We’ve all experienced that ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon where you know the word, but you can’t get it out.

A word finding difficulty is when a person knows and understands a particular word, but has difficulty retrieving and using it in their speech.


Children who have specific language impairment often present with word finding difficulties. In the classroom, a child with a word finding problem may have difficulty expressing their knowledge. They may appear not to know the answers when asked questions that need retrieval of specific facts. When a word- finding—or word-retrieval—problem affects daily communication, it will also impact academics, social communication, and self-esteem.



Signs of Word Finding Difficulties

A child may:

  • Have a good understanding of words but a poor expressive vocabulary.
  • Talk around the word or explain the word they cannot find. E.g. “the thing you mow the lawn with.”
  • Use non-specific words such as “thingy, whatchamacallit, there, that one, him, stuff.”
  • Over-use words such as um or ah.
  • Substitute words with a close meaning  (for example they might say spoon instead of fork) or may use words that sound the same (for example they might say hair instead of share).
  • Use obvious word searching behaviors such as using um a lot (for example “ball, book, um, um, um bike”)
  • Have lots of pauses in their speech and may take a long time to answer a question.
  • Rarely use ‘content’ words.  For example instead of saying “I got the book from her” they may say “I got it from her”.


Types of Word-Finding Problems:

Words are stored in the brain through two systems. Both these systems need to be intact in order to retrieve words effectively. Word finding difficulties may be characterized as ‘semantic or ‘phonological’ (sound based). The word finding difficulties may very depending on the task that the child is doing. For example a single word naming task versus a conversational task.

In order to retrieve a word from long-term memory several things have to occur almost simultaneously.  First, the concept that matches the idea to be expressed must be selected from storage.  Next, the word for this concept must be retrieved from long-term memory.  And, finally, the word must be spoken.


Semantic Word Finding Problems

Semantic word finding problems occur when there is a breakdown between the  meaning of a word and the entry for that word in the brain.A person may express frustration at their inability to retrieve the word, they may experience the tip of the tongue ́phenomena, or they may substitute a semantically similar word without even realizing it (e.g. lion/tiger, microscope/binoculars, or uncle/aunt).

Sound Based /Phonological Word finding Problems

In order to say a word, we also need be able to access the sounds that go together that make the word. These sounds and their organization are stored in the phonological storage system of the brain. The child may say ‘elegant, ephelant or evelent’ instead of ‘elephant.’ They may also substitute a word that begins with the same sound or has a similar word form (e.g. potato/tomato, chicken/ kitchen, October/octagon). This type of error pattern is due to a weak link between the semantic form (or meaning) and the words phonological or articulatory speech form.

Thus there are two storage systems and they need to work in harmony in order to support fast, fluent, and effortless retrieval of words.


The diagram below is based on a reading model, but retrieval of vocabulary works in the same way.





Impact of Word-Finding Problems


Word-finding problems can affect many areas of learning, including reading, test-taking, math, and classroom participation. A word finding problem can contribute to increased anxiety which in turn exacerbates the difficulty.

1) Reading:

Word-retrieval and naming speed has been shown to be a good predictor of later reading fluency.  This is because reading requires fast and accurate retrieval of sounds, phonetic patterns, and whole words, in addition to the semantic meanings for those words. Children who struggle with reading fluency often end up avoiding reading. This causes them to fall even further behind in word recognition and comprehension skills – because they miss the vocabulary growth that occurs through higher-level reading.

2) Testing Taking:

Word-retrieval problems can render testing formats such as fill-in- the-blank or short answer difficult, since a child may be unable to retrieve the correct word even when they possess the knowledge being tested.

3)  Math:

Some children with word retrieval difficulties also have difficulty with rapid retrieval of math facts. They may have difficulty learning math bonds and tables. Tasks such as having to solve a certain amount of problems in a limited time may be too challenging for children with slow retrieval and result in a feeling of incompetence.

4) Verbal Expression

Children with word retrieval disorders often struggle to express their thoughts fluently. While it may be less obvious when conversing with peers, it can become more apparent when they have to perform higher-level verbal expressive tasks, such as answering classroom questions on-demand, retelling a story or narrative, or giving oral presentations. Difficulties in this area often impact self-esteem and result in avoidance of classroom participation.


There are strategies that can be employed to improve word finding and I will cover this in my next post.



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