Welcome back Headstart readers!
We are all familiar with the “tip-of-the-tongue” phenomenon: it’s that frustrating feeling you get when you’re in the middle of a conversation or a thought, or even writing an email, and can’t quite think of the right word. You’re sure you know the word, and that you’ve used it before, but you’re unable to retrieve it. In that moment, you’re experiencing what speech-language pathologists call word retrieval, or word finding, difficulties. As with adults, occasional word retrieval difficulties are typical for all children, but when it is a persistent, recurring issue, it can have a large impact on their ability to communicate with others.
This week, we will be talking about how these difficulties may present in your child, why they occur, and activities you can do at home to help.
Your child may have word retrieval difficulties if they often:
If you notice several of these indicators in your child’s speech, he or she may have word finding difficulties.
Word retrieval difficulties are not necessarily a reflection of intelligence or poor vocabulary. In fact, there are many possible causes for word finding issues, such as traumatic head injury or ADHD. This is compounded by the fact that word retrieval in itself involves a fairly complex process.
Figuring out the basic idea of what you want to say. For example, if you see a picture a bright blue bicycle in your mind, you now need to find the word “bicycle” in your brain’s dictionary, also called the lexicon.
Our lexicon functions like a library that holds tens of thousands of books. In order to locate the right books in a library, we use various systems to help us remember where they are stored. For example, we could think about the alphabetical title of the book, its genre, the author’s last name, or the call number on the book. The more systems we have to locate the book, the faster it will be to find.
Our lexicon functions in a similar way. The better organised our word storage is, and the stronger and more connected each word is to other words, the easier it is to retrieve. For example, it is easier to retrieve the word bicycle if the word is also connected to associated words like ride, vehicle, or cycle. Each association becomes a pathway, or a system, to finding the word bicycle.
Even after you have located the word in your lexicon, the brain’s work is not done. It must now connect bicycle to the part of your brain that tells you how the word sounds, so you can produce it accurately.
A breakdown at any point in this process could lead to mispronounced words (like bicylel), long pauses, word substitutions (like scooter). Stress, anxiety and sleep deprivation can further compound the issue.
Communication breakdowns caused by word retrieval difficulties can be frustrating for both the child’s communication partners, as well as for the child. If you suspect your child has word finding difficulties, approach a speech-language therapist at Headstart for Life or any speech therapy centre for an evaluation.
You can also practice word finding skills with your child in your own home! Here are 7 activities you can incorporate into your daily routine without too much extra fuss:
German, D.J., (2001). It’s on the Tip of My Tongue. Chicago: Word Finding Materials, Inc.
Johnson, K. (2019). Why is my child having trouble finding the right word to say? Retrieved from https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/issues-involving-spoken-language/why-is-my-child-having-trouble-finding-the-right-word-to-say
Speech-therapy-on-video.com. (2006). Word retrieval strategies. Retrieved from http://www.speech-therapy-on-video.com/wordretrieval.html
The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne. (2010, November). Word finding difficulties. Retrieved from https://www.rch.org.au/kidsinfo/fact_sheets/Wordfinding_difficulties/