Methods for teaching vocabulary to students with Learning Disabilities

Methods for teaching vocabulary to students with Learning Disabilities

The average student learns between 2000 and 4000 new words each year. That is approximately 40-50 new words each week! Students with learning disabilities will learn less each year than their peers due to the struggles they face in reading, writing and memory processing while learning. With these learning challenges in mind, teachers and parents will need to provide a range of experiences with new vocabulary so that students with learning disabilities can learn just as many new words as their peers in meaningful ways.

Learning a new word can actually create an interest and an excitement in many students. The focus should be on providing a meaningful explanation of the new word with multiple examples provided by the teacher and parent.

Although many strategies are effective for students with varying abilities, the following methods work best:

1. Present the word in the context of the story or text from which the word was selected.

2. Ask students to repeat and write the word.

3. Provide a “student-friendly” explanation of the word by using every day language that the student can understand and connect with.

4. Personalize the word to the student that includes references to “you,” “something,” and “someone” to help the student make a personal connection with their own lives.

5. Have students create their own examples of the word.

6. Students will need to say and read the word repetitively to establish a link to its phonological representation.

Really learning and comprehending a vocabulary word requires frequent and repetitive exposure by hearing others using it, seeing it in print, and saying it aloud in a sentence. Students with learning disabilities will require ongoing exposure and use of new words to assure that they understand and retain the meaning and use of the words. It takes 12 encounters with a word to learn it well enough to improve reading comprehension!

Using Mnemonics or Key Word Strategies are a key method of assisting students with learning disabilities in memorizing the definitions of new words. Students with learning disabilities benefit from connections created by linking a familiar key word or image with a novel word. For example with the word ROCOCO (asymmetric ornamentation in art) a mnemonic might be: “Rococo you arrange and decorate coconuts in a row.”

Students with learning disabilities should also listen to audio books regularly. Audio books will help expand the student’s listening vocabulary. Later, if the student runs into the same language in print, they will be better able to decipher the word and its meaning by having already had the exposure to it beforehand.

Although the amount of words that students need to learn may seem daunting, promoting student engagement with text is the most important way to increase vocabulary, and most importantly, leads to increased reading comprehension. Simply put, the amount that students read is related to the number of words they know and, in turn, allows them to read and understand increasingly complex text.


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Karina Richland, M.A. is the Founder of PRIDE Learning Centers, located in Los Angeles and Orange County. Ms. Richland is a certified reading and learning disability specialist. Ms. Richland speaks frequently to parents, teachers, and professionals on learning differences, and writes for several journals and publications. Visit the PRIDE Learning Center website at: