Filling the Word Bucket

There is one tidbit of research from graduate school that I think of almost every single day when working with Birth to 3 families during early speech-language intervention:

A child's vocabulary is a direct result of how many words he/she hears.

My Thanksgiving holiday "educational opportunities" for my children.

Here is a bevy of activities we scrunched into our Thanksgiving holiday. My 2, 5, and 8 year olds interacted with other children, adult family, went on hikes, ran a race, played basketball and volleyball, saw fireworks, met Frosty the Snowman, went on a cruise to the North Pole to meet Santa, had a bonfire, and went on more nature walks. All of these activities I consider "educational opportunities" to learn about the world and "vocabulary" around them. The trick is to be present and give feedback/answer questions during these activities to help them mature their understanding. This looks different for each age, but can be a simple task with joint attention and back-and-forth dialogue. I encourage you to "open the dialogue!"

This means that the more you talk to your child, the more they pick up. When they hear a word repeatedly, it eventually moves from "working memory," which is a bucket of words that is related to the task at hand and easily forgotten, to "short-term memory." When a word is used by the child and practiced in different contexts and in different ways, it eventually moves to "long-term memory," at which point the child is able to easily retrieve and manipulate the word with a greater understanding of its meanings and different ways to use the word.

There can be a few barriers to children transitioning words from one bucket to the next -- and finally to long-term memory. A few of these barriers include: hearing loss, chronic fluid-filled ears, poor attention, learning difficulty, and limited exposure. There are more, but we will examine these issues here.

Hearing loss: I like to recommend moderately to severely delayed speech or language acquisition kids to have a full audiological evaluation to rule out hearing loss-related speech-language delay. This is a good step to get our ducks in a row for maximally beneficial speech-language intervention. This is to make sure that we are going to make progress when we "up the input."

Fluid filled ears: When children's hearing is evaluated, the audiologist may identify a flat tympanogram or a rigid tympanic membrane (eardrum). The ear drum is meant to be flexible and move with sound to initiate a series of "hammer" bones that move in our ear to relay sound waves into our cochlea (where tiny little hairs identify frequencies of sound and send the message up our auditory nerve to our brain for decoding). When there is constantly fluid in the middle ear, the ear drum becomes still and does not move like it should to allow sound to move through the designated pathway. It is like listening to someone talking at you when your head his underwater. Not great input, right?

Poor attention: Attention is a big factor in children’s developing understanding of the world around us. Children learn language and meaning through "joint attention." This term refers to the time when both the caregiver/communication partner and the child are attending to the same action/object/picture and interacting with eye gaze back and forth between the item and the caregiver, talking about it, or gesturing around the subject. They are sharing some kind of information in real time about the same thing that they are both looking at together. When a child's attention is short and fleeting, they have difficulty taking in rich information about any one subject. Attention expands with time and development of a child's socialization interest and skill. This is a foundation to build speech and language.

Learning difficulty: Going back to our fact above that the more children hear words, the sooner they imitate them and practice them in different contexts with different purposes (requesting, commenting, rejecting, greeting, etc.). A child with learning difficulty for various reasons may need to hear words and practice imitating them more than other children in order to move them all the way over to their long-term memory. These are children who would benefit from learning a word in several different ways and in different environments. Just because the child says "cat" for the kitty that lives at his house doesn't mean he will automatically identify and label a feline at the store as "cat." On the same token, it is typical for children to "overgeneralize" initially learned words to several different objects, such as calling every animal a "dog."

Limited exposure: This factor brings the above mentioned needs full-circle. Exposure depends on the topics listed above. A child must have intact hearing, clear middle ears, joint attention, and communication partners (adults or children) that repeat words within different contexts over and over again. Each child has a bucket to fill until it spills over into independent speech. Each child's bucket is a different size. It is our job to fill their lexicon bucket (what they understand) until it becomes the vocabulary bucket (what they say or do to communicate). This happens through interactive and real-time feedback (not screen-time).

Tips on how to fill the Word Bucket:

1. Talk about what you are doing during routines.

This ensures the same words are being repeated on a weekly (grocery shopping), daily (bathtime), and tri-daily (mealtimes) schedules for filling the bucket of functional words.

2. Interact with your child!

This means doing something with joint attention. Screen time cannot substitute for interaction with you; however, there are creative ways that you can fit joint attention time into your day besides getting on the ground and playing with your child (although I definitely recommend this on the days you can find the time!). I give myself credit for joint attention times singing during bathtime, reading books during bedtime, going grocery shopping and playing "I spy," including my kids in meal prep, and homework help for sure. You don't have to feel guilty for having a limited schedule. Just get creative!

3. Give your child access to learning opportunities.

Learning opportunities are all around us. Besides routines and repetitive tasks, we can find learning opportunities at the library, on a nature hike, looking at and talking about books (which also helps increase attention time), talking about what we see while we are driving, self talk (talking about what we, the adults, are doing while we are doing the task), and parallel talk (talking about what the child is doing while they are performing a task).

Lauren Tandy, M.S., CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist and owns Tandy Therapy LLC. She specializes in early intervention and feeding/swallowing disorders. You may reach her at

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