Building Vocabulary

  • Emily Vincent, M.S., CCC-SLP

    Bilingual Speech-Language Pathologist

    In the world of speech and language therapy we talk about talking. On the flip side, there is often not enough “talking” outside our little offices, classrooms, social groups and the like. It has been said that the child that uses less language is spoken to less. (Bishop & Mogford 1993) Recently, we have heard the campaign for #talkreadsing from First 5. So how does this apply to your child?

    Building a vocabulary for a child with ASD does not spontaneously occur through speech therapy sessions. Rather, it happens through constant practice in everyday interactions at home and in the community. Many different teaching philosophies can be used – Piaget, Montessori, Hanen and/or Greenspan. Essentially, building a vocabulary for any child has no limits, no wrong ways or one-way streets.

    The main idea in teaching new vocabulary to children is to attach new or more detailed meaning to old or familiar concepts. As in we crawl before we walk before we run. Then we can skate, ski, scoot, slide, etc.


    Children with ASD may develop very limited verbal language or they may develop intense detailed language that soars above the conversation at hand, or be a literal verbal aside to what the topic at hand may be. And those are just a few examples. There is also a wide variation among children whose skills are diagnosed as delayed or disordered.

    No matter where your child’s language falls, there are simple and engaging ways to build vocabulary and make it fun. It is never too early to begin to talk with your child.

    Song: Whether you are tone deaf or sing in the choir, there is room for song in your child’s life. A child I work with often perseverates and engages in screaming fits. When this happens, I slowly introduce a soothing song that helps bring her out of her fit. Even if you sing “The wheels on the bus” one thousand or more times, that is reinforcing rhythm, rhyme, vocabulary, and so much more every single time you sing it.

    Scripting Routines: We often do the same thing, or very similar activities of daily living, every single day. Because the many things we do are so “routine,” we often do not utilize language while eating/feeding, dressing, bathing, etc. When you script routines, you simply lay out in language what is happening and perhaps what might happen next or soon. During breakfast for example: You have toast again. Plain toast. Mommy likes it with butter and jelly. I see you are enjoying it. Yummy yummy, toast in your tummy. Oh look, you are almost done. After you eat, the bus will come…

    Indirect Language Stimulation: A method of talking that does not require asking questions or making demands. You simply create open-ended observations based on what your child may be doing. “Wow, I see you have built a tower! It looks like it might fall over. You have one, two, three…seven blocks stacked atop one another. Uh-uh-uh OH! It fell down.”


    As parents, we are often in the driver’s seat of interactions with our children. Are we engaged in other tasks while trying to attend to them? Probably so, that part is inevitable given our life and times. However, little changes in your daily routine may open your eyes and ears up to more frequent opportunities to listen to your child and then talk. What is your child mostly engaged in? If it is something on the device, can that be somehow translated to a conversation? Is he passionate about something? Does he love sensory exploration? Does he open up with music and song? Are animals helpful? Now you’re talking!

    Engaging your child into conversations may take less talking and more listening. Tune into what your child is doing at any given moment. More intentional listening and observing and waiting is the key. We often anticipate what will happen, just like in the block example discussed earlier. In this situation, giving space to develop those what-if scenarios (rather than filling it in with scripting) is important. Once you have joint attention established, you and your child are connecting.

    Example: Two figurines are on the living room floor. You see your child moving toward them and can begin to engage in language-rich play. This could entail several attempts at you saying a lot or if you pause (watch and listen first) briefly, you are likely to find a word or phrase your child finds interesting.

    Building Initiative: As the primary models in your child’s life, parents are often the initiators of communication. Placing meaning to any and all communicative intent your child displays (facial expressions, gestures, vocalizations, approximations of words, use of PECS, etc. ) is a way to promote their own initiative. You can use your own expressions, gestures, vocalizations, words, and pictures to support this idea back to your child. For example: If a child is just beginning to imitate language and uses PECS, you can use the same pictures your child uses to communicate in order to expand and enhance the exchange. If your child wants juice and hands you the picture or icon for juice, carry the icon next to your face and say “juice” as you comply with the request.

    Turn Taking: Taking turns listening and talking models turn-taking and conversational skills. These skills are fundamental for language growth. A simple game of catch or tickle monster mirrors the back and forth we seek for conversation. Creating the space for your child to want to throw you the ball back or ask for more tickles is just the reciprocation you seek. It could be an eye gaze, a vocalization, or a gesture. Regardless of how your child communicates this reciprocal play/gesture/language/eye contact, it is meaningful.

    Learning Media and Supports

    There is quite a bit of literature and research around vocabulary and children with ASD.

    We know applying as many senses as possible to learning makes learning more meaningful. “Students with ASD respond better to literacy instruction that is systematic and augmented with strong visual supports” (Williams, J 2012) When learning vocabulary, an image associated with a word or concept has been proven extremely helpful. Picture flash cards can be used for this purpose.

    Music is said to be a social medium. Several songs for young children provide that opportunity for back and forth interaction and turn-taking. While singing Old MacDonald, your child may be given a choice for which animal is on the farm, for example. The structured, systematic and repetitive form of music enhances development of interactive communication and play (Brown, Strand 2009).

    Technology is immensely helpful for a great range of communication. GoTalk Now is an excellent and customizable program to create interactive scenes in a matter of seconds while using recorded audio, text-to-speech, music, or video to maximize each communication location. The Talking Tom app is an “oldie but goodie” because it simply supports vocal imitation. The playfulness and silliness are an added bonus. There are many other apps that support your child’s unique language development needs.


    Here are some activities that help build your child’s vocabulary.

    1) Read aloud to your child

    It doesn’t matter if it is Goodnight Moon or Harry Potter. Reading aloud to your child in a comfortable and quiet setting has been proven to be one of the most qualitative ways of building vocabulary.

    2) Compile interest-based list of words

    You can use to compile lists of words that reference a certain topic. Say your child is into astronomy or baseball or zoology. The possibilities are endless.

    3) Play together

    If your child is working on certain core vocabulary through home or school intervention, you could do several things including picture vocabulary book/poster, scavenger hunt, picture or video (on your own device) to create a compilation.

    4) Reinforce development of natural language

    The following site includes several activities to reinforce children’s power through development of their own words.

    These activities are best suited for a child whose vocabulary may be limited, but there are ways to promote use verbally and non-verbally.


    5) Integrate visual supports

    The following is an excellent article discussing the relevance of visual supports.

    Just be yourself and keep talking, reading, and singing to your child. Playing with your child and using the language scaffolding techniques above will help build your child’s vocabulary and language. As a parent, you CAN make a real difference in your child’s learning and development.

    What are you waiting for? #talkreadsing


                      Emily Vincent, M.S. CCC-SLP is a bilingual (Spanish-English) speech-language pathologist providing therapy, diagnostic, and consultation services for Early Intervention, public and private preschools, and elementary schools through Think Communication Therapy, a private practice in Oakland. Special areas of interest include bilingual-bicultural practices for children with special needs and their families. For more information, please visit


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