#011: How to Target Multiple Meaning Words in Speech Therapy

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In this week’s episode of the SLP Now podcast, I’m diving into evidence-based strategies that you can use when assessing and teaching multiple meaning words. We’ve been talking a lot about vocabulary concepts lately because vocabulary is a pre-eminent predictor of success in literacy, and a huge part of classroom participation is tied to a student’s ability to read.

I’m extra excited to talk about multiple meaning words this week, because did you know that 50% of the words in the English language have multiple meanings?! That can be super challenging for the students we work with because so many of the words they come across can be interpreted differently depending on the context.

My goal is that you’ll walk away from this episode with a ton of practical ideas and tips that you can use to implement with your own caseload. 💪

So grab your beverage of choice (I’ll have a chai latte, as per always!), get comfortable, and listen in.

Key Takeaways and Topics Covered

> Assessment and development
> Literal vs psychological interpretation
> Pre-teaching vocabulary
> Meaningful exposure
> Graphic organizers
> Using words in context
> Collecting words
> Incorporating movement
> An example from teaching a mixed group about forensic science (I love this story!!)

Links Mentioned in the Podcast

> Vocabulary development from Dr. Karen’s blog
> SLP Now assessments with leveled lists of vocabulary
> SLP Now blog post: How to create a vocabulary journal
> Pocket chart for an interactive word wall (affiliate link)
> The Modified Fitzgerald Key
> SLP Now blog post: My favorite books to target vocabulary
> SLP Now blog post: My favorite articles to target vocabulary

Articles Mentioned in the Podcast

Bannon, E., Fisher, P., Pozzi, L., & Wessel, D. (1990). Effective definitions for word learning. Journal of Reading, 34, 301-302.
Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Honig, B., Diamond, L., & Gutlohn, L. (2000). Teaching Reading Sourcebook for Kindergarten through 8th Grade. Novato, CA: Arena Press.
Longo, A.M., & Curtis, M.E. (2008). Improving vocabulary knowledge of struggling readers. The NERA Journal, 44, 23-28.
Marinellie, S. A., & Johnson, C. J. (2002). Definitional skill in school-age children with specific language impairment. Journal of Communication Disorders, 35(3), 241-259.
McCardle, P. and Chhabra, V. (2004). The voice of evidence in reading research. Paul H. Brookes Publishing, Baltimore.
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.
Paul, P. V., & O’Rourke, J. P. (1988). Multimeaning words and reading comprehension: Implications for special education students. Remedial and Special Education, 9(3), 42–52.
Richgels, D. J. (2004). Paying attention to language. Reading Research Quarterly, 39, 470-477.

Video Demonstration

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Thanks so much!


Hey, there. Today, we get to chat about multiple meaning words. I have absolutely been loving diving into all of the vocabulary research. I keep hearing about those multiple meaning words, and I'm really excited to share what I've learned over the past several years, as I've built up my knowledge of vocabulary concepts and all of that. Our goals for today are to identify evidence based strategies that we can use when assessing and teaching multiple meaning words. I hope that you'll walk away with a ton of practical ideas and tips that you can use to implement this with your own case load.

Before we dive in, I just wanted to do just a quick recap. We've talked about this a lot, but why even target vocabulary when we have so many other potential target areas that we could be focusing on? A huge part of participating in the classroom and being in school is being able to read. Vocabulary is a preeminent predictor of success in literacy. It's been cited in a lot of different places, but this little piece of data came from the National Reading Panel. If we can do anything to support with that and help students better access their curriculum in that way, that's so incredibly powerful. I love this quote by Rich [inaudible 00:01:45]. He says that the number of words in a child's vocabulary is an indicator of his or her linguistic health, and it's also a factor in his or her ability to use language in varied context and for multiple purposes. By giving students this vocabulary, they're able to communicate and be more linguistically healthy by just giving them the tools that they need to be able to do that.

More specifically, why would we focus on multiple meaning words? Paul and O'Rourke, this is a article that I pulled from 1988, but they said that 50% of English words have multiple meanings. That's a lot. That's a high percentage. A lot of the words that we're encountering can be interpreted in multiple ways. By teaching students about multiple meaning words, we can encourage them to cross check meaning with the context of the sentence, which is a really great vocabulary learning strategy. There's some studies, too, that have also said that by teaching multiple representations of one word that it helps increase the likelihood that a student will remember the word. I'll put some of the resources in the show notes, the different citations, so you can check those out too. We won't go into too much detail there.

There's a lot of reasons why we might target those words. They're really common, over 50% of English words. It's a strategy that we can use to help students. Then, it also might give students a stronger representation of the word, so that they're more likely to use it in the future and retain it.

Before we dive into treatment, we need to figure out where we're starting, what we're working with, and what we want to do. For assessment, there was a really great overview on Dr. Karen's blog. She talked about literal versus psychological meaning. If you look at the progression of understanding of multiple meaning words, they're really good at understanding the meaning of really concrete ones, like bat. Both of the meanings of bat, you can easily picture those and it's really concrete. But then, as the vocabulary becomes more complex, then it's harder for them to grasp those. Check out her blog post for an overview of the development. She dives in to detail on that. I will let her take all the credit for that. I think it's really interesting.

Just to sum it up, really young children can pick up on the literal meanings, and then understanding of the psychological meanings emerges around five to six. Then, that understanding continues to solidify as they enter elementary school, and as they go through middle school, and secondary. It's just something to keep in mind as we are assessing this skill.

I created different assessments that have leveled lists of vocabulary that we can look at when we're working through this, so that's a helpful starting point. The lists are organized in level of complexity, and then you can administer the items and see which ones they understand and decide which "level" of vocabulary you want to use working on this skill going forward. I think you don't need my materials or my assessment. I think that knowing this can help us just pull some of our own vocabulary words as well. We can use that to determine where a student falls with this skill.

Now, we get to get into my favorite part, which is actually teaching and practicing this skill. The first thing that we want to do is pre-teach the vocabulary. This isn't the case if we're working with younger students or students who have very limited vocabulary, because they tend to need a little bit more context before we dive into what the words mean. They need something to hang those words off of. I feel like that was me in grad school. I didn't have anything to hang all of these different concepts that I was learning off of. Then, once I started to get some clinical experience, I had something to hang off all of those lessons and it made a lot more sense. That's the strategy that we want to use with our younger students or students who have really low and limited vocabulary.

If we're working on multiple meaning words, we should have enough of a vocabulary to be able to define a word and have it make sense, because at that point, we're starting to read... With the example where we would want to teach the meaning of the vocabulary word after, we would often be using picture books or other supports, so that they can comprehend what's happening in the passage without necessarily understanding that one particular word. It's like if we were watching a French movie and we had some of the subtitles and we would still be able to understand what was happening versus if we were just listening to a recording of a conversation. If they didn't pre-teach the vocabulary, we would have no clue what was going on. There's just those different levels.

There was research done by the National Reading Panel and that they found, in general, students have greater comprehension of a text if they are taught the keywords prior to reading. A lot of this research is looking at typically developing students and I assume higher level students. Just keep that in mind. Don't always pre-teach the vocabulary. I feel like I had to give that as a caveat.

Then, if pre-teaching is appropriate for the student, it's helpful because we are able to introduce the word. They're able to start understanding it. We might write the word. We might sound out the word. We will give the student a student friendly definition. We'll put the word in a sentence. The student will create some sentences. They'll start to get some understanding of what that word means. Then, when they encounter the word in the text, that'll count as a meaningful opportunity, assuming that we can keep them engaged, and we definitely want to be doing that. Definitely send me an email if you want some tips for that.

Then, you'll prime them with a bunch of meaningful exposures to the word, and then they'll encounter it in the text. They'll be able to comprehend what's happening in the text, because they got that pre-exposure. Then, they're able to continue solidifying the meaning of that word. This step is super important, especially giving those direct explanations, because we could use a word in context all the time, but if we never explained it, the student wouldn't learn and retain that knowledge. Especially the students that we're working with, because it's that much more challenging for... We're seeing them for a reason. Especially if they're older, they've already missed a lot of exposures. Given their language delay, or impairment, or whatever disability they may have, or their cognitive level, they need a lot more exposures to the word, and they need that direct instruction to be able to benefit. I also have a couple different citations for that. They will all land in the show notes.

Once we've done the pre-teaching, one piece that I like to do to organize that and to continue building on what we see in the text is using a variety of graphic organizers. I'll do a demo at the end here. If you're listening to the audio version of this, you'll want to head to the course site to get access to the actual video demonstrations. I really like using graphic organizers. They really help us explore what a word means and help the student develop a deeper understanding. I learned a lot of this from Becket al.'s book. I will also link that. Depending on where the student is, we can discuss different semantic features of the word. We can look at the function, the physical characteristics, the location, and associations, all of those different components to help the students build more deep and detailed understandings of words. Then, beyond that, we can also embed them in sentences to give them meaningful context and help them make associations that way. Once we fill in a graphic organizer, we have all of that information at our disposal, so that's super nice.

We can also deepen the understanding by having them write and say the word. We talked about some these examples already, but that... I don't know if that would necessarily count as a meaningful exposure, because it's not giving them additional meaning. It's helpful to have that orthographic knowledge behind it and also sound mapping the words. That's not a great technical explanation, but I've read some really cool studies that go into that. Then, you get double whammy if you have the students say the word in a meaningful context. If they're saying their own sentences, writing their own sentences, that just gives us even more bang for our buck.

Another strategy, which I touched on already, was to use the words. We want to, like I said, use those words in sentences, and explaining meanings of words and using them in sentences help draw awareness to the syntactic structures. It just really helps build on all of that different knowledge and how they could actually use the word. Yeah, I might know what catastrophe means, but if I don't understand what part of speech it is and how to put that into a sentence, I wouldn't know how to use it. Like, I walk to catastrophe. I catastrophe. If I don't know where to put that into a sentence, then it's not going to be very useful for me. That's why that strategy is so incredibly important and helpful.

If students are struggling, we can definitely model that first. We want to encourage them to make some connections and be able... Even with some scaffolding and support, whether you're using sentence stems, or having just different ways of scaffolding, maybe providing part of the sentence and having them fill in the word, there's some different strategies that we can use to help set students up for success to actually use those words.

Another strategy is to collect the words. I came across this a lot as I was doing research too. One in particular was Pop 1997. We want to give students a place to keep track of the words they're learning. I personally love putting together a vocabulary journal. I'll show you what mine looks like. Then, it's a really nice way to build upon the vocabulary. We might select a couple of words, a handful of words, for a unit, dive into them. Then, if we're keeping them in the journal, we can revisit them as we continue the unit. Then, we can also pull back words that we targeted in previous units and use them in new contexts, and that is super helpful.

Another strategy, if you're not super excited about a journal, is to set up an interactive word wall. I used to have one of these in my room. I really liked that the students were able to have ownership of their vocabulary journal. My journal was super simple. I just got a file folder and I found some prongs. They were like, I don't know, $5 for a hundred prongs. I just stick them in the folder, so I can two-hole punch them. I just like that, because it has a tab, and I can easily put them away and find them. It's cheaper than buying folders. The folders were kind of annoying. They have folders that you can put papers in, but they're just hard to open and close, and it's not organized in any way. I really like just the file folder, and we have two sides. I'll show you how I put those things together, because I know that's easier to see. That's one strategy that's been very helpful.

Then, the interactive word wall, I just bought a pocket chart. They have them at a lot of teacher stores. You can get them on Amazon too. I'll link to one in the show notes, so you can take a look. But then, I used to use index cards and had students make cards for the different words, but as I started using more graphic organizers, I found that I really liked having a little bit more space. It was cool to be able to build sentences using the words, because you could make giant sentence strips and pull the words down. That might be a nice strategy, maybe if you can get bigger cards, so that the students have more room to put all of the information.

Maybe you could create graphic organizers on a tablet or whatnot, and that gives you the ability to write a little bit bigger. You can make the screen bigger, and then zoom out a little bit, and print onto a smaller space, so the students can still see it. It was just a little bit trickier to make that work. I really liked being able to pull the vocabulary cards and put them together.

You could also use a dynamic approach where you keep all of the words in the pocket chart or on the wall, word wall, and then you just have them build out their individual journals. Then they can refer to their journal as they're building sentences. That could be pretty cool.

I really liked color coding my cards, so that students automatically would get some clues or queues on how to put the words into sentences in an appropriate way, so that then they would know that they would always put the noun in the noun spot. It would be color coded accordingly. I just use the modified Fitzgerald Key when I did that. That's a super helpful strategy. You could use a dynamic approach, so they're still seeing all the words that they've worked on, but they have more personal information in their journal.

I like the journal, because it's just really easy for them to add new knowledge about the word. Sometimes, students would come back and be like, "Oh, I have a perfect example for this word," and then they would write it in their journal. That was super fun and encouraging to see them excited about that.

The next strategy is to incorporate movement when you're introducing these words. Sometimes, talking about vocabulary, and reading articles, and all of those things, are not super fun. There are some things that we can do to make it more fun and engaging. We could pull some YouTube videos that would cater to that vocabulary word and have them create sentences about what's happening. We can get creative and come up with different activities, but I found that incorporating movement is one strategy that works. It's almost magical. There's some different articles showing that incorporating movement is a helpful strategy.

I always tell this story, because it just feels so magical. I was working with a group of sixth graders, and we were working on vocabulary around forensic science, that's what they were working on in the classroom. They were really struggling to understand the article. It wasn't written in a difficult way. It was pretty approachable in terms of reading level, but they were just really, really, struggling. I found that they were struggling with the vocabulary. They didn't understand suspect, and victim, and evidence, and all of those different types of words.

We ended up acting them out and creating different scenarios. We were using the vocabulary the whole time that we were doing that. We created different crime scenes just using toys that I... Because, I was working with younger students too, so I had some Fischer Price toys. I know that forensic science can get a little bit tricky, but we were using it in very friendly terms, and using just different farm animals. We were saying that the cow got tipped over and that was the crime. Then, they had to find the suspect. We just did some really child friendly examples of how that might work, nothing gruesome.

We had talked about the words before, but it was just a lot to wrap their heads around. Being able to move around and act out the different components, and they get to sneak around like a criminal, or they get to act out being the victim and what that feels like, it just really helped solidify their understanding of those words. We went through the article again, and their comprehension just skyrocketed. It was really exciting to see that happen. By combining all of these different factors, or all of these different strategies, we can really see some pretty amazing growth with our students.

That's all that we have for the practical strategy piece in terms of the teaching. With multiple meaning words, a lot of the teaching is embedded in the practice, because we really want to get those meaningful exposures to the vocabulary words. The only way to do that is to use the word. We do that in practice. We can do this while reading children's books, text books, articles like ReadWorks and Newsela are some of my favorites. I also have a blog post where I write about my favorite books for different vocabulary targets. I can share that. If you're looking for some ideas, I also have one for different articles that are super helpful. The articles are free, which is always super helpful.

Yeah, it's just really thinking about how to make this meaningful for our students, how to get them excited about it, and find something that you can be excited about to, something that you can have fun with. Because, if you're not having fun, the students are not having either. That is key to learning. We want their brains lit up with excitement and engagement, so that they're more likely to retain these words, and build out their brains, and build out their vocabulary.

That's all we have. We'll switch over to the video demo in just second. If you have any questions about this section, feel free to send me an email or check out the show notes. We'll see you next time.



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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