Importance of Vocabulary Instruction in Advancing Speech

As a parent to a child with speech impairment, I have always sought to work on effective strategies that are not just suitable for special needs in general, but cater specifically to someone with speech impediments at a foundational level.  My son has autism and is a gestalt language learner. I believe we must ask ourselves “Is our focus only on ‘end goal’ ?” when we as advocates talk about accommodations, modifications and scaffolding a child’s needs?  There is a need to craft a flexible path that fosters learning. Children with special needs seek explicit instruction that is incremental, sequential and repetitive.

An academics-only approach to special education could slow down progress and trigger other behaviors.  In this post, I have endeavored to explain word level instruction and how I deliver it using Clicker 8 assistive tool.  You may want to read up on evidence-based strategies like scaffolding to help your kid become independent and confident in their skills across settings.

First, Let’s Understand Why Vocabulary Instruction is so Important?

We know that early elementary vocabulary abilities are one of the most important determinants of academic and reading achievement in high school (Scarborough, 2001).  This is because in order to grasp a book, our children must understand 90-95 percent of the words in it (Nagy & Scott, 2000).  And vocabulary is the first domino in advancing speech!

Now, let’s look at Vocabulary Features: How to Teach Vocabulary? Let’s do a deep dive.

Perfetti’s Lexical Quality Hypothesis serves as a lens through which to consider
vocabulary teaching in terms of semantics (meaning), phonology (pronunciation),
orthography (spelling), morphology (meaningful word components), and syntax 
(how words function in sentences).   Doing this right would create a mental map of the word like you see an entry in the dictionary.

These parts of vocabulary training can be handled in reading, decoding, spelling, and grammar classes. Such vocabulary skills aid in the development of “microstructure” (Gillam et al, 2016).  They help build the linguistic abilities to narrate and recount tales and events, such as precise word choice, syntax, and grammar.  So such kids first need to learn sentence-level linguistic abilities before being taught higher order thinking such as sequencing, retelling, responding to
Wh questions.  Direct Intervention in these key areas is necessary !


Word pronunciation is an important part of vocabulary development for all kids. Nobody will utilize a word they are unable to pronounce. Cues to pay attention to the sounds of words helps young kids understand how words operate.

Here is where an assistive tool delivers, especially if your child is an auditory learner.
I use Clicker 8 to give vocabulary instruction, it associates picture to the word and pronounces it for the child.  My child has taken from listening the words several times and changing the speaker to experiment pronunciation, to replacing letters in the words to make a different word.  For e.g replace ‘s‘ in Sit to ‘k‘ and make Kit.
Experimenting with the letters means you are reinforcing beginning, middle and ending sounds.  You strategize this with different letters to make different words.  Just omit a letter and see what it sounds like “Wh” sound when you take away “at” from the word “What”.

Orthography is term that refers to the Spelling –

Learning to read requires understanding the relationship between the sounds of spoken words (phonology) and the way they are written (orthography).  As kids manipulate the letter changes and listen to the sounds, they begin to understand  that they need to attend to all the letters in a word to read and spell it.  My son seeks auditory input and Clicker 8 has helped him to associate meaning with the picture support and sounds to the words he has been typing.  His knowledge has expanded from just letter sounds to sight words, spelling and sounding any nonsense words.  Clicker 8 has helped him in transcribing the words.

Independent work

Looking at his progress, I have felt confident to move onto Morphology instruction. That is teaching plurals, affixes, contractions etc.  So far I have had great success in teaching regular plurals using this model.

I taught him the meaning of “many” and generalized it using many concrete items.  Then, I used Clicker 8 to build upon this understanding, check the images of our learning below.


Now, he is able to understand text and even expressively state when I offer a pause.  One cow, many ________, he says “cows” and we pair it up with the book image we are reading.  I use a book like below that has high-frequency words, repetitive sentence patterns, and strong visual references.  This helps generalize the concepts, outside of assistive tool Clicker.

Sharing an excerpt from the book I use to supplement lessons.  Look at the clear images that make it easy to model picture to text association.

Tadpole books

Simple sentences and repetitive pattern.

These serve as a good starting point for social stories as well.

Next up, I want to deal with contractions and affixes and I am thinking of creative ways to do this using Clicker.  Why is this important?  Because suffixes, prefixes, pronunciation can impact our word knowledge.  They have an impact to read, decode and write.

Let’s look at Semantics while teaching vocabulary.

According to research, children require progressive, repeated exposure to the words they are attempting to acquire in a variety of settings, if they are to absorb and remember them.  Children build a sophisticated and flexible knowledge of a new term when they create many connections between it and their own experiences.  For e.g Cat- It is an animal. It meows. It’s furry and has whiskers, can be white. This image should build up in their mind.
Semantic features of verbs, adjectives, synonyms and antonyms is the mental definition a child needs to build in his dictionary(lexicon).  Clicker 8 Matching Sets and Connect Sets immensely help in delivering these bite size lessons.

Various LearningGrids in Clicker help achieve this.  For ex:

Semantic features

Here is another example from a Clicker 8 LearningGrid that teaches semantics around a place.


The last element of vocabulary instruction –Syntax:

Syntax is about how to use the word in a sentence.  This feature is tied to comprehension at the sentence level.  No one will be able to use a word if they cannot say it in a sentence. Moving on from simple to complex sentences takes some structured teaching.  Use the Clicker Books and Sentence Sets in Clicker 8 to deliver target specific words.  E.g.  Making a complete sentence using vegetables, fruits, clothes, or any activity.   It offers many such Sets that you can target to scale up and teach complex sentences.

Be sure to supplement this lesson with books – such as  below.

So, what does it take to deliver an Effective Vocabulary Lesson?

Kids with language impairments require intensive instruction in order to generate language that shows book comprehension and participate in classroom discussions.  Scaffold and teach incrementally instead of leaning into a some end goal like ‘respond to WH questions or retelling’.  You child may need many repetitions and associations before they can get to story elements.  Therefore, work on vocabulary consistently to build a sound foundation, thus making them ready for advance levels when they can.   Here you go, I summarize this article in a flowchart below-

Flowchart Vocabulary

Look for participation, comprehension and confidence, you will know you are on the right track.  Teach and model consistently and you will be able to see progress!

Bottom Line:

Based on Perfetti’s Lexical Quality Hypothesis, I have shared my personal experience on these concepts using Clicker 8 assistive tool with my son.  From a child with limited verbal abilities, he has blossomed into a happy soul eager to not just experiment and learn, but expressively use such words in his speech.  My child has moved from just typing alphabet to typing Fry’s 400 sight words, all by using these steps over last two months.  Only a parent will truly fathom the bliss of this situation!  If you have stuck along so far, I genuinely hope that you may consider using this holistic approach and explicitly teach vocabulary to improve functional learning outcomes for your child.


Bowers, P. N., & Kirby, J. R. (2010). Effects of morphological instruction on vocabulary acquisition. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 23, 515-537.

Bowers, P.N., Cooke, G. (2012, Fall). Morphology and the Common Core: Building students’ understanding of the Written Word. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 31-35.

Bowers, P. N., Kirby, J. R., & Deacon, S. H. (2010). The effects of morphological instruction on literacy skills: A systematic review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 80, 144-179.

Carlisle, F. (2010). Effects of instruction on morphological awareness on literacy achievement: An integrative review. Reading Research Quarterly, 45, 464-487.

McClelland, J. (1989) “Gillingham: Contemporary After 76 Years.” Annals of Dyslexia, 49, 3-49.

Moats, L.C. (2009) “Knowledge Foundations for Teaching Reading and Spelling.” Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 22.4, 379-399.

Comparison of narrative and expository writing in students with and without language-learning disabilities. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 43, 395-409. Miller, J., Andriacchi, K., & Nockerts, A. (2016). 

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