Targeting Vocabulary with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children

Research demonstrates that vocabulary knowledge is directly related to overall language development, academic and professional success. Building vocabulary knowledge is essential to becoming a successful reader. Vocabulary assists in teaching phonological skills, which are necessary to become proficient at decoding (applying letter-sound knowledge to correctly pronounce written words). Vocabulary also allows for the development and use of background knowledge, which is necessary for reading comprehension.

Children who are deaf or hard of hearing (D/HH), and have been aided with cochlear implants or hearing aids, experience a period of auditory deprivation. During this time, they have not been exposed to new vocabulary and they have not been able to adopt strategies for incidental vocabulary learning. Because of this, many D/HH children who are aided need extra support to build sufficient vocabularies — relying on incidental learning will not be enough.

Direct strategies for targeting vocabulary:

1. Use a theme: Pick words that relate to a relevant theme or the student’s curriculum. This is beneficial as it allows for multiple opportunities to expose the child to the word and builds on their previous knowledge of the topic.

2. Pre-teach key terms: Explicitly identify the words you will be targeting, give the child a simple definition, and rephrase the definition at least once.

3. Practice the Universal Design for Learning: In order to fully understand and use a word a student needs to be able to hear the word, see the word and manipulate the word.

  • Hear it: Repetition is key! Students may to need to hear a word a minimum of 25-30 times before they fully understand it! Use the word frequently and across different contexts as well as embedded in stories.
  • See it: Use visual aids as much as possible and explicitly point them out to the child. For example, write the word down as it arises, point it out in a book, offer a picture and/or sign the word.
  • Manipulate it: Make sure the child has plenty of opportunities to interact with the word. For example, matching the word to a picture, acting it out, writing it down or using it in a sentence.

Indirect strategies to use in therapy or at home:

  • Make listening easier: Modify the child’s environment by reducing background noise, e.g., turning off the TV or waiting to run the dishwasher. Curtains and rugs can also help reduce echoing sounds.
  • Auditory bombardment: Repeat vocabulary terms as much as possible and across contexts.
  • Auditory sandwich: Offer the new word, then provide more information with familiar language and/or a visual, if possible, then repeat the word. For example, if you are targeting the word “chilly”, try saying, “It’s chilly. I’m feeling cold, brrr. It’s so chilly.”
  • Narrate: Talk about what you are doing and try to incorporate the vocabulary term as much as possible. Again, try to use the key terms in different ways and across contexts.

“I’m cold, brrr. It’s so chilly in here; I’m going to get a blanket to warm up because I’m really chilly, brrr. Are you cold? Are you chilly?

  • Shared reading: This is a great opportunity to target new vocabulary. Before you begin reading, let the child know what word you want them to listen for. Point to the word while reading and have the child point to it as well. Emphasize the word and rephrase what was read aloud.

Key points:

1. The child should have opportunities to see, hear and manipulate target words.

2. Quality > Quantity. Spend time targeting a small number of keys terms that are relevant to the child’s day-to-day life and/or school curriculum.

3. Repetition! Use the word in different ways, across different modalities and contexts.

If you have any questions or concerns about your child’s speech/language, please contact our office. We have SLPs that specialize with population and we would love to work with you! 

-Olivia Hecker, M.S. CF-SLP


· Douglas, M.W. & Lund, E. (2016) Aspects of effective spoken language intervention. Audiology online presentation. Retrieved from:

· Edyburn, D. (2005). Universal design for learning. Special Education Technology Practice, 7, 16-21.

· Language for the Playground. (September 4, 2017). Vocabulary development for children with cochlear implants. {Blog post] Retrieved from:

· Lorraine, S. (2008). Vocabulary development. {Hand out}. Super Duper Productions.

· Luckner, J.L & Cooke, C. (2010) A summary of the vocabulary research with students who are deaf or hard of hearing.American Annals of the Deaf, 155, 38-67.

· Lund, E (2015). Vocabulary knowledge of children with cochlear implants: A meta-analysis. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 00, 1-15.

· Lund, E. & Douglas M.W. (2016). Teaching vocabulary to preschool children with hearing loss. Exceptional children, 83, 26-41.

Early Intervention in Children with Hearing Loss

 Children with hearing loss benefit greatly from early identification and amplification. When identified at birth, aided around three months, and in therapy around six months, children with hearing loss are likely to develop age appropriate speech and language skills. A child using amplification such as hearing aids or a cochlear implant can ‘hear’ however they will benefit from being taught to ‘listen’. Think of ‘hearing’ as being aware of auditory input and ‘listening’ as taking in the auditory input in a meaningful way. Here are three strategies that can be used in therapy and at home when working to develop language and listening skills in young children that have a hearing loss:

  • “Make your point”- This strategy involves pointing to your ear when you hear a sound (an environmental sound, such as a car horn or dog barking), a toy that has been activated, etc.) and say, ‘I hear that’. Then imitate the sound you heard and label it with a vocabulary word and a visual. 


  • “Auditory sandwich”-This strategy provides auditory input, followed by auditory input combined with a visual, followed by the auditory input again. Here is an example that could be used when playing with a barn and animals. First, make the sound you want to teach such as ‘moo’ for a cow. Then point to the cow or bring it to the child and say ‘moo’ again or ‘the cow says moo’. Finally provide the auditory input again for the targeted sound ‘moo’.


  • “Acoustic Highlighting”-Acoustic highlighting is used to emphasize the target word or sound in continuous speech. You can do this by increasing your volume when you say the target, slowing your rate of speech, and pausing slightly before and after saying the target word.

Hopefully these tips will allow you to help your child  learn developmental speech and language skills amidst a hearing loss. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact our office. We have therapists that specialize in hearing loss/cochlear implants that would be more than happy to work with you and your child. 

-Pamela Johnson, M.S. CCC-SLP