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How I Work on Vocabulary Goals for Speech Therapy

Updated: Jun 3

I'm not a fan of standardized vocabulary tests, but I love working on vocabulary goals in speech therapy!

*free downloads below*

I'm going to cut to the chase: One-word picture vocabulary tests are not my favorite and I never use them in my speech and language assessments. 🫣


Because they can be biased against kids from different socioeconomic groups, or from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds; as we know, kids from these groups are often over-identified as needing special education and we need to be doing our best to provide assessments that determine the presence or absence of a true disorder -- not just a difference.

I prefer to assess for Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) or dyslexia (to the extent that I can here in NY State...). If students do have DLD and/or dyslexia, their vocabulary will be negatively impacted. It's that simple.

(That said, I have recently started using the Test of Integrated Language & Literacy Skills -- the TILLS -- in my comprehensive speech and language assessments and I often get interesting insights while administering the Vocabulary Awareness subtest.)

Facts to keep in mind:

  • Kids with DLD need an average of 36 exposures to a new word before learning it. ( Kids with typically developing language need 12 or less. Given this need for many more exposures to new words, word learning happens much more slowly for kids with DLD. This leads to lower vocabulary skills overall.

  • Kids with dyslexia often have decreased vocabulary skills because of a vicious circle: Reading skills are generally better in kids with well-developed vocabularies and, in turn, vocabulary grows the more kids read. Kids with dyslexia are impacted both ways; their decoding is negatively impacted because they have a smaller fund of words to choose from when trying to turn letter sounds into real words, and because they tend to read less in general, they have less exposure to new vocabulary words. This is sometimes referred to as the Matthew effect. You can read more about the Matthew effect here:

  • DLD and dyslexia are often co-morbid; therefore the factors described here would be compounded in kids with both DLD and dyslexia.

a child working on vocabulary words in speech therapy

What types of vocabulary should we target in speech therapy?

In the book Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (2008, 2013), Margaret McKeown, Isabel Beck, and Linda Kucan introduced the concept of tiers of vocabulary. Briefly: tier 1 words are common, high-frequency words; tier 2 words are less common, but are found in a lot of different contexts (and are therefore potent words to teach); and tier 3 words are rare words that are related to a specific topic (Science texts have a lot of these).

(Here is a great pdf that summarizes the main elements of this book if you'd like to learn more.)

In our speech-language therapy sessions, we should be teaching tier 2 words as much as possible. We can also target tier 3 vocabulary from our students' curriculum as our work settings allow.

Vocabulary goals for speech therapy

This article, from Dawna Duff (2023) contains measurable vocabulary goals for school-age children. Check out Table 1 on page 1191. I love knowing the goals I'm using are supported by research.

Here are some examples of Duff's goals:

"(Student) will demonstrate recall of the meaning of 80% of the 100 high-impact curricular words targeted for classroom instruction and speech-language pathologist's (SLP's) intervention as evidenced by identification of a picture from an array that matches the word meaning (picture not used in intervention)."

"(Student) will demonstrate recall of 80% of 100 high-impact curricular words targeted for classroom instruction and SLP's intervention as evidenced by recall of word on confrontation naming task (What is the word for…?)."

How I target vocabulary goals for speech-language therapy

Shared storybooks are one of the best ways to introduce diverse, tier 2 vocabulary to elementary-aged students. They offer a shared context, and if you choose good ones, kids love them (even the older elementary ones!).

I love to use pictures that represent the meanings of tier 2 words from my favorite storybooks. I can use these in many research-based ways to teach new words to my students. They also lend themselves to Duff's vocabulary goals (listed above). Here's a quick video about some of the strategies I use:

Want to use high-quality, engaging storybooks to help your students reach their tier 2 vocabulary goals for speech therapy? Here's a link to many resources to help you do that. And note the free download for the tier 2 vocabulary words in the story Click Clack Moo, Cows That Type.

If you'd like to try out a whole book companion that includes a tier 2 vocabulary section, try my free, 71-page book companion for the storybook The Big Orange Splot here.


Did you enjoy this blog post? Subscribe below to get the latest blog posts, which feature lots of speech therapy ideas for busy SLPs who want to provide fun, impactful, and meaningful speech-language therapy.

Have you heard? StoryWhys now offers the Speech and Spell series of resources. I am always trying to tie articulation work and spelling together in my therapy and I've never found any good resources out there to help me do this. So I made my own! Many more speech sounds and spelling rules to come. They'll be 50% off for 48 hrs when new resources are added to the StoryWhys store. Find them here.

Did you know book companions can be among the best speech therapy materials for elementary students? Explore all of the StoryWhys book companions for speech therapy in my store. You'll find comprehensive book companions that target many different language skills or Spotlight Series book companions that focus on one type of skill, all using high-quality, beloved storybooks.

And get your FREE, 71-page book companion for speech therapy on the Free Download page.


link to StoryWhys homepage


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