What are word finding difficulties?

How often have you had that frustrating feeling of not being able to think of the word you wanted to say, be it the name of a neighbour, your last holiday destination, or the title of a book you wanted to recommend.  This ‘tip of the tongue’ experience is referred to as word finding difficulties, and we often dismiss this as a side effect of ageing.  Word finding difficulties do increase with age (Burke and Shafto 2004), but are also experienced by around 25% of children receiving Speech and Language Therapy (Dockrell et al 1998).  Some children will pause or use fillers like ‘um’ and ‘uh’ when they’re trying to think of a word, whilst others will use general words such as ‘stuff’, ‘thingy’, or ‘doing’.  Some children might replace words with others from the same category, or with a similar meaning, such as calling a kitten a puppy (when you know they know the difference).  It can be upsetting watching your child struggling to find the word they want to say, but try not to complete your child’s sentences for them.  Instead, try:

  • Thinking time. Show your child you’re still listening, and that you will wait until they have thought of the word.  Sometimes a little time is all they need!
  • Sound cues. Ask your child if they can think of the first sound of the word – this might cue them in to remember it themselves.  If you think you know the word, saying the first sound can also help them remember the rest of the word.
  • Talk about the word. Encourage your child to describe the person or object instead, or say what the object is used for.
  • Show me another way. Can your child act out what you do with the object, or show you how big it is? Maybe they could draw the word they’re trying to think of?

The RALLI campaign have produced a video (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=_y7TJ7Th8cY) explaining some of the strategies.  You could watch this together with your child, then talk about which strategies they might like to try when they next can’t think of a word.

Vocabulary games to help with word finding

Vocabulary games are a good way to strengthen children’s word finding skills.  Think of these games as training your child’s word finding muscles – it’s best to play a mix of both types of games for a varied work-out!

Games to strengthen word meanings

  • Give me 5. Someone names a category, e.g. fruit, or sports you play with a ball, and the other player(s) think of 5 items in that category
  • Last man standing. Everyone stands up.  One person names a category, then the players take turns to say an item in that category.  If you can’t think of an item that hasn’t already been said, you have to sit down.  The last man standing is the winner!
  • Word associations. The adult says one half of a common pair of words, and the child has to fill in the blank, e.g. salt and pepper, knives and forks.  You can also play this with opposites, e.g. Hot and cold, hard and soft, long and short.
  • Word chain. Start with a word, then each player says a related word, e.g. summer – beach – ice cream – jelly – baby – rattle – snake…  At the end, see if you can remember the first word you said and laugh about how much it changed!
  • Guess the animal. One person thinks of an animal, then describes this to the other players, e.g. ‘It has four legs, a long neck, it is yellow and brown, it lives in Africa’.  The first person to guess correctly gets the next turn.   Younger children will find it easier to describe and guess if they have pictures of animals in front of them.

Games to strengthen knowledge of the sounds in words

  • I spy… this classic game helps your child think about on the initial sounds of words, a useful word finding strategy! You can also play this game with ‘busy pictures’ such as those in the Usborne ‘things to spot’ and ‘first 1000 words’ books, or ‘Where’s Wally’
  • Musical stepping stones. Put out hoops, draw chalk circles, or jump between paving stones.  Tell your child they can jump one stepping stone per syllable/beat in the ‘password’, and once they have used one ‘password’ successfully (jumped one stone per syllable in the word), give them another one, until they reach the end of the course.   Choose some passwords that have one syllable (e.g. jump, pass, go), some that have two syllables (e.g.  pass-word, pen-cil), and some that have lots of syllables (e.g. com-pu-ter, rhi-no-cer-os).   If your child moves the wrong number of stones, they have to go back to the beginning of the course.
  • Rhyme games. This helps your child think about the sounds in words.  You can buy rhyming games like ‘Slug in a Jug’ from Orchard Toys, or you can google ‘rhyming pairs pictures’ and print some off.  There are also apps that work on rhyming.
  • Acting out words helps strengthen the meaning of words, but if you also give clues for the number of syllables, and ‘sounds like’ clues, you are also strengthening sound awareness!  Don’t feel you have to stick to books and TV programmes, you can also act out sports, hobbies, animals, everyday activities – it might just help to guess (or say) the category first!

If this has whet your appetite, the Iris Speaks language course includes information on vocabulary development, with more vocabulary games ideas.

http://www.speech-therapy.org.uk/word-finding-difficulties also has links to resources that can help with word finding difficulties, I particularly like the describing and explaining resources, and word maps are a great strategy to help children learn new words.

Written by Alys Mathers, Speech and Language Therapist.

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