, impacted their learning in the S and S & P vocabulary lessons.

Target word phoneme length. Of interest also was whether target word length would influence students’ vocabulary learning in this investigation. Previous studies have shown that children typically find it easier to recall and repeat shorter words than longer words (Gathercole, et al., 1999; Hitch & Halliday, 1983) and that target word substitutions are shorter than the intended target (German & Newman, 2004). Further, target word length has been reported to influence the type of Word-Finding error students manifest. Learners tended to more often misspeak on shorter words (produce semantic errors) while blocking or mispronouncing longer words (produce phonological errors) (German & Newman, 2004). These reported differences in learners’ recall, repetition, and retrieval of words varying in length suggest that it would also be meaningful to study the influence of target word length on learners’ responsiveness to vocabulary instruction.

Summary, Study Goals, and Research Questions

Vocabulary instruction in school is most often focused on developing learners’ semantic representations of target words. For many learners with WFD this may not be enough as they are often not successful in meeting school standards for vocabulary. Thus, our goal was to explore the effectiveness of a dual focused approach to vocabulary instruction for these learners that emphasized both semantic and phonological properties of target words. To that end, we studied specific phonological strategies (the use of metalinguistic reinforcement, phonological mnemonic strategies, and rehearsal) as part of a S & P approach to vocabulary instruction to help learners gain word automaticity. We taught this S & P approach to vocabulary instruction as part of RTI-Tier 3 interventions - small language groups in the speech and language room, and RTI-Tier 2 interventions - in the inclusive classroom. Our interest was to see if it would improve students’ retrieval of studied vocabulary. Further, we considered the nature of the vocabulary (lexical factors) being taught. Of interest was to see whether 3 lexical factors (frequency of occurrence, phonotactic probability, and word length) would impact the learning of these words in either of the instructional approaches.

We asked the following questions:

  1. Will an S & P approach to vocabulary instruction be beneficial for learners with WFD as an RTI-Tier 3 pullout intervention in the speech and language room?

2. Will an S & P approach to vocabulary instruction be beneficial as an RTI-Tier 2 intervention for learners in an inclusive general education classroom?

  1. Will the lexical factors of vocabulary taught influence learner’s success with either the S or S & P approaches to vocabulary instruction?

Investigation 1: RTI-Tier 3 Intervention

Investigation 1 was designed to determine if an S & P approach to vocabulary instruction would be beneficial for learners with Word-Finding difficulties as an RTI-Tier 3 pull- out intervention in the speech and language room.


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