“That thing”, “The stuff”, “Um”, “That place”, “You know….” Word Retrieval Difficulties in Children

There’s not always an obvious medical cause for word-finding problems. For children with a history of traumatic brain injury or a diagnosis of ADHD, word-retrieval difficulties are common. Sometimes we see word-finding problems in children with language disorders, problems with speech fluency (or stuttering) and learning issues like dyslexia. We also see that stress, anxiety and lack of sleep can make it even harder for children to find the words they want to say.

What is word retrieval?

When a child knows and understands a particular word, but has difficulty retrieving and using it in their speech. It can show up in a variety of manners and impact many academic and social areas. Children with word retrieval difficulties may:

-Have difficulty expressing their knowledge

-Appear not to know answers when asked a question

-Have challenges with daily communication

-Have word confusions such as efelant/elephant, aminal/animal

-Have impacted academics

-Have impacted social communication

-Have impacted self-esteem

-Over use words like; “stuff”, “thing”, “um”, “over there”, “that one”, “stuff” etc.

-Confuse words with close meanings such as fork/spoon, dish/bowl slide/swing

-Pause in speech a lot


How does word retrieval work?

Retrieving and using the correct word is a complex process in the brain. There are basically 2 storage systems; Semantic and Phonological. The Semantic system organizes words by their meaning. The Phonological system organizes words based on sounds. In order to use a word it must first be retrieved for storage in the brain and then used in expressive speech.


The Semantic System:

A breakdown in the semantic filing system will cause a breakdown between the meaning of the work and entry in the brain. This is typically seen with the ‘tip of your tongue’ issue. Commonly kids will substitute the wrong word; microscope/binoculars, or plate/cup


The Phonological System:

A breakdown in the phonological filing system is typically a weak link between the meaning and the speech (articulation) form of the word. This can be seen when kids confuse words such as efelant/elephant and kitchen/chicken.

Both systems need to work in synchrony together in order for a child to have fast, fluent, retrieval.


What can you do?

If you suspect your child has word retrieval difficulties you should speak to your child’s special education team at school, or seek more information from a licensed speech-language pathologist. Some strategies and activities that may be helpful for children with word retrieval difficulties include;

Semantic Strategies:

-Associations; category and naming games, improve the filing system with extensive categorical ‘word banks’

-Opposites; games that incorporate opposites, silly sentences, semantic absurdities that your child will need to recognize and correct



-Cloze tasks (fill in the blank): “fork and _______” , “coat and ________”, “peanut butter and ________” or “The elephant picked up the hay with his long _________”

-Multiple meaning words: 1. An elephant has a long trunk. 2. We put our groceries in the trunk of the car.



Phonemic Strategies:

-Initial sounds cues: When your child is trying to come up with a word, you can offer the first sound of the word to help them retrieve it. For example, if they are searching for the word ‘forest’, you can offer the /f/ sound.

-Rhyming cues: Helping your child out by offering a rhyme. For example, if they are searching for the word ‘lamp’ you could say “rhymes with ‘stamp’”


This video has many examples of word finding/retrieval difficulties and is just one example of activities that can be used to work on retrieval. This student previewed vocabulary for this topic, played some categorical and naming games, and then did this mock interview to work on retrieval in a fluent manner. Keeping things relaxed, fun, and engaging is always key to success.

Written by:

Joanne C. Hanson MS, CCC-SLP

Other Resources for Word Retrieval/Word Finding Difficulties:

Word Retrieval Resources for Language Therapy – Bilinguistics


Word Retrieval: 6 Activities to Improve It – Speech And Language Kids

https://www.speechandlanguagekids.com › Memory and Cognition › Word Retrieval

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).
10801 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Maryland 20852, 800-498-2071(301-897-5700),TTY, 301-571-0457, http://www.asha.org/

Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD). P.0. Box 21192, Columbus, OH 43221. (614) 488-4972, http://www.ahead.org