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    Let's Talk about Visuals & Semantic Relationships!

    Let's Talk about Visuals & Semantic Relationships!

    5 minute read

    I'm on a mission to make vocabulary instruction more tangible and manageable for SLPs, so, let's talk about using visuals to build semantic relationships!

    Did you know that semantic categories and relationships between those categories are represented in the brain by "overlapping cortical patterns, instead of anatomically segregated regions." (Zhang et al., 2020) Therefore, learning new vocabulary requires making a connection between the word and the concept, and building meaning around it to develop those cortical patterns.

    Research has also found that the "neuronal processing of semantic information at sentence level is atypical in preschoolers with SLI (Speech Language Impairments) compared with TD (Typically Developing) children." (Pijnacker et al., 2017) Therefore, our students with SLI often need our support to explore and organize new semantic information.

    Visuals Semantic Relationships

    Recently, I posted about using themes to support vocabulary instruction - you can check that post out here! In this post, we're going to deeper, looking at semantic relationships and visuals we can use to support semantic awareness.

    I'll be referencing my FAVORITE resources for working on vocabulary, Themed Word Lists for Speech Therapy and Seasonal Book Companion Visuals in case you need activities ASAP!!

    The Research

    Okay, we know that semantic awareness represents cortical patterns in the brain AND is atypical in preschoolers with speech/language impairments...

     So how can SLPs help build semantic relationships?

    You might remember from previous posts the work that Hadley et al. (2018) did researching vocabulary. They identified four factors that help our students to build and deepen their vocabulary:

    multiple exposures to the new concept,

    explicit instruction of the vocabulary,

    - support to build categories using perceptual features, and

    - opportunities to connect words to themes.

    Let's take a closer look at perceptual features. What does that even mean?? Perceptual features refers to information linked to the senses (you know - sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch). 

    What might this look like?

    Visuals & Semantic Relationships

    In our speech rooms, we have to work hard to incorporate learning opportunities for perceptual features. Unless you have access to a real horse or sheep, for example....

    Enter: visuals

    The great news is that we can support this learning through visuals! There's a lot of different ways we can organize visuals to help build categories - including perceptual features. 

    When presenting visuals, we can keep in mind this list from Hadley et al., 2018! I love it because it shows all the different ways that children need to explore new concepts to build an understanding. 

    We know that perceptual features are super important to building categories - but these other categories also contribute to building child-friendly definitions of new vocabulary. 

    They are:

    ✨ Taxonomy Membership"Radishes are vegetables", introduce radishes with other vegetables

    ✨ Taxonomy Non-Membership - "Radishes don't have seeds, so they're not a fruit", introduce a radish/other vegetables and an apple/other fruits and compare/contrast

    ✨ Relating Word to a Larger Theme - "Some vegetables grow in the ground", introduce radishes with other root vegetables

    ✨ Perceptual Features - "Radishes are red on the outside", introduce radishes with other red items

    ✨ Conceptual Information - "Radishes are the root of the plant, so they grow underground", introduce radishes with other things that grow underground

    ✨ Object Function Information - "People usually eat radishes raw", introduce radishes with other items people eat raw

    (Hadley et al., 2018)

    Taxonomy Membership

    Fall Themed Hands-On Book Companions for Speech Therapy

    What does this look like in my speech room?

    I like to incorporate low prep visuals (🙌) into my sessions to help my kiddos categorize new vocabulary and make connections to form semantic relationships.

    I typically have a mix of physical and printed visuals to promote engagement.

    I want to foster opportunities to build those perceptual connections - so I try to integrate some physical items (like erasers or toy figurines) to support learning.

    I also include opportunities where I have organized new concepts semantically. Here the new concepts are arranged by either by larger theme (ie. Halloween) or taxonomy membership (ie. pears, herbs).

    We can use secondary visuals to explore perceptual features, such as shape or size. 

    Visuals & Semantic Relationships

    A total win for me is highlighting all the factors of the Hadley et al., 2018 checklist in one resource (multiple exposures to the new concept, explicit instruction of the vocabulary, support to build categories using perceptual features, AND opportunities to connect words to themes).

    Visuals & Semantic Relationships

    My Themed Word Lists for Speech Therapy and Seasonal Book Companion Visuals provide SO many opportunities for vocabulary instruction, and I love that they are low prep and can be used with my whole caseload!

    Hope this helps you to implement visuals to support semantic relationships in your speech room!


    Themed Therapy Cheat Sheets for Speech Therapy: GROWING BUNDLE ONE

    Themed Therapy Cheat Sheets for Speech Therapy: GROWING BUNDLE ONE

    $43.70 $64.00

    Evidenced based CHEAT SHEETS to use alongside ANY themed book, activity, or game related to themes in the bundle! Be sure to download the preview for a complete look at the product!! This HUGE resource will give you access to TONS of therapy targets and… read more


    Hadley, E.B., Dickinson, D.K., Hirsch-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R.M. (2018). Building semantic networks: The impact of a vocabulary intervention on preschoolers' depth of word knowledge. Reading Research Quarterly. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1002/rrq.225

    Pijnacker, J., Davids, N., Van Weerdenburg, M., Verhoeven, L., Knoors, H., & Van Alphen, P.M. (2017). Semantic Processing of Sentences in Preschoolers with Specific Language Impairment: Evidence from the N400 Effect. Journal of Speech Language and Hearing Research, 60(3), 627-639.

    Zhang, Y., Han, K., Worth, R.M., & Liu, Z. (2020). Connecting concepts in the brain by mapping cortical representations of semantic relations. Nature Communications, 11(1).

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