Technology to Support Vocabulary Learning

Digital tools can also support vocabulary acquisition.

Some tools will support students’ ability to perceive relationships between words through visual means. Websites such as Visuwords™, Thinkmap’s Visual Thesaurus, and Miriam-Webster’s Visual Dictionary Online offer students a visual representation of a word and its potential, multiple meanings.

Likewise, a site like Wordle can analyze the vocabulary used across a text, to highlight words that the author used the most so that the teacher can guide a student through an analysis of why these words were prominent in the text, as well as why the author used them.

Additionally, the class can discuss the importance of synonyms and antonyms and how they are related to the central idea or theme of the text.

Sometimes, students simply do not have experience with a vocabulary word. Many students with ASD have specific interests and preoccupations, and may not have enough background knowledge to activate, in order to determine a word’s meaning.

For example, one second grader with whom I worked had no knowledge of butterflies, other than to know what they looked like. He would have shown a great deal more comprehension of what he was reading had he had the opportunity to view a short video about this topic, instead of relying exclusively on the text to provide him with the topic-specific vocabulary that was used in this non-fiction text.

Many websites can offer students an understanding of a word through a video. Some are National Geographic Kids, Discovery Education, PBS Kids, and TrueFlix. Just like with a student learning English or a general education student who has a limited background on a certain topic, videos that work to establish some background on a topic prove helpful.

Also useful is technology that supports vocabulary learning with reference support. Many online books feature embedded word reference tools that provide students with a possible definition of a word right at one’s fingertip. Students are more likely to “look up a word,” if they can do so at the touch of that word on their device.

Finally, there are a number of excellent picture and chapter books that talk about words or characters having a love of words. These texts can support students’ understanding that words having multiple meanings, given the context in which they are used.

The picture books are Miss Alaineus. A Vocabulary Disaster (2000), by Debra Fraiser, The Boy Who Loved Words (2006), by Roni Schotter, and The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus (2014), by Jen Bryant, among many other titles.

Two chapter books that highlight vocabulary words are Kwame Alexander’s Crossover (2014) and Booked (2016). Mr. Alexander introduces vocabulary words as a part of the storyline, which creates an authentic and embedded exposure to vocabulary. Reign Rain (2014), by Ann M. Martin, tells the story of a girl who is on the autism spectrum and finds comfort and order in recording homonyms.

Regardless of the strategy or activity, ensure that there is time provided to teach words and expectations for word learning. This will go a long way to supporting a student with ASD’s interaction with and retention of vocabulary.



How to Handle Multiple Meanings

Starting after second grade, authors make use of words can have more than one meaning, in their writing.

Authors write with these multiple-meaning words or use literary devices, and figurative language to express the more complex thoughts in advanced texts.

For the student on the autism spectrum, this beautiful diction can be a minefield of misunderstanding, without the proper supports. Because of issues with weak central coherence and prosody, understanding the semantics (meaning) and pragmatics (social meaning) of language can be cumbersome. However, many strategies can support students’ comprehension of figurative language.

First, Vocabularians (2015) recommends using word gradient charts (p. 98) to support a student’ learning that there are multiple ways of expressing a concept, chosen specific to the context in which the vocabulary word is located. The example below can be found at:


Many students, but especially those with ASD do not realize that a word such as “walk” connotes different things, depending upon the context of how it is used.

If I walk slowly, I could more accurately describe it as lumbered or trudged. These more precise verbs carry a stronger, clearer meaning. Likewise, having learners practice with analogy types and examples will explicitly reveal to students how words can be used in different ways, which will affect their meaning.

Many teachers have explicit lessons for teaching similes, metaphors, allusions and other literary devices. Recognizing and understanding why an author uses each of these devices to communicate their meaning requires repeated, guided practice. In earlier grades, idiom practice is popular.

Children’s books like Denise Brennan-Nelson’s My Momma Likes to Say (2003) and My Teacher Likes to Say (2004), by Denise Brennan-Nelson, and In a Pickle: and Other Funny Idioms (1983), by Marvin Terban explain the meaning of the phrase, as well as a history of how the phrase came into being.

These books can support students’ learning and understanding of idioms commonly used in language and writing.

Things that Helped our Son “Grow” that had Nothing to do with “School”


Band: Liam was first chair clarinet throughout his 7th grade year. This was the year he experienced a marching band unit as well. New experiences developed a more well-rounded player.

TSA (Technology Student Association): Liam learned about electrical apps, which was also a connection with his dad, who studied electronics and electrical engineering. He would go on to compete in nationals in Nashville, TN due to this event. He learned to stretch himself to try other events as well. Not all he liked, but he grew to understand which types of events were for him.

XC: This was his first year of running. He earned most improved runner and pushed himself physically like he had never had cause to before.

Math Counts (math competition): Liam’s second year found him placing 11th at the chapter competition – just one spot shy of making states. He learned how to gracefully handle disappointment while celebrating the success of earning 1st place among 7th graders and 2nd overall regionally.

Liam grew in confidence through these activities; his success came after hard work and applying himself.

Previously, most things had come easily to Liam. Or, he would give up if something was too difficult for him.


Through the encouragement of teachers and peers, he learned a new way to approach new or challenging situations.

Seventh grade was a huge year of growth for Liam personally and extra-curricular-ly.

Big Writing Goals for the Boys

Fifth and seventh grades found the boys with incredible writing teachers. Needless to say, they were not as pleased as I was to have the focus on writing take precedence in their respective language arts blocks.

For Kieran, the year required him to build his writing stamina. Writing was a non-preferred task that he usually let go to the last minute.

When he did write, he could produce well claimed and substantiated pieces. His creative writing was adventuresome and wild!

Before beginning to write every piece, he would constantly second-guess himself.

“I cannot use that word because I don’t know how to spell it.

I don’t have anything important to write. The teacher told us to never do this, or she doesn’t want us to write about that.

The teacher told us to never do this, (or) she doesn’t want us to write about that.”

He had created so many internal “rules” about writing, that he stifled himself as a writer.

Through patience and perseverance (at home and at school), the breakdowns over each assignment grew less frequent and less intense. Last year, his teacher asked to use his writing portfolio as a sample with her current students. I could see his pride.

Liam continued to experience the same issues with writing as in previous years. That year, however, he had to face these issues, because he had to write more often. He became better versed in strategies for solving his writing difficulties.

He had to write creatively the most. He liked this type of writing the least because he didn’t know what to write about. He often became overwhelmed by all of the choice.

He talked about topics with his teacher, peers, and then me at home. Eventually, he settled on something to write about and wrote a flash fiction piece. I will share his writing later on in one of my “teaching” posts. It was a successful experience.

He also began to shine with conventions. He confidently offered peers’ revision and editing suggestions. I had to laugh when his classmates would sometimes reject his comments, even if they were grammatically correct.

He learned to accept feedback from his classmates as well.

It was a huge growing year in writing for both boys.

Word Consciousness

Another strategy for vocabulary instruction in older learners is supporting their awareness of how word parts affect meaning.

Learning prefixes, suffixes, and roots is a concrete manner in which to build a student’s vocabulary.

Vocabularians (2015) offers a number of effective strategies for learning and remembering morphology (p. 84-87). Likewise, as the Concept of Definition Map can support a student’s understanding of multiple word applications, as can a Semantic Feature Analysis.

Used during pre-reading, this is a research-based strategy helps students identify the important features of words:


Activities like these offer students more information about a word than just the definition, which will help them acknowledge and internalize that words have more than one meaning, depending on the context.

Context Clues

All students, regardless of their learning style, need to be explicitly shown how to derive meaning from context.

Teachers can guide students to notice that an author often provides the definition of the word in the latter part of the sentence.

Students need to be taught that authors will use a word, then provide a synonym of the word, often following “and,” or simply restate the word’s meaning in a follow-up sentence.

Likewise, teachers should point out that when providing an antonym for a vocabulary word they have written, authors often use a “contrast” signal word to denote the relationship.

Many students do not pick up on these “tricks of the trade” without the teacher pointing them out.

However, once revealed, students can remember and use these clues to their advantage.

Scaffolding & Explicit Practice Ideas

word nerds

Vocabulary graphic organizers can effectively scaffold a student’s deeper learning of word meanings.

Word Nerds (2013) for elementary level students and Vocabularians (2015) for middle grade learners offer great ideas for how to make vocabulary instruction explicit, engaging, and meaningful.

At the elementary level, routines like word prediction (p. 38), explicit instruction in synonyms and antonyms (p. 62-65), and vocabulary lanyards (p. 65) would teach students on the autism spectrum about word definitions and multiple meanings.

Vocabulary Board Games (p. 78) and Vocabulary Rings (p. 80) would grow the vocabulary of students due to the student’s ability to practice using the words in a structured manner, and to have consistent access to the words, respectively.

At the middle level, Concept Word Walls (p. 38), Fast Mapping Related Words (p. 39), Vocabulary mini-lessons (p. 42), and Word of the Day (p. 44) would teach words explicitly and provide strong reinforcement for learning new words systematically.

One seventh grade student with whom I have worked loves to engage in Intentional Word Play (p. 44). He actually sees himself as being funny when he changes the meanings of words or uses words that do not fit a situation, intentionally, to play with a word’s meaning. This is a sign that he understands that words have more than one meaning. While he usually gets friendly groans instead of laughs at his jokes, his manipulation of language shows that he is engaging with vocabulary in a memorable way.

Classroom Ideas – Systematic Approach to Vocabulary


Students also need systematic vocabulary instruction. Overturf, Montgomery, and Smith (2013) mention the systematic approach of Beck, McKeown, and Kucan’s (2002) five-day plan for “robust vocabulary instruction” (p. 17). They also outline Michael Graves’ (2006) four-part vocabulary program, which has been successful with a variety of students who struggle to learn vocabulary words:

They also outline Michael Graves’ (2006) four-part vocabulary program, which has been successful with a variety of students who struggle to learn vocabulary words:

  1. Provide rich and varied language experiences
  2. Teach individual words
  3. Teach word-learning strategies
  4. Promote word consciousness.

Frey and Fisher (2009) recommend teaching vocabulary intentionally, transparently, by making words usable, personal, and a priority. Finally, Overturf, Montgomery, and Smith (2013) offer their own model for how to teach vocabulary systematically:

Finally, Overturf, Montgomery, and Smith (2013) offer their own model for how to teach vocabulary systematically:

  1. Individual Word Instruction
  2. Word Learning Strategies
  3. Word Consciousness
  4. Rich and Varied Language Experiences

The teacher needs to choose a routine or system that best matches his or her classroom environment and teaching style, and stick with it. Especially with students on the autism spectrum, clear and consistent expectations will give these students confidence and a predicable structure to rely upon. Systematic routines support any executive functioning needs the student has.

Especially with students on the autism spectrum, clear and consistent expectations will give these students confidence and a predictable structure to rely upon. Systematic routines support any executive functioning needs the student has.

Adding to our Teacher’s Toolbox

Teaching students with ASD about word tiers also support executive functions. It scaffolds for a learner how to think about the types of words that they need to learn.

Tier 1 words are basic vocabulary words that do not have multiple meanings. Knowing the characteristics of Tier 1 words gives students specific feedback about how these words operate in any text.

Tier 2 words are general academic words that students will come across throughout their day, especially in their different content area classes. These are the words teachers should focus a student’s daily attention on learning.

Tier 3 words are domain-specific. Teachers explain that students only need to know these words while learning certain subject matter. When students see Tier 3 words, they need to recall background information specific to that topic, which includes the Tier 3 vocabulary or technical words used with that content.

Knowing how works are categorized in this way creates for students a foundation for word consciousness. Word consciousness, an awareness and curiosity about how words operate within our language, is our goal toward which older students can work.

This can be facilitated by having students rate their initial understanding of or prior exposure to a word (I know it well, I sort of know it, I’ve heard of it, I have not heard or seen this word before).

Due to weak central coherence, students on the autism spectrum will not check in with their familiarity with a word automatically. Having a rating system built into the vocabulary learning routine or notebook will remind students to notice if they have previous experience with a word and if this current exposure will reinforce or add additional information to what they already know, or will establish an understanding of the word for the first time.