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What’s in a Word?

Published January 30th, 2023 by Jacqueline Chin

Blog author: Miriam Fruchter


If you google the meaning of a word, you will find the following: A word is made up of a speech sound or a combination of sounds and can be represented in writing. It symbolizes and communicates a meaning and may consist of a single morpheme (smallest unit of meaning) or a combination of morphemes.

What this means is that a child needs to make the connection that each word represents something different and is referring to a specific object or item. The child then needs to learn to produce the sound(s) to correctly form that word. In fact, it seems we take for granted the fact that a typically developing child early on starts to understand the meaning of words familiar to them. This understanding of words tends to be followed by the ability to acquire sounds necessary to produce these words correctly, which usually occurs naturally without any intervention or assistance.


What’s in a Name?

There is a line in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.” Shakespeare is referring to the idea that the naming of things is irrelevant and that names themselves do not have any worth or meaning.

This is not true though for the words that we use and produce. Each word has a designated meaning and takes on a particular meaning by the sounds that make up that word. So how do we take each word less for granted? What can we do to help those children have an easier time with both understanding and producing new words? How do we teach a child to make the connection between a word and its meaning? How do we teach a child to produce the sound(s) that make up each word and make it unique from another word?

First and foremost, we need to create meaning between an object and its name. This might not come as easily to some children as others. A child may not comprehend a word based on just hearing its name. As parents, educators, and therapists, we need to look at the other modalities used to teach a child: vision, touch, and kinesthetics.


Creating Connections between a Word and Its Meaning

Can a child learn more about a word by looking at the object while also hearing its name at the same time? What happens when the child is given this object to touch and feel while its name is modeled for them? What about incorporating movement while teaching a child a new word or object label?

As a speech-language pathologist, these are all areas we look at when attempting to create a connection between a word and its meaning. For instance, while teaching action words to a child having difficulty understanding these verbs, try using play doh and modeling both the action and words for: roll, push, pull, cut, pat.... Similarly, you can teach the adjectives "BIG" and "little" by having a container of both big and little animals and having the child sort these animals by size by repeating big or little each time. When it comes to teaching colors, they come more to life when introduced through dot paints and colorful tissue paper activities than just simply as the names of different crayons.

It’s also important to keep in mind that many “children learn new words by hearing them in a meaningful context, such as through a story’s illustrations and pictures or through a speaker’s gestures. Reading to and with children and engaging them in conversations are great ways to build their vocabularies.”
(NAEYC: 8 Creative Ideas to Help Your Child Learn New Words” by Vicky Bowman)


By now, we’ve established a few ways to create the connection between a word and its meaning. Before we move on, here are a few more ideas:

  • Label items in your child’s environment
  • Narrate your child’s play activities (“Oh look Mickey is driving the red car...beep beep”)
  • Tell stories using puppets
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat, and then repeat some more
  • Use picture books
  • Use visuals such as flashcards or memory games
  • Create show and tell activities


Once your child is, hopefully, having an easier time understanding more familiar words, you want to move on to having your child correctly produce these words as well. Here is a simple way to teach your child to approximate/produce words:

  • MODEL one word at a time while engaging your child in a favorite activity. For instance, give a ball to your child each time you say the word “ball”. Try using a ball sorter and tapping your child’s closed lips to feel the “B” sound in order to produce it.
  • WAIT for a response- this can be difficult and frustrating, but children sometimes need time to process what has been said to them, differentiate between other words, and rehearse how to say the word. You may even need to go back and MODEL the word again!
  • REINFORCE your child’s attempts at producing a word (even if it sounds nothing like a word at all). This tends to motivate a child to attempt again and again!


“A child must know that he is a miracle, that since the beginning of the world there hasn’t been, and until the end of the world, there will not be another child like him.”
- Pablo Casals

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