Choose Your Words Wisely!

"Choose Your Words Wisely…"
Guest post written by Amy Prince

As a Speech Pathologist, words are my jam - my favorite thing - really my super power. 

But as I have done this job for a few years (and a few more and a few more) I have come to understand that some words are so much more valuable than others. 

 Image result for apple

The first time it hit me that I needed to be more conscious about the words I chose, it was an apple (or at least my first clear memory).  I was working with a sweet kiddo (all my kiddos are sweet...and cute...and I am not biased, I swear!!) who was minimally verbal and even more minimally motivated.  Between the lack of play skills and the fact that social connections were not reinforcing, my sessions we more struggle than celebration.  One consistent thing about me, a habit I have not outgrown, is the fact that I am a snacker, and I get hangry without my snacks.  And I love a perfectly ripe Fuji apple. 

On this day, I was working with this little guy during that witching 3pm hour (100% snack time).  I had placed my apple on the table in anticipation of my very own positive primary reinforcement at the close of his session.  So he sat in his chair...and I tried to play...put all my effort into being fun...and he signed “more” which was in his repertoire.  I provided more of the toy...NOPE, wrong...tried more of another toy and again, wrong.  So I moved away and instructed him to “Show me”...and he went straight for my apple.  He’d never had an apple in my room, so a request for recurrence was not appropriate, but he was definitely showing a clear preference - more clear than I had seen in the past.  So I asked (not expecting an answer), “Do you want to eat apple?”, and he responded, “eat”.  I quickly checked with mom, then allowed a bite.  Then another “eat” and another and I pushed, modeling “eat apple”...and he imitated, “eat apple”.  By the end of the apple, his request to “eat apple” was independent - mediated only by me holding the apple as a visual prompt.

This doesn’t make apples magic (but they are for some kids).  And I have no desire to venture down the rabbit hole of core vocabulary versus fringe vocabulary with you.  But, what is does mean is SALIENT is IMPORTANT.  Salient...noticeable, remarkable, essential.  These are the words we need.  And these are the words that will facilitate real communication.

So today, roughly 9 years after the magic apple, my cause is your words.  I teach on topics like “Want for nothing” - which is an entire presentation about killing the word want. 

Well, not killing, but maybe really really reducing:  You don’t want want to EAT cake.  You don’t want new want to WEAR new shoes.  You don’t want want to GO to Hawaii. 

The path I hope to forge is one where even our most limited speakers can do more with the words they have.  And, there is a little known tool, a TTR (Type Token Ratio) used in speech pathology...a TTR, documents lexical richness, or variety in vocabulary. TTR is the total number of UNIQUE words (types) divided by the total number of words (tokens) in a given segment of language. The closer the TTR ratio is to 1, the greater the lexical richness of the segment.

Typically (anecdotally?) we advise starting with five really useful verbs.  For many kids, these five are excellent:
  • Get
  • See
  • Have
  • Hold
  • Play

Now, these are not for everyone.  Sometimes we switch out and add:
  • Eat
  • Go

(Or whatever falls solidly within the interest area of the child!!)

We find that those lend themselves so well to building phrases.  And they can build a variety phrases - and they don;t all sound the same because they are using a variety of words!
  • Go up
  • Go outside
  • Go get
  • Go play

~ or ~

  • Get car
  • Get toy
  • Get marker
  • Get Thomas

~ or ~

  • Hold Slinky
  • Hold ball
  • Hold iPad
  • Hold popper

You see the pattern?  For some children you may choose 5 verbs, for others the number is endless. 

Goals?  Yup…

Here is the school version…

In one year’s time, little Timmy will independently request using two or more words (verb and noun) within structured settings, showing use of 5 or more unique verbs within a 10 minute language sample.

Or something like that!

So, my request to anyone who has stuck around to read all of this is NO MORE creative, respect kids by gifting them a rich vocabulary...and remember that that does not necessarily mean a huge vocabulary - just add variety! 

Guest post author:

Amy Prince, along with Amber Ladd, is the owner of The TALK Team, a speech pathology clinic with locations in Fresno, CA and Visalia, CA.  
They also co-own TALK ABA, Inc, an ABA clinic in Fresno, CA, focused on ABA service with an emphasis on communication and social skills.  Amy and Amber are both dually certified Speech Pathologists and Board Certified Behavior Analysts.  
Find out more at or email Amy at

The Talk Team



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