At a loss for words: Difficulty with lexical access

March 9, 2016 by Camille Baribeau
cherche mots
People with lexical access difficulties have a hard time retrieving the right word in their mind to express a particular idea. Although we hear very little about this disorder, it should not be overlooked, because it can have a serious impact on communication and learning skills.

People with lexical access difficulties often search for words when they speak and make do with imprecise words (thing, thingamajig, whatchamacallit) or related words (shoe instead of boot, table instead of countertop) or even invented words (“letter sleeve” instead of envelope). Such behaviour could be misinterpreted as a sign of a poor vocabulary, since people with lexical access difficulties always use the same simple words when they speak.

When the mind goes blank

We all find ourselves searching for words at one time or another. We call this “having the word on the tip of our tongue.” We may draw a blank at any time, but most often when we are very tired.

Vocabulary under construction

Children may experience this a lot more often, as they are still building their vocabulary and certain concepts are not yet as well-defined in their minds as they are for adults.

If the description above reminds you of your child, we urge you to consult a speech-language pathologist, who will assess your child’s language level through various tests. During the evaluation, the speech-language pathologist will assess, among other things, receptive-expressive vocabulary and hearing in order to determine the cause of the problems observed. If lexical access difficulties are suspected, the specialist will suggest possible solutions or an intervention plan.

How can I help my child struggling with lexical access difficulties?

  • Resist the temptation to finish his/her sentences: give him/her time to search and retrieve the right word from memory.
  • If he/she can’t find the word, ask him/her to act it out or give you clues to help you find it.
  • If you guess the word, help your child by saying only the word’s first sound or first syllable. Or begin a sentence that your child can complete with the word in question.
  • Have fun and play with your child at sorting objects or images by category (e.g., animals, means of transportation, fruits and vegetables, clothing). Make a game of naming the most words possible from a given category, or take turns at creating riddles.

But above all, remember that your child should have fun communicating! Play with your child and seize every opportunity to teach him/her new words!

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