[Overton]On the Tip of My Tongue

 Word Retrieval: What It Is and How It Can Be Improved


By:  Valerie Johnston, MS, CCC-SLP

Basic Information:


Word retrieval, or word finding, is the ability to recall words that are already known and stored in long-term memory.   In order to retrieve a word from long-term memory several things have to occur almost simultaneously.  First, the concept that matches the idea to be expressed must be selected from storage.  Next, the word for this concept must be retrieved from long-term memory.  And, finally, the word must be spoken.


There are several factors that affect the ability to retrieve words and concepts from long-term memory.  How well the words are organized and stored in memory and the efficiency of the retrieval mechanism both affect the ability to recall a particular word.  In addition, mental, physical and emotional states influence the ability to recall words. 


Amazingly, word retrieval occurs very rapidly and efficiently in most speakers.  However, many children and adults with language disorders have difficulty with this aspect of language.   Some common behaviors that are signs of word retrieval difficulties include using vague words (stuff, thing, etc.), describing or giving the function of the word, and repeating words or phrases when relating an experience.  For a more complete list of behaviors that are indicative of word finding difficulties go to Word Finding Checklist.


Strategies that Help Word Retrieval:


There are many things that can be done to improve word retrieval skills.   The techniques that are used are divided into two major groups: 


·         Strategies that assist organization and storage

·         Strategies that assist retrieval


When a word retrieval problem occurs in a child, parents are an important part of providing practice on these strategies.  As you work with your child, remember that the overall goal is to help him retrieve words that he knows, not to develop vocabulary by teaching new words.   Since all children are different, you will need to adapt the tasks to suit the ability level of your child.  A high level of success will encourage cooperation, motivation and self-confidence.


Strategies that Assist Organization and Storage:


Organizing words by common features and expanding the number of features known about each individual word strengthens the accuracy and rapidity of word recall.   The following strategies use these principles and can be used with your child to improve his word finding abilities both informally as you go about your daily routines and in structured activities.




The ability to categorize assists word recall by organizing words into groups based on shared characteristics.   Many of the activities that follow require your child to list things that belong in specific categories.  For example, you might ask your child to name things that fly, bugs, fruits, musical instruments, etc. 


As an alternative activity, you can present a set of pictures and have your child name them.  After he names them have him group them into appropriate categories.  Have him explain why he grouped them the way he did.  Encourage flexibility of thinking by finding multiple ways to classify, or group, the same set of objects.  For example, if you have a bird, a turtle, a fish, a rowboat, a canoe, an airplane and a helicopter, they can be grouped in several different ways (things that fly, things that go in the water, animals, and vehicles).  After grouping them one way, encourage your child to talk about different ways the items could be grouped and explain why the items go together.


More Activities to Develop Categorization (adapted from Bowen, 1998):


·         Play word-classification games – Have your child think of as many items in a category as he can.  Some suggestions for categories to use follow:


            tools                                        toys

            games                                    animals

            drinks                                     fruits

            movies                                   types of cars

            sports                                     clothes

            flowers                                   colors

            vehicles                                 things with wheels

            things made of wood           things that smell


·         Play "name the category" – “red, blue, green, orange and pink are all ...", "lions, tigers, monkeys and elephants are all ...”     


·         Play "pick the word that does not belong" – “Which one is doesn’t go with the others:  cat, dog, tree, mouse?”  Have your child explain the reason for his choice.


·         Play "which two words go together?" – “watch, pig, nail, clock".  Again, have your child explain the reason for his choice.


Word Association/Elaboration

This strategy facilitates word recall by helping your child identify important features, or attributes, of words.  There are many attributes that can be used to describe words.  Some of these include color, size, shape, and parts (visual aspects), where you typically find the object (location), what the object does, or what you can do with it (function), what the object is made of (composition), and things that are associated with the object (associations).


One way to help your child learn how to use this strategy is to give him practice describing specific items.  For example, for bird, your child might say, “It has feathers and wings. It flies.  It lives in a nest and eats bugs and worms.”


You can easily turn this into a fun activity by playing a guessing game in which you describe an object and your child guesses and then your child describes an object and you guess.  You might need to have pictures available to help your child think of something to describe.   If you use pictures, have your child turn the picture face down before he begins to describe it.  Also, make sure your child gives clues from a wide variety of features, not just the same ones over and over.


More Activities to Develop Word Association (adapted from Bowen, 1998):


·         Play sentence completion games – “A house is a place to live. An office is a place to ...", "A nursery is a place to buy plants.   A Post Office

is a place to buy ..."


·         Play games involving synonyms – “Can you think of another word that means big?" "Can you tell me another word for smart?"


·         Play games that require changing of one part of speech to another:


Today I am riding, yesterday I ... (rode)

Yesterday I rode, tomorrow I will ... (ride)


·         Play word-association games – “pilot goes with... (plane, airport, etc.)”, “ship goes with... (sailor, anchor, etc.)”  Accept any reasonable response.         


·         Play games that involve similarities – “How are a sheep and a cow the same/alike?"   "A train and a plane are both..."


·         Play games that involve antonyms:


a.    Sentence completion activities – “The opposite of hot is ..."

b.    Question-and-answer format – “What is the opposite of hot?"

c.    Confrontation naming tasks – use pictures of opposites and have your child name them as rapidly as he can (hot/cold, wet/dry, big/little, fast/slow, deep/shallow, apart/together)

d.    Say a sentence and have your child say the same sentence using the opposite of the word you used:


                         Adult: I live in a little house.            Child: I live in a big house.

                         Adult: I love cauliflower.                  Child: I hate cauliflower.

                         Adult: I broke the ladder.                  Child: I fixed the ladder.

                         Adult: My car is old.                          Child: My car is new.


·         Play word games that involve differences – “What is different about a bird and a plane?"


·         Play "What comes next?" – “Monday Tuesday Wednesday ...”,   “Twinkle, twinkle little ...”


·         Play guessing games – “I’m thinking of something in this room that makes toast.  What is it?”  When doing this, use a wide variety of attributes, or features, for your hints.


·         Play 20 questions – “I’m thinking of an animal.”   Have your child ask questions such as:  “Is it big? Is it brown? Does it live in the jungle?”  Encourage him to ask questions from a wide variety of attributes (color, function, location, etc.).


Strategies that Assist Retrieval:


After your child has tried unsuccessfully to find a word, presenting retrieval cues may help.  The following types of cues can be practiced in structured activities and then used to facilitate recall and retrieval from long-term memory.


Phonetic (Sound) Cues:


·         Say the beginning sound (not the letter name) of the intended word – say “m” to elicit the word "man"


·         Say the beginning syl­lables of an intended word that has more than one syllable – say "hippo" to elicit the word "hippopotamus"


·         Give a rhyming word cue – say "It rhymes with sing" to fac­ilitate the recall of "ring"


·         Show the position of the articulators for the beginning sound of the intended word – purse the lips for the “sh” sound to elicit the word "shoe"


Associative-Semantic (Meaning) Class Cues:


·         Use antonyms to facilitate retrieval of their direct opposites – say "The opposite of day is …” to elicit "night"


·         Use synonyms as cue words – say "Another word for lady is ” to elicit the word "woman"


·         Use an associated word which belongs to the same category – say "Bread and …” to elicit the word "butter"


·         Use the name of a category – say “It's a building," "It's a fruit," or "It's an insect" to elicit the target word


·         State a function of the word – say "You eat it for dinner" or “You can use it to fix things" to elicit the target word 


·         Use serial cueing – recite part of a well-established series such as "Tuesday, Wednesday …" to elicit "Thursday”


Sentence Completion:


·         Use sentence completion with a well-known and established sen­tence pattern – say "We decorated the …" to elicit target words such as "cake" or "tree"


·         Use a nursery rhyme completion – say “Jack and Jill went up the …" to elicit the word "hill"


·         Present a metaphor or a simile – say "as white as …" to elicit the word "snow”


·         Use proverb cueing – say "All that glitters is not …" to elicit "gold"


Melodic-Stress Cueing:


·         Sing or hum a well-known tune to elicit a specific word, number, or letter.  For example, hum the alphabet song through the letter “f” to elicit “g”.


·         Tap the syllabic stress pattern of a polysyllabic word.  For example, tap __ __ ______ __ __ to elicit the word "hippopotamus".


Multiple-Choice Cueing:


·         Provide multiple choices for cueing – say "Is it a house, a tree, or a chair?" to elicit the word "tree".  Have the word your child is trying to retrieve in the middle of these choices.



Ways to Help your Child Retrieve Words in his Everyday Life:


There are many ways to help your child retrieve words in his everyday life.  Above all, give your child time to think, but not so long that he is struggling to find the word. Rather than letting him persist unsuccessfully, give him cues to assist retrieval or tell him the answer.  Go on with your conversation or activity, but try to come back to the difficult word again.


When providing cues for your child, use a minimum of visual cues at first. If the word to be retrieved does not come easily, provide an auditory cue (say the first sound or syllable of the word) or a verbal clue ("it rhymes with...").   If auditory cues are not working provide more scaffolding with written sounds or words, and pictures.


More Ways to Help Your Child Retrieve Words in Daily Routines (adapted from Bowen, 1998):


·         Use a slower rate of speaking.  This encourages your child to speak more slowly, which makes it easier for him to retrieve words.


·         Avoid interrupting and filling in the word.  This could contribute to increased frustration.


·         Help to reduce your child's frustration with communication attempts by:


a.    Asking association producing questions – “Is it something you eat?" "Is it yellow?" "Do you eat it for breakfast?"

b.    Giving choices with the sought after word embedded in the middle – "Do you want chicken, an egg or a hot dog?"

c.    Accepting strategies your child is already using.  For example, giving functional descriptions for words which are not readily retrieved.  If your child says, "It's something you write with", you could say, “Yes, you're right. You write with a pencil."  This response accepts his use of the strategy and also provides the target word.


·         Talk a lot about words and their attributes (size, shape, function, place, taste, category, etc.)


·         Talk about words and word-meanings.  As natural opportunities arise talk about such topics as "Why is Big Bird called Big Bird?" Talk about people being named after other people. Talk about why certain names might have been chosen for pets and TV characters (Cookie Monster, Rugrats, Inspector Gadget, Uncle Scrooge, The Fat Controller, etc). Try to work these conversations in around topics of genuine interest to the child.


·         Read, read, read, and read!  Here are some suggestions:


Books by Dr Seuss

Books that rhyme, including silly rhymes

Books about opposites

Books about word classification (vehicles, tools, occupations, etc.)      

Books about animals and their young – talk about the names for animals' offspring (horses have foals, cows have calves, etc.), and the

            correct names for some common animals according to gender (horse: mare, stallion, filly, colt)

Books about names

Books that contain high repetition of the same word

Books that tell a story

Books that have riddles and jokes


·         Incorporate sentence completion tasks into story reading.  When you read with your child, leave out words for him to fill in.  These words should be obvious from the context of what you are reading.


·         Talk with your child about his difficulty in a low key accepting way.  "It's okay if you can’t think of it.  Sometimes I can't remember names."


·         Play games which exercise word storage and retrieval skills (see previous sections for some suggestions). 


·         Build your child's vocabulary.  The more alternatives he has the less frustrated he will be when he cannot retrieve a specific word.





Word retrieval abilities can be improved with use of the above strategies.  Some of the strategies will be more successful than others for your child.  Each child is different, so watch carefully as you work with him and observe which strategies seem to help him the most.  Then focus your attention on developing these strategies. 


If you are in a situation with your child and he is having difficulty retrieving a word, try using some of the strategies that work for him as cues before supplying the word.  This will help him learn how to use the strategies to cue himself, which is the end goal.  If your child does not automatically begin to cue himself with the strategies, encourage him to use them by asking, “What can you do to get to the word you want to say?  What strategies/cues can you use?” 


Teach your child to be his own advocate.  He needs to let his listeners know that he knows the word, but just can’t retrieve it at the moment.  This means that instead of saying “I don’t know”, he should something like, “I know what it is, I just can’t remember the word for it.”  He might even go on to tell some of the things he knows about the word.  Doing this also helps your child continue to the search for the word.  Once a person says “I don’t know” the use of all strategies stops.  This is okay sometimes, but in order to develop improved word retrieval, the strategies that are effective for your child need to be practiced many times.



Final Thoughts:


A child’s word retrieval difficulties can be very frustrating for parents, too.  Try to hide your frustration from your child as much as possible.  Talk with him in a matter-of-fact way about his difficulty with word retrieval and help him learn how to deal with it effectively.  Parents set the stage for how children feel about themselves and their problems.  If you are low-key and accepting of the problem, they usually will be, too.



For more information on word retrieval difficulties visit these websites:








Bowen, C. (1998). Stuck for words? Word retrieval activities for children. Retrieved from http://www.speech-language-therapy.com/wordretrieval.html on 9-24-10.


Hill, D. (1995).  Seminar on Word Retrieval Disorders.  Northwestern University.


Krassowski, E. (2001). Word Joggers: Exercises for Semantics and Word Retrieval.  Thinking Publications.


Williamson, G. and Shields, S. (1999).  Rocky’s Mountain: A Word-Finding Game.  LinguiSystems. 

If you have questions or need more information you can contact me at:

Overton Speech & Language Center, Inc.
Fort Worth, TX
(817) 294-8408


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Copyright © 2001-2010 Overton Speech & Language Center, Inc.
Last revised: November 10, 2010