How to Teach Vocabulary to Children With Disabilities

According to a 2012 Michigan State study published in "Reading Research Quarterly," kindergarten classes across the United States include limited vocabulary lessons. As a parent of a child with disabilities, you are likely familiar with the idea that early intervention, or teaching valuable skills at an early age, leads to better academic achievement throughout your child’s life. To make up for what your child might lack in school, you can employ a few basic tricks to teach vocabulary to your child.

Read to your child, and encourage your child to read on his own. It might sound like a simple step, but reading gives your child context rather than a list of new words he has never seen before. Choose books that have a finite number of new words, around three to six words, which allow your child to infer the meaning based on the events in the story.

Point out new words as you read. Ask your child if he knows what the word means. If he does not know, define the word in the simplest, most concrete way possible. Children with disabilities like ADHD and autism tend to grasp new concepts better when they are concrete rather than abstract.

Ask your child to give you a narrative or summary of the story when you finish reading a book to your child or if he reads one on his own. This activity forces your child to use his language skills while also showing he comprehends the new vocabulary 1. If your child does not understand new words, he will likely make mistakes retelling the story. If your child struggles with the “tell it in your own words” strategy, you retell the story to demonstrate how to use your own words to describe a new vocabulary word.

Pair new words with pictures, songs or other multi-sensory approach. The more pathways information can travel to your child’s brain, the more likely he will remember it. Pictures or even pointing to a real object can give your child a visual representation of a word. Songs often include rhyme or a story to make new words memorable.

Model new words in your own daily speech. Say something like, “You look so elegant today,” and when your child raises his brow, you can ask, “Do you know what ‘elegant’ means?” Define the word simply and encourage your child to use the new word on his own.

Turn a vocabulary lesson into a game. Draw a hopscotch diagram on the sidewalk with chalk and put a new word in each square. Throw a small rock and hop to the square it lands on. Read the word aloud and define it before you hop back to the beginning. Take turns with your child.

Review words that have multiple meanings, which can be troublesome for children with disabilities. Use pictures and stories to help your child grasp which meaning is meant from a word. For example, in the sentence “two runners tied for first place,” the word “tied” means something other than tying a shoe, for instance. After reading a story about a race, your child should be able to explain the intended meaning of the word.


You will have to adjust some teaching tricks to your child’s own abilities. Depending on the severity of your child’s disability, he might be unable to play hopscotch but could do that activity if it was set up like a board game. Don’t be afraid to use technology -- many tablets and smart phones have apps that focus on vocabulary development through a fun and goal-oriented game.