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Issues involving spoken language

Why Is My Child Having Trouble Finding the Right Word to Say?

By Kelli Johnson

My child says um and uh a lot. It’s like the wheels in her brain are spinning as she tries to think of the word she wants to say. When she finally spits it out, she often mispronounces it. Or she settles on a word that isn’t quite right, like saying chair when she means couch. What’s going on here? Why is my child having so much trouble finding the right word to say?

Kelli Johnson

Educational Speech-Language Pathologist

We’ve all had that frustrating, tip-of-the-tongue moment, when the word we need just won’t come to us. We know the word, we’ve used the word, and we’re sure it’s in there somewhere. We tend to associate this problem—known as word-finding or word-retrieval difficulties—with adults, particularly as they age.

But children can have word-finding problems, too. Like adults, all kids will have this difficulty once in a while. But for some children, this is much more than an occasional problem. It can have a big impact on their ability to communicate and learn.

When kids have word-finding problems, it’s not unusual for them to use long, confusing sentences with a lot of vague vocabulary (like thing or stuff). You mentioned that your child frequently uses "filler words" such as uh or um. That’s very common too. So is mispronouncing certain words or substituting one word for another, such as saying effelant when they mean elephant.

Names, addresses and even math facts may be difficult to recall. These difficulties can be very frustrating for children and parents alike.

Why do some kids seem to work hard for every word, while others express their ideas with ease? The truth is that retrieving words is a pretty complex process.

It starts with identifying the basic idea of what you want to say. For example, picture in your mind a shiny, red apple. Next, you have to find the word apple in your brain’s equivalent of a dictionary.

This step is easier for people who have a well-organized store of words, with strong connections between words that are related somehow. For example, retrieving the word apple is easier if the speaker connects it with words like fruit, pie, tree or core. Each of these words is one pathway to the stored word apple.

The last step requires the dictionary part of your brain to connect with the area that tells you how the word is supposed to sound. Only then can you complete the process and say the word. If any step in this process breaks down, the result is a word-finding "hiccup," a lengthy pause, a word substitution (like orange), or a mispronunciation (like appet).

There’s not always an obvious medical cause for word-finding problems. For children with a history of traumatic brain injury or a diagnosis of ADHD, word-retrieval difficulties are common. But we frequently see word-finding problems in children with language disorders, problems with speech fluency (or stuttering) and learning issues like dyslexia.

Stress, anxiety and lack of sleep can make it even harder for children to find the words they want to say.

The good news is there are many ways to improve your child’s word-finding skills. If you have not already done so, discuss your concerns with your pediatrician or your school’s special education team. If your child is already receiving help through school or at a clinic, the speech-language pathologist, reading teacher or special education teacher can give you ideas for working with your child at home.

Above all, know that it’s best to communicate honestly with your child about her difficulties. Let her know that it’s OK to get “stuck” or make mistakes in her words sometimes. If you can be relaxed and be confident, your child will likely follow your lead.

About the Author

Kelli Johnson

Kelli Johnson

Kelli Johnson, M.A., is an educational speech-language pathologist in Minnesota.

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