Is your child at a loss for a word?

Word finding difficulties are common (you and I still struggle sometimes too). Here is how you can help your child lock down their vocabulary.

We’ve all experienced searching for a word and finding ourselves at a complete loss. ‘Please pass me that thing, the white square, to wipe my mouth.’ It could be a common item that you can picture in your mind, but the name just seems to escape you. This is an example of a word-finding struggle, which is defined as difficulty accessing and retrieving a word from memory, despite knowing it and having used it previously.

Word finding difficulties are common amongst children with developmental language disorder as well as adults with acquired language disorders. However, all of us can experience these difficulties, especially when we are tired, stressed, anxious or simply as we age.

In the classroom, a child with word finding difficulties will have difficulty adequately expressing their knowledge and complex thoughts. They will appear to not know the answer to questions that require retrieval of specific facts. They will also experience difficulties with visual confrontational naming and during conversational discourse. Word finding difficulties are characterised by hesitations, false starts, fillers such as ‘uhm’, word repetitions and revisions, circumlocutions (going around the word or describing the word) and delayed response times as they try to access the word from memory. Other symptoms are nonspecific language: ‘I saw something at that place’ and words being substituted from the same category, e.g., vet > doctor. These difficulties can be frustrating and impact negatively on a child’s learning success, daily communication, and self-esteem.

Words are stored in the semantic (vocabulary) system. An organised semantic system includes well identified and elaborated semantic features of words allowing for their easy recall and retrieval. Children with language learning difficulties fail to create adequate semantic representations for words, instead they create simple semantic networks with limited associations to the target word, resulting difficulties accessing and retrieving words.

Word finding interventions include activities that strengthen word classification and grouping by category to assist in their recall, thereby supporting semantic networking – the building of multiple connections and associations to words. Stronger connections allow for efficient encoding of new words and more accurate, efficient, and rapid retrieval. When a child is accurate but slow at retrieving words, rapid naming drills might be used to increase their speed. Visualisation – getting the child to make mental pictures of target words should be encouraged, allowing them to compensate for their verbal-symbolic limitations.


Strategies to use at home to support children with word finding difficulties.

  • Phonemic cueing: Give the sound that the target word starts with: /p/ (pram).
  • Phonetic placement cues: Show the position of the articulators for the beginning sound of the target word.
  • Provide word fragments containing syllables of the target word: ‘hippo’ for hippopotamus.
  • Give rhyming word cues: king > ring.
  • Semantic cueing: Sive prompts related to the target word’s category/function; It’s clothing that we wear for swimming (costume).
  • Sentence closure: Start with open sets where a wide range of words will satisfy the response frame: Cars are________, move onto more constrained closed sets; I brush my teeth with a _________.
  • Use synonyms: can you tell me another word for big?
  • Use opposites: hot and? Not clean, but …
  • Use serial cueing and patterns: Salt and (pepper), Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…


Ways to support semantic development for more efficient word retrieval.

  • Sorting Tasks: Land vs water transport, wild vs farm animals.
  • Play word classification games: How many boys’ names can you think of?
  • Convergent naming: Banana, apple and grape are? Are they fruits or vegetables?
  • Divergent naming: Give as many winter clothes as you can think of.
  • Play find the Odd One Out: Car, bus, brush, boat.
  • Compare and contrast activities: Target similarities and differences like what’s the same about a bracelet and a necklace?
  • Encourage describing objects: Describe where you would find it, what would you use it for, what it looks like.
  • Use Mind Maps to visually represent word associations and semantic connections.
  • Teach word associations: A pilot goes with a? What are all the things you see at the airport?
  • Free associations: Water > swim > towel > bath > soap > clean > dishes
  • Controlled associations: PlayI went to the market and I bought…’
  • Give a word definition and let your child guess the item: I spy with my little eye.
  • Use semantic absurdities: Get your child to correct you: Clean the pool with a broom.


A Speech-Language Therapist can help your child with their word finding difficulties. For more information, visit

This article was supplied by Gretchen Durham – Speech & Language Therapist at Bellavista School

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