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Word finding with an ABI fact sheet

Word finding (communication) in students with an acquired brain injury

Following a brain injury, students often have difficulty thinking of the words that they want to say. This is similar to having a word ‘on the tip of your tongue’ ie. the student know the object or concept, but is unable to find the word for it. Everyone experiences some degree of word finding difficulty especially when tired or in stressful situations. A brain injury can make word finding difficulties considerably worse and added fatigue and stress will aggravate difficulties. Word finding difficulties will often improve over time however may be an ongoing problem for some students following a brain injury. This may lead to increased frustration and perhaps decreased willingness to communicate.

How do I know if my student is having difficulty finding the right words to communicate?

  • Using another word with a similar meaning. For example, a student might say “knife” when they want to say ‘fork’ or “different” instead of ‘opposite’.
  • Using another word that sounds similar. For example, a student might say “button” when they want to say ‘butter’ or “regardless” when they want to say ‘reckless’.
  • Using ‘non specific’ words like “thing”, “stuff” or “it”.
  • Pausing for a long time while trying to think of the word that they want to say.
  • Explaining the word that they cannot find. For example, a student might say “You know that thing that you kick around…” when they want to say ‘ball’.

What can I do to help my student overcome difficulties with word finding?

When you know the word that the student is trying to find:

  • Give the first sound (not the letter name):
    • If the student is trying to say ‘bird’ tell them…. “It starts with b..” or “it starts with bir….”
  • Describe it: if the student is trying to say ‘bird’ tell them….
    • “It’s an animal. It flies in the sky. It lives in a nest. It’s a …”
  • Ask the student to describe it to you:
    • What sort of thing is it, an animal, a sport etc? Where does it live?
    • What does it do?
    • How do you play it?…
  • If the student can’t get the word tell them rather than having them guess.

When you do not know the word that the student is trying to find:

  • Ask the student to describe the object or concept.
    • What is it? What do you do with it? When would you use it?
    • What does it mean? Are there any similar words?
  • Ask the student to show you with gesture or act it out.
  • Ask the student what is starts with or what it sounds like.

Other activities that help students who have word finding difficulties

  • Playing guessing games with pictures, where you take turns to describe the picture. For example, “I have a fruit. It is long and yellow. You have to peel it. It starts with b…”
  • Sorting pictures into groups:
    • by category eg. fruit, animals, transport
    • by attribute eg. shape, colour, what it’s made of (paper, wood), where you find it (bedroom, kitchen, school, park)
    • of things the student likes to eat and doesn’t like to eat.
  • Playing games with rhyming words to help the student to remember how words sound.
  • Discussing new words to assist memory and later retrieval:
    • describing
    • contrasting with opposites
    • comparing with other similar things.

Contact us

Queensland Paediatric Rehabilitation Service
Queensland Children’s Hospital
Level 6, 501 Stanley Street, South Brisbane 4101
t: 07 3068 2950
t: 07 3068 1111 (general enquiries)
f: 07 3068 3909

In an emergency, always call 000.

If it’s not an emergency but you have any concerns, contact 13 Health (13 43 2584). Qualified staff will give you advice on who to talk to and how quickly you should do it. You can phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Developed by the Queensland Paediatric Rehabilitation Service, Children’s Health Queensland. Updated: October 2017. All information contained in this sheet has been supplied by qualified professionals as a guideline for care only. Seek medical advice, as appropriate, for concerns regarding your child’s health.