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Deb Roy: The birth of a word

13 Dec


Last night I watched this fascinating TED talk given by MIT researcher Deb Roy.  Roy wanted to understand how his infant son learned language — so he wired up his house with video cameras to catch every moment (with exceptions) of his son’s life.  He ended up with 90,000 hours of home video.  Using the 3 years of video footage, Roy traced each new word his son learned to the specific circumstances that led to his son’s acquisition of the word.  For example, he showed how his son’s babbling slowly changed from “gaaaa” into “water.” He looked at every context in which his son heard the word “water” during his first three years of life.  Roy analyzed many variables, such as who was present during each occurrence of the word “water” in the home, what room of the house were they in, and what were the adult language models or how was the word ‘water’ embedded in a sentence?

Roy’s research is data intensive and allowed him to draw conclusions and make connections between environment, language and learning.  He used beautiful, systematic, high-tech graphics to display his data.  The question of how we acquire new words during infancy has been explored readily in the field of language development.  We know that babies learn new words through repeated exposure, that it’s largely dependent on context and surroundings (ie. hearing the word water and seeing water at the same time), and utterance length of the language model (does mom embed the new word in short 1-2 word phrases or in long, complex sentences?).  However, Roy’s data is novel in that the time-lapse technology he uses and his graphic displays have implications for a new way of observing word acquisition over time and provides a closer look at how learning is taking place.

Roy also extends his findings to social media and examines how people behave and communicate in response to specific events in time.  He explores and pinpoints how trends get started, and how new ideas spread, through social media.

Roy’s research both confirmed what we already know about how babies acquire new words and pushed the field of Language & Communication Sciences to a new boundary.  Scientists may have a new way to create models and graphically display language data, connect language circumstances and observe not only language acquisition in infancy, but the larger implications for tracing behavioral patterns through language in social media.

As a Language Development nerd, I found this talk fascinating, and if you have 20 minutes to watch the video, I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Teaching Vocabulary: How Do We Learn New Words?

12 Apr

Students learn vocabulary most effectively when given opportunities to construct meaning rather than simply memorizing definitions, synonyms and antonyms.  To this end, there is no time and place to teach vocabulary, but it is a part of everything we do as teachers, parents and therapists.


When children learn to talk, they learn to say their first words by repeatedly hearing the words for concrete items in their environment.  Words like, “ball,” “cup,” “more,” “big,” “juice” are words kids learn first because they occur frequently in their environment.  Little kids learn and acquire new words through repeated exposure to them.  So do school aged children.

For school aged children, giving a definition for a new word usually isn’t good enough.  A child isn’t really experiencing a word or filing it away in their personal word bank for future use, by reading or hearing a definition.  Research suggests that It takes a minimum of 15 encounters with a new word for a student to understand and use the word independently.  In addition, words are nuanced.  There are subtle distinctions and variations between words that mean the same thing (synonyms) and unless children have the chance to interact with each of these words, experience them and engage with them it’s probably not going to stick.

Asking the right kinds of questions and helping students to make connections among words that they already know can be very effective.  Asking questions like, “Where have you heard this word before,” “Can you think of another meaning for this word,” or just talking about word meanings and being silly with definitions (substitute other words that don’t make sense or sound funny) help kids to expand the way they think about words.  If we build confidence and competence in dissecting and connecting words that students already know, this skill will start to translate and help kids “problem solve” when they encounter unfamiliar words.


One technique that most Speech Pathologists use with the little ones for stimulating language is focused stimulation. This is a pretty simple technique, but needs to be intentional and planned out.  The clinician decides on the target word for the mini-lesson and uses it over and over again while interacting with the child.  The idea is not necessarily to require a response or repetition from the child, but to expose them to a new word repeatedly, in a natural setting.  This can take place while playing a game or reading a book and is very different from simply making a child repeat new words.

If you’re interested in learning more about using Focused Stimulation, click here for some examples and a great summary of this simple technique.


It’s also good to keep in mind that vocabulary doesn’t just refer to the words we speak.  Sometimes we read or hear words that we would never use, but we still know what they mean.  So are these words a part of our vocabulary (words that we would never use, but know what they mean)?  Yes.  We have a receptive vocabulary and an expressive vocabulary.

Judy Montgomery, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Professor, Chapman University has identified four kinds of vocabularies.  That is, our listening, speaking, reading, and writing vocabulary. Research shows that when you teach or target one of those categories, it has a large impact on the others.  So learning a new word is most effective when we can hear it, see it, read it, and write it.


Here are just a few of the games/ materials I use with kids to help build exposure and experience with new words:

Here are some links to internet games/ activities for building vocabulary (these links can also be found on the homepage under the link Category: Building Vocabulary Internet Games):

Stuttering: Let’s Talk About it!

8 Apr

image from

Stuttering has always been an area of communication disorders that is particularly interesting to me.  It is complex.    There is still no conclusive evidence as to why people stutter.   And furthermore,  no two people stutter in the same way.

But first and foremost, let’s clear the air.  Yes, we should talk to kids  about stuttering.

Kids are smart. They know they stutter and they know you know.  If we don’t talk about it with them we are inadvertently sending the message that it is something to be afraid of and something to feel shame about.   “Talking about stuttering” with kids doesn’t mean having a parent or teacher tell them to try again, or slow down or think first.  Most of the time, what kids want most from their parent, or teacher, is someone to listen, someone to understand and accept them for who they are.  For most kids, stuttering is much more than just the stuttering we hear.  Research shows that most kids who stutter feel  a loss of control,  that they don’t have a voice,  and may feel like there is something wrong with them or that they are stupid.  We should talk openly with our kids about their feelings about stuttering and create open,  supportive channels of communication for them to be heard and understood.

There are strategies that we teach in Speech Therapy to help kids talk more fluently.  The goal with stuttering therapy, however, is not to get a child to stop stuttering completely.   The goals are:

  • to help kids learn about their own stuttering
  • to help kids learn how to gain control over their speech
  • to help kids work with their families, teachers and peers to increase support for the child’s challenging environment
  • and most importantly to help kids be effective communicators.

Stuttering is highly variable and changes over time.   Therapy is a place for the child to learn to experiment with his or her speech in different ways.  There are tools we can give our kids to help them speak more fluently.  However,  laying the appropriate groundwork during therapy is fundamental in order for kids to have success with using the strategies.  It takes lots of practice, hard work, presence and acceptance.  Outside of Speech Therapy, we need to first build acceptance and support the child in the challenging environment that they face.  We can focus first and foremost on WHAT our kids are saying and not HOW.

I went to an excellent workshop yesterday.  Dr. J. Scott Yaruss, Board Recognized Specialist and Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Pittsburgh presented “Effective Treatment for School-Age Children Who Stutter.”

We have several kids in our school who stutter, so this workshop was extremely relevant and useful.  Here are a few quick tidbits about stuttering from Dr. Yaruss’s workshop:

  • Disfluency is any disruption in smooth speech.  What makes stuttering different from normal disfluency in speech that we all experience, is that the speaker experiences a loss of control.
  • Stuttering behaviors can be prolongations of the initial sound in words (“llllllllike this”), part word repetitions (“li-li-like this), pauses, twitches, facial grimaces….These are all stuttering behaviors things we can see that indicate the speaker has experienced a “loss of control.”
  • Stuttering involves much more than the stuttered behaviors that we see and hear as listeners.  A child who stutters may also experience feelings of frustration, depression, embarrassment, shame, hopelessness, bullying, teasing, pressure from parents, teachers

Yaruss presented a framework for working with school age children who stutter.  His framework is not so different from other models I have used in the past.  One BIG difference, however, is that his framework is entirely student centered.  In addition to learning the fluency strategies, the student learns to become a self-advocate.  He learns about his own stuttering, the student himself educates his parents about his stuttering and stuttering therapy (the therapist facilitates this, but the child is completely in charge here), and the student learns how to talk with his teachers and peers about his stuttering.

Dr. Yaruss’s  framework also relies heavily on laying a proper foundation, learning about the speech mechanism and what they are doing when they stutter.  Therapists often move too quickly, and jump ahead to teaching fluency techniques but if a child doesn’t even know what he’s doing when he stutters in the first place, how can he really make a change?

Please visit the updated link category “Stuttering” for links to websites for people who stutter and resources for parents and clinicians.  For parents of kids who stutter, I really encourage you to check out these links.  The best place to start is by reaching out to some of these organizations and meeting other parents of kids who stutter.  Please let me know if you want guidance or assistance and I will be more than happy to sit down with you and help connect you with some great programs and people.

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