Home Health Care Word APP! Use Apps to Build Vocabulary Interactively

Word APP! Use Apps to Build Vocabulary Interactively

by Sean Sweeney
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A girl with down syndrome is in a classroom with her teacher. The teacher is holding a tablet computer to let the girl watch a video. They are both smiling.

Students with language disorders may struggle to learn, retain, describe and connect vocabulary words, causing them problems with functional and academic communication. Apps to the rescue!

Clinicians can tap a number of app- and web-based tools to help students connect vocabulary to material in and beyond the classroom.

Picture power

Photos, semantic maps and other visual supports can be key to bolstering word learning. Quickly create photo arrays to define words using the app Pic Collage (free for iOS/Android). You can do this via the app’s precise, relevant web search (using a restricted, kid-friendly version of Microsoft’s Bing search engine). You can also import photos from your device’s photo library.


Use built-in apps to support clients’ life skills.


Consider co-creating photo grids to define words with students. It’s a fun cognitive challenge for them to find photos to illustrate more abstract vocabulary words. For example, they might search “raising hands” for participate. Pic Collage is a blank slate, so you can also use it to display text and organizational schemes helpful for learning vocabulary. For instance, you can render the Freyer Model, in which word definitions are included along with other semantic elements, such as characteristics and examples.

You can also use apps to create semantic maps—visual representations of related word meanings and associations. Do this with such student-friendly apps as Kidspiration and Inspiration (free to try for iOS, versions available for laptop or web). Kidspiration offers an additional feature, “Super Groupers,” which visually organizes words and pictures by category. For example, you can group together items associated with a season—such as scarves, boots, snow and hot chocolate for winter (see more about this on my SpeechTechie blog).

Another option for creating semantic maps is Google’s Drawings tool—accessible from the same “new” menu you use to create docs in Google Drive. Build your maps with the tool’s options for shapes, text and color coding. Use the scribble tool to sketch pictures of vocabulary words. Also consider using these apps along with multisensory manipulatives, such as the “Expanding Expression Tool,” which builds understanding of word category, function and appearance.

Facilitate retrieval

Apps provide opportunities to “sync” with other evidence-based practices for vocabulary building. Consider, for example, the finding by language researcher Diane German and her team that students with word-retrieval difficulties benefit from an approach targeting phonological and structural features along with semantic properties.

To this end, you can have students divide words into syllables and create “same-sound” or “familiar-word” cues in thought-bubble visuals. Access thought bubbles through a range of tools including Google Slides, PowerPoint and Book Creator (available in app and free web format). Students can also keep vocabulary journals in Book Creator.

Word play

What better way to build and practice vocabulary than through games? They’re naturally motivating for students. Check out, for example, the interestingly named World’s Worst Pet-Vocabulary (free for iOS), which targets more than 1,000 vocabulary words in contextual groups. In this game-based app, students help the character Snargg (the so-called worst pet) find his way home by solving vocabulary challenges. The app aligns with the Common Core State Standards and the “Bringing Words to Life” approach to building Tier 2 vocabulary.

Also tap the app Epic! Books for Kids to access a digitized library of kids’ books and quizzes through which you can emphasize words’ role in story-telling. The free, extremely popular classroom tool Kahoot! allows you to quickly create customized vocabulary games playable in game-show fashion. Students can use classroom iPads, Chromebooks—or even smartphones—to play the games.

Other apps for creating and playing vocabulary games include Bitsboard and Quizlet. Simply plug in your curriculum-based lists and the apps supply helpful images for game play. For another engaging take on wordplay, try Flocabulary. This app offers free hip-hop music videos targeting vocabulary across a range of areas, including types of rocks, the nervous system and colonial America. So go app up that word-learning!

Sean Sweeney, MS, MEd, CCC-SLP, is a clinician and technology specialist working in private practice at the Ely Center in Needham, Massachusetts, and consultant to local and national organizations on technology integration in speech and language interventions. His blog, SpeechTechie, looks at technology “through a language lens.” sean@speechtechie.com

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