Impacts of Word Retrieval Difficulties

Impacts of Word Retrieval Difficulties

Is your child having trouble using words effectively or remembering numbers, letters or math facts? It could be that significant word retrieval difficulties are impacting your child’s learning as well as communication.

Word retrieval difficulties are common and occur at all degrees of severity. They include the normal “tip of the tongue” experience we all have occasionally. But they can also be severe enough to have a profound impact on your child’s learning. We can even see a significant impact on social-emotional adjustment.

Impact of Word Retrieval Difficulties on Communication

Some word retrieval difficulties show up primarily as frequent word-search behaviors. This can result in stop-starts, as your child starts telling you something, then stops and starts over. The result is communication that becomes so broken up that you get completely lost as to what your child is trying to tell you.

Other children resist pausing and just keep talking for fear of loosing the listener’s attention. This results in what we call “circumlocutions.” The child is buying time by talking around the needed words. Again, communication is lost, because the child never seems to get to the point.

Frequent use of vague filler words is likewise a sign of difficulties in coming up with specific key words. Your child reassuringly keeps repeating, “you know!” All the while you are left guessing who “her” might be, or what “that thing” is. Again the communication is ineffective.

These word search behaviors are indications that words are not coming fast enough for smooth communication. There could be several reasons for this. The child’s personality can certainly enter in, and some children might do better when simply encouraged to slow down. With true word retrieval difficulties we also find the child often using the wrong words.

In my article, What Are Word Retrieval Difficulties? I explain how the “wrong word” is usually related to the intended word by category. I also explain how the same confusion can affect your child’s understanding of what you say. When confusion of related concepts involves both speaking and listening it is likely to impact more than communication.

Impact of Word Retrieval Difficulties on Learning

With word retrieval difficulties, one might say that the connections between words and their meanings are not as strong as normal. When explaining it to parents, I like to use the image of a library. You go to get a particular book. You find the right section but pull out the wrong book. By early elementary school, your child might still call a tiger “lion” and occasionally say “horse” for a cow. But the same child would never call the cow a “lion.” The child finds the right category, just not the right word.

Words within a series such as color names, letter names, or numbers, opposites such as on/off and come/go, and abstract concepts like yesterday/today/tomorrow are particularly vulnerable to this kind of confusion. Your child might think you said “up” when you said “down,” “Thursday” when you said “Tuesday,” or “B” when you said “D.”


At the preschool level, children generally learn to name basic colors. This can be difficult for children with word retrieval difficulties. I have seen many preschool children use only one color name. The child is likely to declare it as the “favorite” color in spite of applying it to more than one color. Did it perhaps become the favorite, because it was the only color name the child could remember?

Some children at this stage name several colors but in a rather random way. They know the words but cannot remember which word goes with which color. Some parents and teachers incorrectly conclude that the child must be colorblind.

Some children, who are particularly interested in art, might have no trouble naming colors; yet, numbers and letter become stumbling blocks because of word retrieval difficulties. With each of these, there is a whole array of closely related concepts and very few associations to “hang it up on.”

At the preschool level, children also learn many relational concepts. There are time relationships such as first/then, before/after; size relationships such as larger/smaller; spatial relationships such as in/on/under/behind. These can be challenging for any child at this stage. Children with word retrieval difficulties often continue to confuse them well into school age.

Kindergarten to First Grade

By the time your child enters Kindergarten, there are so many new words to learn! There are more advanced relational concepts such as above/below and sequential concepts such as first/second/third and last. Most importantly there are numbers, letters and shapes.

Numbers and letters on a paper are nothing but a bunch of abstract figures made up of straight and curved lines. How is the child supposed to remember which label goes with each of these? Letters are particularly difficult because two “labels” are associated with each letter, its name and the sound it makes. Each letter also has two visual images, the capital and the lower case.

All this is overwhelming for the child with significant word retrieval difficulties. By first grade, the child is also required to memorize a large number of “sight words.” This poses an additional, often serious, challenge. (See Structured vs. Random Practice.)

Numbers, letters and sight words are essential elements in the early school curriculum. If your child is struggling more than expected with these, it might indeed be due to significant word retrieval difficulties. In fact, this can be the first sign of such difficulties; yet, it often goes unrecognized.

As late as this year, I heard a teacher who knew me well express concern about one of her students. He had repeated Kindergarten but, after two years, still did not know the letter sounds. She never thought of referring this child to me, because there was no problem with his “speech.”

Some years ago, I worked in a school district where I screened all incoming Kindergarteners for possible speech-language problems. My screening test included looking for signs of word retrieval difficulties. I then observed the children’s progress through the Kindergarten year. Each week or two, the teachers introduced a new letter and its sound. Each letter-sound association was then reinforced through a variety of activities.

For the first few months, the children I was tracking for suspected word retrieval difficulties were doing fine. Then by Christmas their performance broke down. They were starting to confuse the letters they had seemed to know. They had obviously reached a saturation point. There were now too many letters and sounds for the child to keep track of. These were getting mixed up in the child’s mind, which by now suffered from overload.

By first grade there is so much more to learn. How do you sound out words, when you can’t remember which sound goes with the letter? And what about all those little words you are supposed to just recognize and remember? Then there are other concepts to keep track of such as shapes, days of the week etc.

Word retrieval difficulties can slow down academic progress in a major way at this crucial stage.

Moving Up in the Grades

Second grade is a time of transition. There are new concepts to learn, but reading and basic math continue to be the primary focus of the curriculum. Then, by third grade, there is a new hurdle for the child who has trouble remembering words and isolated facts.

I am currently working with a group of four third-graders, who all have word retrieval difficulties. Some of them are getting resource room help with basic skills, including reading and writing. But, when asked individually what they think is hardest in school, they all said math!

So why has math become the bigger challenge by third grade? Because memorizing multiplication facts is a major stumbling block! These students might, in fact, never quite learn to call these facts up quickly out of memory. They need to learn strategies to work around this difficulty effectively.

Later, when science andsocial studies take on greater importance, there will be a large number of new terms to learn. To make this extra challenging, most of the words are long and foreign sounding, many of Latin or Greek origin. This makes them difficult to learn and hard to remember. The syllables are now confusing in much the same way that letters and sounds were earlier.

Word retrieval difficulties come at all levels of severity. For some children, they primarily affect communication, but for many they impact school learning in some way. Some children struggle in the initial stages of learning to read, but then do fine. Others continue to experience challenges throughout school and beyond.

You don’t grow out of word retrieval difficulties. Children who experience these difficulties need to learn strategies to deal with them. Otherwise, the frustration and discouragement they experience can become an additional obstacle to their progress.

See also my article, Is Math and Number Sense a Language Skill?

Look for a separate article to come on social-emotional impacts.


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