Headstart for Life

Talking in Circles: Difficulties with Word Finding

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.


How do I know if my child has word retrieval difficulties?

Your child may have word retrieval difficulties if they often:

  1. Use long, confusing sentences where they talk around the word or attempt to explain the word they cannot find (e.g. “the thing to cut the paper“)
  2. Use non-specific vocabulary (e.g. “that thing” or “that one“)
  3. Use “filler” words (e.g. “uh”, “um”, “like”)
  4. Take long pauses in their speech, or long pauses before answering questions
  5. Lack “content” words (e.g. saying “I found it in there” instead of “I found the book in the kitchen.”)
  6. Use word substitutions that sound similar to the word they are looking for (e.g. “hair” for “chair“), or mean something similar (e.g. “spoon” for “fork“)
  7. Demonstrate difficulty recalling names, addresses, dates, or other specific facts

If you notice several of these indicators in your child’s speech, he or she may have word finding difficulties.

Why do word finding difficulties occur?

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.

word finding chart

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.

How can I help my child?

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:

  1. Naming categories: Have your child list as many things as possible from a given category. Start with broad, general categories (e.g. food, animals, shapes) and narrow them down as your child becomes more familiar with the game (e.g. things you can wash, famous female singers, boy names that start with J). Games like five second rule are great for this.
  2. List things needed to complete a task: Similar to the first activity, have your child list all the items you will need in order to complete a task like an art project, or making a cup of milo.
  3. Antonyms and synonyms: Choose a word, then name its opposite, as well as a word that has a similar meaning. To make it more challenging, try to come up with more than one antonym and synonym for each word.
  4. Fill in the blank: Say a familiar phrase but do not complete the final word, and have your child complete the phrase for you (e.g. birds of a _______). You can also do this activity with familiar songs.
  5. Similarities and differences: Choose two words in the same category and describe their similarities and differences to strengthen word associations.
  6. Visualising words: Practice picturing words and describing your mental picture to each other, then guess what the other person is describing.
  7. Encourage self-prompting: You can ask a variety of questions to help your child cue themselves to finding different pathways to the word they are searching for
    • “What is the opposite of the word?”
    • “What sound does it start with?”
    • “Where can I find it?”
    • “Can you describe it?”
    • “Let’s try writing it down or drawing it.”



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/

"All the information on this site is for educational purposes only and does not replace the assessment and intervention of a registered speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist or any other medical or education professional."

About Natalie

Natalie has always been passionate about language and working with children, and finds nothing more rewarding than helping a child communicate successfully with the world around them. In her spare time, she indulges in superhero movies and musical theatre.

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