Imagine a boy in a classroom who regularly raises his hand to respond to questions, yet when called on hems and haws not knowing what to say. While he claims to have the answer, no one has time to wait for him to come up with it. Meanwhile, other students shout it out and the teacher wonders why he raised his hand in the first place.

One viable explanation for the boy’s actions comes from Judith O. Roman, M.A., CCC-SLP who is a clinical faculty member at Northwestern University’s Center for Audiology, Speech, Language, and Learning.

In this exclusive MultiBrief series, we turn to Roman, an expert in the field of pediatric speech and language pathology, who shares her experience in the area of expressive language.

Regarding the boy’s delayed response time, she explains that it may denote a word retrieval difficulty stemming from an expressive language challenge in the area of semantics.

Semantics is one of three main interacting components make up the framework used by SLPs like Roman to describe expressive language which roughly equate to "form-function-use." In our first article, we’ll explore the form component — semantics, the ability to create meaning using words.

How strong semantic skills benefit students

Strong semantic language skill helps us express ourselves clearly and meaningfully. Beginning at the word level, it affects our recalling the right word in the moment we need it.

"All of us have had times when we knew a word but couldn’t remember it," comments Roman. "There are also times when we wished we knew the right word for a concept we wanted to express but didn’t have a word."

"The better a person’s semantic skill, the better that person is at quickly calling up words that best fit a message and a speaking situation," she explains.

On the other hand, when students don’t readily recall words they often rely on vague nonspecific language, making them sound less educated or less sophisticated. More importantly, their message can be hard to understand.

"When an individual talks about ‘that guy over there’ or the ‘thing-a-ma-jig’ or ‘that stuff from last week,’ a listener can end up trying to figure out ‘which guy?’ instead of listening to the remainder of the message and may never fully grasp what the speaker was trying to get across."

At the macro level, semantic skill affects a student’s ability to convey a message with a clear main idea, intuitively knowing how much detail to include to build the story as well as when and how to end the narrative.

How speech-language pathologists work with semantics

With a colorful analogy that brings to mind an octopus, Roman sheds light on the facts behind how her profession addresses semantics.

"SLPs have found that the more richly a word is encoded, the easier it is to recall," explains Roman. "If a word has a strong meaning behind it in a person’s lexicon, it becomes easier to get to — in essence, more tentacles stick out from it to grab onto later, creating a more efficient filing system."

Evidence links the difficulty some people experience in learning and recalling words with a difficulty in effectively creating deep meaning, preventing those words from getting filed correctly for later access. The SLP works to help these individuals develop their ability to group words, describe words, and compare and contrast meanings of words.

"When someone is better able to relate words to each other whether with visuals, in categories, similarities, or in opposites, they find it easier to remember the words. The more we can help people understand ways to organize words and to file them with rich meanings — many tentacles — the easier it is to get to those words later," she adds.

On the message level, SLPs guide students in highlighting the main ideas of a story or report; sorting out relevant and irrelevant details; identifying when enough has been said and knowing how to signal the end of a story. In this way, the meaning of the intended message becomes central and clear.

How to identify semantically challenged students

Semantic challenges can impinge upon student success within and outside the classroom, affecting effective communication, being understood and even reading ability. Fortunately, red flags indicating a need for testing are fairly easy to spot.

Roman recommends watching for children who rely heavily on vague language such as stuff, thing, you know what I mean. Other red flags that a student may need testing are students who pause to think of words or regularly use fillers like "ummm" while speaking. They may also use the wrong words, especially simple words like saying apple instead of orange or science instead of math.

"One of the biggest ways that people let on that they have a word finding difficulty is that they frequently say they know a word but cannot think of it," says Roman.

A challenge with semantics can be reflected on the word level, the message level or both. Look for students who regularly go on and on without ever getting to the point, lose their train of thought or give generalities without any specific detail. Their writing may meander for pages without a unifying theme or their journal entries end mid-story.

While teachers have a wealth of resources for helping children learn, there are cases when intervention is necessary. About 10 percent of all children qualify for speech and language therapy for some reason, says Roman.

"When a child consistently has difficulty recalling words for speaking or writing; says that words are difficult to remember; tells people that thinking of words or creating stories is too hard — a referral to an SLP is warranted," she advises.

Tools to aid learning in the classroom

Tools that Roman sees as helpful to learners who have challenges with semantics are word maps, word banks, templates and graphic organizers.

Students can work together to create word maps that show connections with other words. This allows for a deeper understanding of vocabulary than word lists do. A word map in front of a student — like the boy mentioned at the beginning of the article — is a great aid in recalling words.

Similarly, word banks can help students recognize words rather than have to recall them, but should always include foils so the task remains a true representation of word knowledge.

"Word banks ought to alleviate difficulty for kids who say, ‘I know it but I can’t think of it right now,’" explains Roman. "If they do know the word, they will recognize it when they see it."

At a macrostructural level, she adds that templates, graphic organizers and guidelines for story construction help students produce a coherent message. A structured outline aids them in remembering their story. They can rank-order details in an outline, and then decide how many of the details can fit within a page limit or template box.

Although a teacher may initially gear such aids to a child who shows difficulty with semantics, these tools will deepen and enrich all students’ understanding of words and the process behind storytelling.