We have all had the annoying experience of being unable to come up with a particular word, even though we are positive we know it, and it is just “on the tip of my tongue”. For most of us, this situation is, happily, rare. But for some children, such occurrences are frequent enough that they can interfere with the ability to succeed in school. We refer to such children as having word-finding difficulties (WFD), and such difficulties are particularly high among students with specific language impairment.
One question is whether [word-finding difficulties] represent a difference purely in the quantity of word-finding difficulties, or truly represent a qualitative difference.
One question is whether WFD represent a difference purely in the quantity of word-finding difficulties, or truly represent a qualitative difference. Our approach to answering this question was to look at the types of errors that children with and without WFD when asked to name words. This approach has an added advantage as well: it leads directly to clinical implications for what types of words a clinician should select when working with this population.
In a recent paper, Diane German, Jennifer Jagielko and I found that while children who had been diagnosed with WF errors had (unsurprisingly) more difficulty naming words than did their peers, they didn’t seem to differ in terms of the types of words that were difficult. Children generally had more difficulty with words they used infrequently, but different types of words tended to result in different types of errors: uncommon words tended to lead to “blocking”, where the child wasn’t able to come up with the word form at all (saying, “I don’t know”, or being unable to give a response), but children tended to make a phonological error (e.g., saying merry-around instead of merry-go-round) when the target word was long and didn’t sound like many other words. We suggest that these different types of responses may actually be indications of different types of errors (or of problems at different points in processing) – as a result, looking at the types of errors children make may help identify where in language production the child is having trouble. But in general, children with WFD seem to differ from their peers more in the frequency with which they have word finding problems rather than in the types of words they find difficult to access.
Tips for clinicians:
When working with a child with word-finding difficulties, evaluate not just how many errors they make, but also what type: are they saying a word with a related (but different) meaning, such as saying guitar when they meant violin? Are they getting blocked, and either not providing a response or saying “I don’t know”? Or are they making a sound-based error, such as harm for harp? These are likely to represent different three distinct types of word finding problems, which should be treated differently.
If you are working with a child with [word-finding difficulties], select the words to work on based on the properties of the word itself, as well as the types of errors made by the child.
If you are working with a child with WFD, select the words to work on based on the properties of the word itself, as well as the types of errors made by the child. As an example, let’s take a classroom unit on weather. If a child tends to make errors in which they say the wrong word, the clinician may want to target words like air or gas: words that are short, common, and which sound similar to many other words, because these types of words tend to result in semantic errors. If a learner tends to block, clinicians may want to focus on low-frequency words, such as the cloud names cumulus or cirrus. And for learners who tend to make sound-based errors, clinicians may want to focus particularly on long words with unusual sound patterns, like meteorologist.
For more information on word finding, please see this excellent website on the topic by expert Diane German: http://www.wordfinding.com/index.html
(This summary comes from the following article; for more information, we recommend reading the full-length paper:
Newman, R. S., German, D. J., & Jagielko, J. (in press). Influence of lexical factors on word-finding accuracy, error patterns, and substitution types. To appear in Communication Disorders Quarterly. Published online June 14, 2017, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1525740117712205.)
Rochelle Newman is Chair of the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences, as well as Associate Director of the Maryland Language Science Center. She helped found the UMD Infant & Child Studies Consortium and the University of Maryland Autism Research Consortium. She is interested in how the brain recognizes words from fluent speech, especially in the context of noise, and how this ability changes with development.