The ultimate speech therapy word list

man-29749_960_720Therapists have some rather specific requirements when choosing words for speech work. We’re not just looking for words that end with /k/, we want to contrast these with a sound, say /s/, in word final position – so everything else in the word must be the same. And we only want VC, CVC or CCVC words. Oh and let’s have the vowel as a back-ish vowel to facilitate the /k/. And the onset should be something within the child’s inventory. And of course, each word in the pair should be imageable, functional and known to the child.

Are there any pairs like this? Intuition can only get us so far. The answer to all questions of these sorts can be found in the rather user-unfriendly MRC Psycholinguistic Database. I use it quite a bit in my work – here are some tips for how to get the best out of it.

Let’s run the example from the first paragraph. You could use the box towards the bottom of the search page called ‘Rough Phonetic Transcription’ (RPT) to set the basic word shape that you require, e.g. by typing CVC. You would need, in our case, to run the search a second and third time, with CV, and then CCVC typed into this box. A better alternative, which I will use here, is just to set the number of syllables to 1 by typing in the final box ‘Stress Pattern’.

Screenshot 2016-04-05 at 15.52.15

Screenshot 2016-04-05 at 15.56.38All of the heavy lifting is going to be done in the box called ‘Precise Phonetic Transcription’ (PPT). Type *[ks] in there. This means ‘one or more phonemes, then either k or s’. Press the ‘Go’ button. We will be returned a list of one-syllable words which have /k/ or /s/ in word final position. 614 of them. We need to filter these to look for useful pairs.

Although there are fields for imageability / age of acquisition / concreteness, etc, they are of no real use, unfortunately. Try it – go to section 1 at the top of the search page, click on the ‘Concreteness’, ‘Imageability’ and ‘Age of Acquisition’ tick boxes, and run the search again. You will see that many of our 614 words have these ratings against them, but many don’t (all of the dashes represent missing data). A search with the age of acquisition set to be no higher than 300 would yield 34 very child-friendly words, but words with no rating, such as ‘bike’, ‘dice’, ‘hiss’, and ‘muck’ would not be included.

Back to our 614 word list then. We want only back-ish vowels, so this means that we can limit our output to words with the following vowels – /ɒ/, /ɑ/, /æ/, /ʌ/,  and /ɔ/, which are known as 0, A, &, V and O here.

You could add these as alternatives, using square brackets again just as you did with [ks], but the words will still be sorted alphabetically, so pairs, not necessarily orthographically related, would still be tricky to dig out*. A more elegant way to look for word-final pairs is to run a separate search for each vowel that you are interested in. Here then are the strings for the PPT field, and the possible pairs that are returned. I have filtered out the useless words manually:

  • *0[ks] – flock / floss; lock / loss; rock / Ross
  • *A[ks] – bark / baas; park / pass
  • *&[ks] – back / bass (the fish); pack / pass
  • *V[ks] – buck / bus; pluck / plus
  • *O[ks] – fork / force; hawk / horse

When you interpret the results, always be on the alert to words that you could use, that might be missing, such as real names, and words that have come into use only in the last few years. You will need to think of these yourself. You will also need to make allowances for how certain vowels are produced in your region (‘park’, ‘pack’, ‘puck’ etc).

There aren’t many great pairs here, but you can be pretty confident that this is about as good as it gets for /k/ versus /s/ WF one-syllable contrasting pairs of words which feature back vowels.

One problem with the approach I have detailed above is diphthongs. For example, a search for words which have /ə/ as their vowel will also show up words that feature /eə/ and /iə/. If you want to eradicate these, do it manually, or you could try specifying that the vowel should be a monophthong in the RPT, by typing in CMC (not forgetting that CCMC and MC, must be run on a separate search).

Anyway, here are some more example searches, off the top of my head, to show what can be done with the database:

Description of searchRough Phonetic TranscriptionPrecise Phonetic TranscriptionStress PatternOutput
/t/ initial CVC words, followed by facilitative /i/, /ɪ/, /aɪ/ and /eɪ/ vowels-t[iIsIaI]*-36 words, including take, tape, teach, team, tin, tip and type
VC wordsVC--101 largely useless words
CVCC words with /sp/, /st/ and /sk/ word finallyCVCC??s[ptk]-106 words, including gasp, nest and mosque
VC, CVC and CVC words that have a diphthong followed by a velar stop*DC*[gk9]-42 words, including ache, spike and 'yoick'. There are no examples of words which have a diphthong followed by a /g/ or an /ŋ/
Two syllable words with /t͡ʃ/ WM, surrounded by facillitative high vowels-*[iI]tS[iI]*??8 words, including itchy and kitchen
CVCVC words with /f/ word-medially, surrounded by vowelsCVCVC??f??-43 words, including barefoot, defeat, coffin, puffin, refill and roughage

* Tricky, but not impossible. If you’re looking for pairs, just go to the alternative which has the fewest examples, and then generate its counterpart in your head. If it’s a word, you have a pair. This is the only way to look for pairs that are contrasted at the initial sound.

Free Download – “Meaning to Rhyme” activity


I have designed this monster resource (a 36 page pdf with 67 examples to work through and full instructions) to help children aged 5-10 who have phonological impairment and poor language processing skills. Click here to download (5MB).

I wrote about this task last week. Essentially it involves asking the child to do something such as ‘think of an animal that rhymes with house‘, while presenting the child with a few possible onsets to work through. As the child learns how to freely generate rhymes, with increasing independence, the task forces her to simultaneously consult her semantic store. This dual activation (essentially, top-down, and bottom-up) makes for deeper learning, about sounds and meaning, and supports language processing.


I would absolutely love to hear any opinions from therapists, teachers or parents on how this activity is working out for their kids. All of the clipart is in the public domain, downloaded from the excellent

Review: CLEAR phonology screen

There are speech sound assessments for all sorts of budgets and purposes: from the £355 DEAP – so good you have to administer it three times; to the £55 STAP-2 – as ugly and as effective as ever in its second edition. I’ve used both, but my preference has always been for the £60 CLEAR from Clear Resources.20160327_203156

20160327_203439The CLEAR’s unique selling point is that each sound is probed, roughly in developmental order, in each position (i.e. word-initially, medially, and finally). The assessment form is then presented in this order, with rough ages of mastery for each sound.

This means that normal and delayed development can easily be demonstrated to parents and teachers by means of the clinician ticking the sounds that the child has mastered, and transcribing in the boxes where the child is making substitutions or errors.

As a means for showing a parent that their 4 year old, who is stopping /s/ to [d], is doing roughly OK, the CLEAR cannot be bettered. It doesn’t have a focus on establishing the aetiology of the problem in the way that the DEAP does, nor does it walk you thorough a phonological analysis like the STAP does. However experienced clinicians will know how to focus their efforts, to do these things when required, using this set of pictures as a foundation.

20160327_203258As far as the choice of pictures goes, things are a little mixed. There are words which I wouldn’t have chosen personally, some because they are too familiar and tend to have odd, islanded productions, such as dog and cat; and other, less familiar words that children often can’t name spontaneously, such as teapot, dice and t-shirt (the kids just say ‘top’). The pictures themselves are quite fun. I love the cat picture, described recently by one of my kids as ‘a cat having a sunbathe’. There’s also some wonderfully dramatic pictures that appeal to all, such as treasure and dragon. 

The CLEAR is well-constructed, double laminated, well-bound, fit to be pulled out of phonology bags for years and years to come.


Free Download: Colourful Semantics Resource


This pack of pictures makes the Black Sheep Verbs pack (reviewed on Monday this week) infinitely more useful. Included are individual, colour-coded pictures of all of the subjects, verbs, direct objects and locations in the example pictures, as well as some sentence frames for arranging the pictures into. I’ve used clip art from a range of sources on the internet for this (copyright free material as far as I could ascertain).


By having the individual pictures to break down the sentences into their component parts, we can:

  • Support children who miss out grammatical words and morphemes such as ‘the’, ‘is’ and ‘-ing’.
  • Put the focus on the verb for children who have limited verb knowledge.
  • Show children how to systematically think about ‘who’,’ doing what’ and ‘what to’ as they go about describing an event.
  • Give children forced alternatives when they are stuck and unable to name an object or action.


The resource comes in two parts:

  • A 20 page pdf file with the subject, verb, direct object and location pictures.
  • single page pdf file to be printed on A3 paper which has sentence frames that you can use with the pictures.


Developing language processing skills (2)

neural-pathways-221719_960_720Last week I posted about developing processing skills when the focus is on enhancing the child’s semantic knowledge. This week I’ll look at the phonological side of the coin. There are certain things we know about word sorting / word learning / word finding which play into how we tend to go about boosting phonological form and metaphonological skills:

  • Words are ‘sorted’ in the brain by initial sound, giving us that tip-of-the-tongue feeling when we’re searching for a word. This means that we highlight initial sounds when we’re talking about words with learners, and we require them to do tasks such as ‘I spy’ and initial-sound odd-one-out.
  • Words which rhyme share phonological features. The words ‘hat’ and ‘mat’ have more in common with each other than not, and they therefore share some neural architecture (in terms of their production and in their recognition). Working on rhyme is one thing – showing the child how they can break the onset off from the rest of the word, and swap different onsets in and out. But the real trick is to get them to access their store of meanings as they go about such a task. This is what the task I have been developing is about.
  • Words can be long or short. Traces of word-length and syllable-structure do also seem to come into play in the tip-of-the-tongue feeling. We therefore work on children’s ability to count syllables, to complete words with missing syllables, and to delete syllables from words.
  • Words are composed of individual sounds, or phonemes [fəʊnimz]. Older children are encourage to identify medial sounds, final sounds, to append sounds, to delete sounds, robot talking, and so on.

These are tasks that are designed to support a child’s phonological awareness. Countless studies have proven the link between metaphonological knowledge and reading skills, and there is evidence that working on these kinds of tasks can pay into a child’s development of speech sounds as well.

My new task doesn’t seem particularly innovative, but it is working. Essentially I ask the child ‘think of a word that rhymes with bear which is a piece of furniture’. I also give the child a number of possible onsets to work through (i.e. s, gr, sp, ch, l). The idea is that the child will centre in on the correct answer from both directions at once – one part of the brain is thinking of different bits of furniture and checking them against ‘-air’, while the other is blindly spooling off ‘-air’ rhymes, guided by the onsets that are provided, and checking whether they are a member of the category furniture. I will share the resource just before Easter.


Babies talk and listen through their dummies


The current state of the thinking around mirror neurons is a little up in the air, but anyone who works with children will have seen behaviour that points to the theory holding some truth. Children huffing and puffing during bubble-blowing, partially in request, and partially in sympathy; and children with phonological disorder who cannot hear distinctions that they cannot realise themselves are two examples that spring to mind.

There is no other way for a child to make a theory about how an adult is moving their articulators other than to refer to their own anatomy. And if a part of that anatomy is disabled (as anterior movement of the tongue is when a child is using a dummy), then the dummy-using child will basically assume that we are all speaking through dummies as well. This has always been my inkling, and it has recently been confirmed in the paper “Sensorimotor influences on speech perception in infancy” published in November’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

“This study indicates that the freedom to make small gestures with their tongue and other articulators when they listen to speech may be an important factor in babies’ perception of the sounds” Prof. Janet Werker, senior author of the study.

The study adds to the evidence that we can point to when we talk to parents about their use of dummies. Although the evidence is somewhat mixed regarding the impact of dummy use on language development, there is at least evidence that extended use is a risk factor for multiple ear infections. I’ve never met a Speech Therapist who didn’t recommend ditching the dummy as early as possible.