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Building Word Power: Vocabulary Strategies for Learning Disabilities

written by: Stephanie Torreno • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 1/4/2012

Learning new vocabulary is essential in increasing reading fluency and understanding material. Vocabulary skills can be difficult, though, for students with learning disabilities without specific instruction. The following article offers successful vocabulary strategies for learning disabilities.

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    Expanding Vocabulary Through Instruction

    Building vocabulary involves more than knowing a definition of a word. It also includes understanding how a word should be used in language. Expanding word knowledge is an ongoing process that can never be completely mastered, since vocabulary should be learned throughout life.

    While indirect exposure can certainly help a student learn new words, students with learning disabilities particularly need additional assistance in increasing their vocabulary strategies. For learning disabilities, enriching vocabulary skills takes explicit instructional methods and specific teaching in word-learning strategies.

    Vocabulary instruction goes beyond merely guiding a student to look up an unfamiliar word in the dictionary and using it in a sentence. Instruction involves many direct and indirect vocabulary strategies for learning disabilities. These include decoding and listening to new words, using context clues to interpret meaning, creating a personal dictionary, and skipping words temporarily before interpreting meaning.

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    Strategies for Teaching New Vocabulary

    Isolating new words is often helpful in helping students with learning new vocabulary. List new vocabulary words that are contained in reading. Then, read the passage aloud and stop when one of the words on the list is encountered. Have the student decode the word himself after hearing it. Ask the student if the word sounds like other words he knows or parts if of the word suggest what it means. By hearing a new word and decoding it himself, the student is more likely to remember its definition.

    Teach students to use context clues to figure out the meaning of new words. Guide students to look at the words, phrases, and sentences around the unfamiliar word and see if these provide any clues to its meaning. Tell students to read for these types of clues: definition, synonym, antonym, example, and general. Ask if he can spot any of these clues, if they give an idea of meaning, and if he can suggest the definition. Warn students that while these clues can be helpful, they can sometimes also be misleading.

    For students who have difficulties remembering definitions, have them create a personalized dictionary. Help students by providing a list of new vocabulary words, or have them make their own list of unfamiliar words. Encourage dictionary use and ask them to write down the definitions and a sentence using the word. Younger students should include a drawing with the word when appropriate. Have students review their personalized dictionary periodically to reinforce learning.

    If students continually experience problems and frustration with new vocabulary, they should sometimes be allowed to read and simply skip words they cannot decode or read. Have students underline or write down words they do not know and continue reading. This allows them to complete the reading material without disrupting the flow of text. After they finish reading, they should use one of the above strategies to learn the new word’s definition.

    Finally, one of the best strategies for learning new vocabulary is to read. Having books read aloud to them and students reading independently enforces long-term vocabulary development. Extensive reading provides students with repeated exposure to words and allows students to see vocabulary in rich contexts. Structured time of reading aloud combined with independent reading opportunities at school and at home builds students’ knowledge of words.

    Source: Reading Rockets - Teaching Vocabulary by Linda Diamond and Linda Gutlohn, 2006.

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