Spotlight on Verbs

Speech Language Therapy Resource Image, Child painting

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the BLADES language therapy workshop. BLADES is a framework for therapy based on the Bristol Language Study, which is a large study of typical language development in 2-5 year olds.  Verbs (action words such as go, and jump) and verb development were a big topic of discussion in this workshop, and rightly so!

Why are verbs so important?

Verbs are central to sentence construction. To progress past the 1-2 word level of communication (e.g. ball, my ball), you need verbs.

Verbs are tricky:

Verbs can be difficult things to understand and teach. If a child is experiencing difficulties with language, it is likely they will have a reduced repertoire of verbs. Unlike nouns (naming words such as cup/ball etc), verbs are temporary. A cup is a cup indefinitely, but a throw only lasts a few seconds. Some verbs occur for longer than others, and are therefore easier to teach e.g. sleeping, eating vs jumping, throwing. Some verbs have abstract meanings which are subtle, and apply to many different situations. For these, you can’t just point at them and provide a label e.g. put, want, like, see. In addition to this, some verbs carry meaning around intentionality e.g. to throw something requires intent, to drop something does not.

Verb development:

When learning to communicate, children tend to favour non-specific multi-purpose verbs, as these enable them to communicate in a variety of situations (e.g. go car, go school, go fast, go train, ready steady go, go there etc.) without putting too much demand on their vocabulary. As the child progresses, their knowledge of verbs increases, and they are more likely to use specific verbs which give us more information about the manner in which the action is completed e.g. go to the door vs hop, sprint, race to the door.

Tips on teaching verbs:

  • Think about the meaning of the verb. How can you make this meaning obvious to the child? E.g. what does “do” really mean, how could you teach it?
  • Engineer an activity/routine which is engaging for the child, where you can teach the verb (ideally multiple times). E.g. jumping on the trampoline (“Jump, jump, jump, jump up, big jump”), making pancakes (“pour in milk, pour in pan, pour more mixture”)
  • Repeat with variety! Model model model the word in many different situations (you don’t want the child to think the word jump only applies to jumping on the trampoline).
  • If you are working on some later developing specific verbs, you can give the child options e.g. If the child says “Go to the beach” you could say “How will we go? Will we drive or will we walk to the beach?”
  • Don’t be afraid to use some playful “accidents” to teach words e.g. “Oh no! I spilt my water” “Oh no, I dropped the keys!”

Click here to see my resource for teaching verbs.

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