#010: How to Target Categories in Speech Therapy

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In this episode, I dive into the research and practical application of targeting categories in speech therapy interventions, just like we did with basic concepts last week! 🙌

I’m going to start with introducing some of the evidence around categories, and strategies that we can bring into intervention. Then, I’ll follow up with a series of video demonstrations that show these interventions in action, so you can gain a better understand of practical application.

Categories are just one skill within vocabulary, but it’s a foundational skill that can be used for several other building blocks. This is essential because as the National Reading Panel (2000) said: Vocabulary is a preeminent predictor of success in learning to read and we all know how important literacy is in school!

In students with typically developing language, the language in their brain is organized into nice neat folders and it’s easy for them to find what they need.

When you’re working with students who have language delays or disabilities, they don’t have those folders. By teaching categories, we give them a way to organize some of those different words, which helps to facilitate meaning, memory and retrieval.

So today we’re going to talk all about categories — assessments, interventions, and application. 💪
Go ahead and grab your beverage of choice, get comfortable, and listen in.

Key Takeaways & Topics Covered

Assessment: Figuring out where students are, and determining their strengths, needs and where they need the most support

Types of Categories
> Convergent vs Divergent
> Concrete vs Abstract
> Receptive vs Expressive

How to boost the impact of book reading by pairing it with play-based activities

Articles Mentioned in the Podcast

> National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
> Marmolejo, A. (1991). The effects of vocabulary instruction with poor readers. Paper presented in the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, IL.
> Honig, B., Diamond, L., & Gutlohn, L. (2000). Teaching Reading Sourcebook for Kindergarten through 8th Grade. Novato, CA: Arena Press.
> Roth, F. P., & Troia, G. A. (2005). Vocabulary instruction for children and adolescents with oral language and literacy deficits. Paper presented at the 2005 Council for Exceptional Children Annual Convention, Baltimore, MD.
> Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2007). Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. New York: Guilford Press.
> Hadley, E. B., Dickinson, D. K., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2019). Building Semantic Networks: The Impact of a Vocabulary Intervention on Preschoolers’ Depth of Word Knowledge. Reading Research Quarterly, 54(1), 41–61.

Click here to find the materials mentioned in the demo!

Video Demonstration

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Hey, there. I am so excited to be diving into all things categories today. Just like we did with basic concepts, we're going to go through some of the evidence around categories and some strategies that we can bring into intervention. Then, we'll follow-up with a series of practical video demonstrations that show this in action and give you an idea of what this might look like. Again, we'll just recap why we're even thinking about vocabulary because categories is one skill within vocabulary. It's a foundational skill that we can use for several other building blocks. But just backing up and talking about vocabulary in general, the National Reading Panel, their 2000 around, says that vocabulary is a preeminent predictor of success in learning to read.

We all know how important literacy is in school. That's something that we can definitely take advantage of if we can help support our students by targeting vocabulary. I really like this quote from Rich Jile's 2004, "The number of words in a child's vocabulary is an indicator of his or her linguistic health," which is pretty amazing, and then, "A factor in his or her ability to use language in varied context infer multiple purposes." By helping our students acquire more words, build their vocabulary, we are improving their linguistic health and improving their ability to use language in a variety of context, which is what we're all about, right? I just love that reminder about why we're doing these things.

More specifically for categories, we can... I'm going to butcher so many of these names. I wish I knew these people personally, but Marmolejo in 1991 said that, "Teaching word meanings as part of a semantic field is especially effective for children with low initial vocabulary." We might want to target different types of words with older students. But like I alluded to before, categories are a really helpful building block because a lot of definitions that students will be coming up with to define more challenging words will depend on this initial... Like they need to have some basic vocabulary to be able to define those words. I really like how Marmolejo put this together and talking about it as a semantic field.

It's a really great first step in getting some of those words and building that lexicon. Honig et al in 2000 says that, "Asking students to name words in a category or find words in a category increases their concept knowledge, which is some of what we'll be doing throughout this talk. Roth and Troia 2005 say that, "Arranging thoughts, concepts, and words into categories facilitates meaning, memory and retrieval." It's like a way to organize the different components in our brain. I cannot remember where this came from or I would totally cite the person, but there's just a really cool graphic out there about how students with typically developing language, their language in their brain is organized into nice neat folders and is easy for them to find what they need.

Whereas students with language delays or disabilities, they don't have those folders. If you just picture a desk, there's papers all over the place. I think by teaching categories, we give them a way to organize some of those different words. According to Roth and Troia, that facilitates meaning, memory and retrieval, which is pretty neat too. Just some rationale behind teaching categories. It's also Beck and McKeown in their 2007 book I believe, and I will list all of the sources in the notes. I don't always remember if it's a book or an article when I'm giving these presentations, but discussing semantic features such as function, physical characteristics, location, associations help students have more detailed understanding of words.

I wanted to plug that in there because we're going to be focusing primarily on categories, but the study that we're going to be diving into more detail includes more... It talks about categories, but it talks about using semantic features around categories which I think is a really smart way to organize the intervention. That's pretty exciting and I can't wait to dive into that. But first, let's talk a little bit about assessment. We obviously want to figure out where students are and determine their strengths and needs and where they might need more support. There are so many options out there. I ended up creating a leveled assessment because I know that certain categories are easier than others.

Some are more concrete and some are more abstract. Some are more content specific. I kind of have four sets of categories that I will look at to determine what types of words I want to target with my students. Once I determine which level is appropriate, and I might look at different levels depending on where the student is at, but I also want to look and see how they're doing with convergent versus divergent categories. With convergent categories, just a quick recap because I know the words are all super similar, so this is when we give them three items or however many items and they have to name the category. If I say, "A dog, a cat and a fox are all," and then the student fills in animals, they're demonstrating convergent categories.

With divergent categories, we give the category and the student has to name the items. There's different levels in depth of response that we might get. If we say, "Tell me the name of three fruits," the student might be able to say banana and they give one and then they might be able to give multiple ones. We can also get more and more specific especially as we get towards the more complex categories like maybe naming different animals. That's a relative simple one, but we can see like the number of responses they give and also how specific their examples are and really how much depth is there to those responses is really interesting to look at. We have different expectations for a preschooler versus a third grader.

We just kind of want to gage that a little bit. We already talked about concrete versus abstract categories. I determine that by my leveled assessments, and I just increase the... I move towards more abstract because that's more challenging. It's also interesting to look at receptive versus expressive. Are they able to just come up with a name for three categories? If I give them a sheet of paper that has a bunch of pictures on it and I tell them find all of the animals, can they do that? Can they identify all of the animals or the other way around? If I tell them three items and I just give them pictures that represent different categories, are they able to do that receptively?

Obviously that receptive activity is a little bit easier, but that can be a way to kind of figure out where they are. Do they understand the concepts at all or are they just missing the vocabulary? Are they having trouble organizing? We can make different hypothesis and test them using these different types... Looking at these different components of categories. Like I said, I just have the leveled assessment that I use and it allows me to look at all of these different components, but I'm sure there are tons of resources out there that make that just as easy and simple. Once we know where we're starting, we have an idea of the level of categories we want to work on and whether we're doing more with divergent versus convergent categories.

We can dive into some... Well, we first want to do a little bit of teaching, which we'll dive into more in the demonstration. Then, I'll also show you how another study did this, but some other quick activity ideas as you're working on applying these... Working on practicing these different categories are just finding items in a book. Like if you're doing a book reading activity, as you're reading, you can identify different categories and like, "Oh, I see an apple. I see an apple. That's a fruit." Like I said, we'll dive into more specifics there, but targeting categories in the context of a book is always a great idea in my opinion. You can also ask questions about the categories and engage in some discussion around them and then integrate them into new activities.

We'll, again, talk about more specific ideas. Especially play-based activities. Like if you're working on... One day you work on food categories, you can do some play activities that expand that definition of food or fruits or vegetables or dessert or whatever other category for students. It really varies depending on the category, but that's a really fun way to target those items. Okay. Like I said, we are going to talk about how Hadley et al in their 2019 article did it. I pulled a couple quotes that I thought were really helpful. I just love how they structured their intervention and what they did.

I can't wait to dive in, but one approach to boosting the impact of book reading is to pair play or other playful activities with book reading sessions, which is what we are just talking about. This is a quote from the Hadley et al article. They cited how many different... Like three different studies for that approach. You're seeing a trend. This is what we talked about with the basic concepts as well and pairing book reading and play and really getting into the context when we're targeting these different vocabulary goals. That's exciting. In this particular intervention, they did guided book reading and play. Just a sneak peak at the results so you have some motivation to listen to me diving into this study.

Their analysis indicated that intervention had significant positive effects on children's depth of vocabulary knowledge, which is pretty exciting. That's a pretty awesome result. Let's dive into a little bit of what this looked like. Like I said before, they did shared book reading. They always did the shared book reading first and they talked about the book reading serving as a foundation for later play. They said that children may gain fast knack understanding of a book's new words and a narrative, so that combined altogether serves as the basis for different play ideas. It's really cool because then they have... If they were reading...

In the article, they read about planting a rainbow, so something about flowers, and vegetables in the garden, which is about vegetables. They read these books and then they were able to engage in play related to that. They had a little bit of a narrative around those categories and those topics that they were able to use in play, which is so cool. I love it. One thing that I wanted to mention before we dive into more of the logistics, but they talked about thematically related words versus taxonomies. We'll kind of dive into that. With thematic words, they're involved in the same event. Like rain and umbrella are thematically related or car and garage are thematically related. They don't share characteristics and are not of the same type.

They're just around the same theme. But then they also talked about words and taxonomies and these are hierarchically related and they're organized in a nested structure. Each higher order category is more general. We can build this up to allow for inference making. For example, the example they gave in the article, an animal with five digits and can be characterized as a primate. Given those different features, you can infer that it's... You can infer which animal that is. They talk about taxonomic knowledge as being a shortcut for acquiring information about the world. With the example that they gave in the article with the books, so they picked eight targets from each book.

They had taxonomy members like artichoke and tiger lily and then they also had some theme words like vines and petals. They were able to talk about... They had those taxonomy members, so examples of fruit or vegetables and flowers, and then they also had some of the themed words. They thought that teaching words and taxonomies was of particular advantage because instruction can capitalize on their hierarchically nature. It's cool because once you teach the properties of a category, you can apply it to all exemplars in that category. If they get a really good idea of what a flower is when they encounter a new type of flower, they'll be able to identify that as a flower.

It's really helpful in terms of a word finding piece because they might not know the name of that new flower, but they can describe it. They can say, "It's a flower with red and yellow petals." They would be building all of that knowledge that they need to be able to describe and come up with the description for that object, which is really cool. In terms of the logistics, they selected eight target words. Five were taxonomy members, two were themed words and they had another unrelated word. That's how they set that up. Then for the book reading, they discussed the words prior to doing the reading, and then they explained the target words when it occurred in the text.

They would like point to an illustration and they would point them out like, "These are radishes. Here's another picture of some radishes growing in the ground." They would point out those words in their reading, and then they also provided definitional information in concise child-friendly language. If you listen to my vocabulary talk, that's super important there. They would say... Like they would talk about taxonomy membership like radishes are vegetables. They would talk about taxonomy nonmembership, so radishes don't have seeds, so they're not a fruit. They would talk about how the word relates to the larger theme. Some vegetables grow on vines because vines was one of their themed words.

They will talk about the perceptual features. Radishes are red on the outside and white on the inside. They taste a little spicy. They would also provide conceptual information. Radishes are the root of the plant, so they grow underground. In all of these examples, they're taking about the taxonomy member, but then with the conceptual information, they were talking about the root, which was another vocabulary word. They also talked about the object function. People usually eat radishes raw. They're providing all of these features and information to help students understand what radishes are.

They're talking about the category, what categories they don't belong to, and helping them expand on that and really get a deep understanding of what a vegetable is and what a fruit is while also increasing other vocabulary and increasing that depth, which is really helpful. I love how they made it so practical and functional in that way because they're not just memorizing categories. They're really developing a deep understanding around the words. They'll really be able to take advantage of this when they encounter new words like we talked about before. They always followed their sessions with a play or their booking reading with a play session. Oh, I also forgot. During the first and second readings of the book, children were encouraged to repeat the word.

This was to reinforce that phonological representation. If we're targeting radish, they would say, "Can you say radish?" In the third and fourth readings, children were given a definition and asked to supply the word. What is the vegetable that grows underground and is red on the outside and white on the inside? The first two sessions are really simple like can you say radish? Then in the subsequent two sessions, they're asked to say the word again, but they're asked to apply some extra information to it. They actually have to remember what a radish is. I thought that was just a really cool way to set that up. Again, they're working on those vocabularies. But following every book reading, they had a 10 minute play session.

They had toys for each book. I assume that they had like pretend food for the vegetables unit and like flowers and maybe different dirt. It even lists what they use. For the vegetables book, they had a farm house, farmer figurines, toy vegetables, seeds, cooking supplies. For the farmer book, they also had farm house, farmer figurines and seeds, but they also had toy plant beds and clay to represent dirt and just different gardening tools, which sounds like a whole lot of fun. They also adjusted how they did their play. During the first couple days, they did adult directed play. The child was given just two or three props and they were instructed to enact key concepts. It's really incorporating that movement and really making them real.

They did it like, "Let's plant some seeds." They included some dialog around that. They said, "Those are a small part of the plant. Let's put them in the soil and water them and they will grow into flowers." That's, again, expanding that knowledge of the word. Then during the second two days, they did more of a child-led guided play and then the children initiated play and the clinician follow the student's lead. They built on their play ideas and encouraged other children to come to join in on the play. They did like pretend play where they pretended to be a farmer and a chef. They incorporated target words, which again this sounds really familiar with what we talked about when we were doing basic concepts.

They just really made sure that they were using their target concepts during that activity. That is pretty awesome. This is a lot of what we're already doing. It just puts a little bit more of a framework around it. I think it's really cool to see how that works. This goes beyond categories a little bit, but I think it's a richer way to teach those categories. I mean it's always worth a try. It's a way to kind of get a jumpstart on some of the other components. We'll be diving into describing later on. As you can see, we talked about perceptual features and object function. Those are all describing words, but they're really integral to categories because that's how you differentiate the different items in the categories.

That's what makes this skill so functional because you can see how it would easily benefit a student, whether it's with word finding or navigating new text and trying to make sense of all of those different tasks that they might encounter throughout the school day. Let's see where we are here. One thing that I like to do. This isn't something that was in the studies, but I think it's a way to help students talk about it. I just have some Samson strips that I use. Like a blank is a type of blank. A blank is a blank that blanks. A blank is a blank blank. The first blank that I mentioned would be a member of the taxonomy. If we're doing radish, so we'd say, "A radish is a type of," and then they would have to fill in the category.

A radish is a vegetable that grows underground. A radish is a red vegetable. Because we're always working on these goals in mixed groups. For students who have good conceptual knowledge, who have a good vocabulary, but are working on like grammar or just different levels of these skills, we can have them do some of the describing and help prompt them and have them serve as a model. I think that's a really helpful and useful strategy. It just benefits the students all around because we're able to build that knowledge and get some really functional practice in. That is pretty exciting. That's all that we have for today from the research side of things.

We've got lots of time to dive into the practical demonstrations of how this can all come together and what it will all look like in action. Be sure to check out the videos demonstrating the different steps of the process and we'll see you next time. Head to slpnow.com/10, again that's slpnow.com/10, to check out all of the videos, see the list of references, and also find the link, it's right at the top of the page, to the speech therapy PD course. If you register for the course, whether you have a speech therapy PD membership or you just sign up to purchase this podcast as a one time course, you can do that. The cool thing is that you can earn ASHA CEUs for listening to this podcast. Pretty good stuff. Let me know if you have any questions and we'll see you soon.



Hi there! I'm Marisha. I am a school-based SLP who is all about working smarter, not harder. I created the SLP Now Membership and love sharing tips and tricks to help you save time so you can focus on what matters most--your students AND yourself.

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