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Using Socially Interactive Word Play to Teach Vocabulary for Literacy - June 2009

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Using Socially Interactive Word Play to Teach Vocabulary for Literacy

By: Kristin Edmonds, MM MA CCC-SLP

Socially interactive word play is a key tool for teaching literate vocabulary, not only because it helps develop word consciousness,1 but because it uses multiple modalities and applies vocabulary in a social setting. Face to face conversational interaction during word play has advantages not found in non-social activities and is useful for small group and/or large classroom instruction. While individual study with books and computer-based vocabulary learning tools can be beneficial in the acquisition of vocabulary, it is important to strike a balance between individual study and collaborative learning activities.


Recent research suggests that face-to-face social learning is extremely powerful, because it takes advantage of the benefits of mirror neurons in the parts of the brain involved in speech and language production.2 As an adjunct to classroom instruction, activities which stimulate playful conversation and interaction are beneficial for the application and generalization of newly acquired language and vocabulary skills. Socially interactive word play with teachers and other adults helps students engage in lively and often humorous discussions about words. These discussions with knowledgeable people expand vocabulary knowledge, and provide exposure to advanced oral vocabulary. This is important because limited oral vocabulary has been known to place an upper limit on reading vocabulary.3

Socially interactive word games with peers, where students generate their own definitions, words and discussions help relate the foreign language, slang, or dialect words students already use to new literate vocabulary words taught by a therapist or teacher. This incorporates the student’s prior semantic and phonological knowledge, which is beneficial to new word learning.4,5 Some studies have shown that children make more progress in formal language enrichment programs when they are also involved in free play with peers. 6 Word play combines the benefits of unstructured peer interaction with the advantages of evidence-based vocabulary training techniques to enhance literate vocabulary.

To be most effective teaching vocabulary through play, speech pathologists and educators should find a variety of socially interactive word play activities in which they can use the same targeted words with different people and in different ways. When newly acquired words are used repeatedly in different contexts, there is a greater likelihood that generalization of learning will occur.7 With some creativity, the word play activities which children normally do on an individual basis can be modified to make the play collaborative and socially interactive. One example might be multiple teams racing to see which can be first to complete the same crossword puzzle containing targeted words and their definitions. Another example would be having teams compete to be first to correctly finish the same word-find activity with targeted vocabulary words and their definitions. Socially interactive games that specifically revolve around vocabulary are available for purchase.


When looking for word play activities which enhance literate vocabulary, it is important to find games that incorporate evidence-based vocabulary teaching techniques, or which can be modified to incorporate such techniques, including:
  • Targeting vocabulary that will have the most benefits for reading comprehension
  • Teaching words through multiple modalities
  • Teaching the meanings of word roots and word parts
  • Categorizing words
  • Relating new words to synonyms and antonyms
  • Repeatedly exposing the student to a new word

Targeting Words that Help Literacy

Studies have shown that certain types of vocabulary words—such as high frequency and conceptual words—affect reading comprehension more positively than other types do. High frequency words are those which are most commonly seen in print, such as newspapers. High frequency word lists, which are easily obtained, contain words that many students will find familiar from everyday conversation, but others that may be very unfamiliar. It is a good idea to use some known words along with novel words during word play in order to allow students to feel successful.

Teachers and speech pathologists should target conceptual vocabulary for direct instruction during word play. Learning many concept words helps reading comprehension more than learning many object labels does.8 One way of targeting unfamiliar conceptual vocabulary for word play is to choose words that you know will appear in school text assignments. Students will have to be directly taught many Tier 2 (higher level concept words) and subject specific Tier 3 words in order to comprehend them in academic texts.

Teaching through Multiple Modalities

Learning through multiple modalities facilitates acquisition of new literate vocabulary words. It is helpful to use a variety of word play games that present opportunities to see, hear, speak and write each new word. The greater the number of modalities used for processing information during word play, the more elaborate will be the memory encoding and the more likely the word will be retained. Multiple modality teaching is especially important to learners for whom only one or two modalities are strengths.

Teaching Word Roots and Word Parts

Learning word roots helps a student’s ability to independently decode new vocabulary.9 More than half of the words in English are from Greek or Latin origins. Learning how prefixes and suffixes change meaning can help children interpret the meanings of words when encountering them for the first time in text.10 There exist interactive card games which teach children Greek and Latin word roots, and others which require students to add and remove prefixes and suffixes to create antonyms for words.

Categorizing Words

Organizing words and concepts by categories facilitates comprehension, memory and retrieval.11 There are numerous word games which are based upon divergent and convergent naming tasks. These games can be adapted with the vocabulary that a speech pathologist or classroom teacher chooses to use. One example might be naming all of the units of measurement used in a science class. Another might be naming all of the land forms that appear in a geography book chapter.

Relating Words to Synonyms and Antonyms

Word play games can require players to relate words to their synonyms and antonyms, which is another way of organizing concepts to provide a memory scaffold for newly learned words. Concepts are clarified as “the use of opposition (antonyms) in defining terms helps to establish the extremes of a word’s meaning. Synonym production is improved by antonym production.”12 Educational goals for using reference materials, such as thesauruses and dictionaries, can be included in synonym and antonym naming games. These activities also help students to become independent learners of literate vocabulary during reading tasks.

Repeated Exposure to Each New Word

Children need frequent encounters with a word before they move from being acquainted with the word to actually knowing it.13 As socially interactive word play is designed to be fun, it is likely to be repeated. Children often do not realize that they are performing drills when they participate in word games. In card games where the decks are shuffled and words reappear periodically, repeated exposure to vocabulary occurs. Other games involve repeated quizzing, which is also a powerful learning tool.14


Speech pathologists in the school setting can help children be successful, fluent readers by using socially interactive word play to teach and reinforce the types of vocabulary most important to reading comprehension. The word play activities for enhancing literate vocabulary are those that incorporate multiple evidence-based vocabulary teaching techniques. Games can be used in pull-out therapy sessions or as interventions within the classroom. Socially interactive word play which is enjoyable is likely to be repeated by children independently at home with adults and with peers. This helps ensure generalization of new word knowledge.

  1. Stahl, S.A. (1999). Vocabulary development. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.
  2. Buccino, G., Binkofksi, F., & Riggio, L. (2004). Brain and Language, May 2004, 89 (2), 370-376.
  3. Blachowicz, C. & Fisher, P. (2004). Vocabulary lessons. Educational Leadership, 61(6), p67.
  4. Graves, M.F. (2006). The vocabulary book: Learning and Instruction. New York: Teacher’s College Press; Newark, DE: International Reading Association; and Urban, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
  5. Hoover, J.R. & Storkel, H.L. (2005). Understanding word learning by preschool children: Insights from multiple tasks, stimulus characteristics, and error analysis. Perspectives on Language Learning and Education, 12 (3), 8-12.
  6. Gillam, R. (2006). Email interview discussing the unpublished results of the Comparison of Language Intervention Programs.
  7. Armbruster, B.B. & Osborn, J. (2001). Put reading first: The research building blocks for teaching children to read: Kindergarten through grade 3. Jessup, MD: National Institute for Literacy.
  8. Frey, N & Fisher, D. (2007). Reading for information in elementary school. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson.
  9. 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: Reports of the subgroups (NIH Publication No. 00-4754). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  10. See footnote 4.
  11. Roth, F.P. & Troia, G.A. (2005). Vocabulary instruction for children and adolescents with oral language and literacy deficits. Paper presented at the 2005 Council for Exceptional Children Annual Convention, April 8, 2005, Baltimore, MD.
  12. Powell, W.P. (1986). Teaching vocabulary through opposition. Journal of Reading, 29, 623-633.
  13. See footnote 7.
  14. Roediger, H.L. & Karpicke J.D. (2008). The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning. Science, 319 (5865) 966-968.

This Month's Featured Author: Kristin Edmonds, M.M., M.A. CCC-SLP

Kristin Edmonds, M.M., M.A. CCC-SLP is a speech pathologist in Saint Louis, MO. She is President of Mindfull Corporation, which she co-founded with her father, Dr. Robert W. Edmonds, M.D., F.A.A.P., Professor of Neurodevelopmental Pediatrics Emeritus at Washington University. Mindfull Corporation develops evidence-based games for vocabulary, language and literacy and sells them through Mindfull Games

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Tags: June 2009 Newsletter SLP Literacy OT Vocabulary Article Word Finding