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Why Can’t My Students Give Definitions?

For students with language disorders, definitions are tough work.  It’s consistently the weakest subtest for many of my adolescent students on assessments like the CELF-5 and the TOLD (Test of Language Development).  I think this is largely because a definition has so many moving parts: vocabulary (synonyms, antonyms, related words), complex syntax (creating a sentence structure that can embed all the details of a definition), grammar (keeping tense consistent, subject-verb agreement), and a certain degree of verbal reasoning in that the student needs to give just enough information for the definition to be complete without it being excessive.  Generally, I see students struggle in multiple areas, so how does an SLP break down the skill of defining words into manageable steps?

Defining Words With Templates

Well, first I grab some definition templates.  I use these noun, verb, adjective templates these from Dr. Karen which give my students the sentence structure to produce a definition for each word class/part of speech.  I put this in front of a student and have them look at it as they are defining the target word.

For my target word, I have a few ground rules: we target one class at a time (noun, verb, or adjective) rather than everything at once.  We start with the verbs or adjectives rather than nouns.  One reason is that students often have already worked on the nouns in prior years of therapy with activities like categorizing, describing functions, etc.  They also just tend to describe their concrete nouns like “butter” with much more skill than abstract concepts like “smart”.  Of course, there are many nouns that are abstract as well; but beginning with extremely abstract nouns like “diplomacy” is probably not the best starting point either.

Choosing Tier Words as Targets

I start with Tier 2 words as my targets.  You may recall that Tier 1 words are basic words that commonly appear in spoken language such as “clock”.  In contrast, Tier 2 words are high-frequency words that appear mainly in print and across multiple content areas.  Tier 2 words include words like “conclude” and “analysis”.  You might think that Tier 1 words are best to start with given that they are easier and more familiar, but students often struggle to generate vocabulary for words that are so basic and second nature to them.  In contrast, they have heard tier 2 words defined in their classrooms by teachers and have read their definitions in print; they have a greater capacity, therefore, to use their existing tier 1 vocabulary to define these more complex terms.  Of course, I make sure to select tier 2 words I believe the student knows already.

Using Synonyms and Antonyms

For my adjectives, I maintain a list of synonyms and antonyms for students to fall back on during the defining-making process.  For my verbs, I only need synonyms.  That’s because the templates for adjectives require synonyms or antonyms while the templates for verbs only use synonyms.  One template for Adjectives is “________(target) means _________________(synonym)”.  One template for Verbs is “_________________ means to ____________ (synonym)”.  So you get the pattern; the student has to be able to generate synonyms and antonyms to define words, but often their low vocabulary and word-finding issues makes this task challenging.  Thus I let my students have access to a list of synonyms/antonyms to use in their definitions.  This helps the student understand the process and structure of defining words before being asked to generate the synonyms and antonyms needed to define on their own.

Thinking finding antonyms and synonyms for every single target word is a nuisance? No problem….. just use Apples to Apples.  I actually got an adult version at Goodwill and pull those green adjective cards for my students to work on defining adjectives.  They are great because the synonyms and antonyms are right on each card.  And because I have the adult version, I am able to find a lot of tier 2 words in the collection to use as target words.

As for verb synonyms, you can easily get a list with a definition search on (which has child-friendly definitions and explanations, by the way).  However, these don’t come on card or paper form, so I’ve made a sample set of verb cards with synonyms here to match the adjective set from apples to apples.  Just print and laminate!

Generating Word Meanings Step-by-Step

To to sum up, here is what you need:


  1. noun, verb, and adjective templates.  Pick one word class
  2. A card set of tier 2 words for each word class above.  Have 3-4 synonyms and antonyms on each card like so if working on adjectives:





or like so for a verb:






Now just have the student look at the template.  So if targeting the word “intelligent”, the student uses this template set:

a. _________________ (target) means _________________________ (synonym)

b. _______________ (target) means not _________________ (antonym)

c.  _____________ (means) _______________ (subjective noun+ verb phrase).

to produce definitions such as these:

a. “Intelligent means wise.”

b. “Intelligent means not foolish.’

c. “Intelligent means someone has a lot of wisdom or knowledge.”

I would only expect the student to choose one of these templates, although they are welcome to attempt multiple definitions.  The third template is the hardest to use since the student does not have access to the nouns and verbs, but there are times it is the best fit for the target word.  I provide more prompts and word cues when the student wishes to attempt the third adjective prompt and/or it is the only template that really fits the word.

Over time, I would expect the student to generate the synonyms, antonyms, and other definition components on their own.

Since nouns are a bit different from verbs and adjective, I plan to discuss the template for noun definitions in the next blog post.  See you next time!