Learning specialist Dr. Blythe Grossberg, Psy.D. is a founding partner of Themba Tutors, a joint practice of professionals who work to remediate and support educational deficits of private clients. Grossberg works with students who have ADD, language processing disorders, Asperger’s, dyslexia, and math disorders. Here she talks with Vocabulary.com about vocabulary acquisition and learning differences.

Vocabulary.com: Let's start by talking about particular challenges children with learning difference have vis a vis vocabulary. Is this something you see in your practice? 

Dr. Blythe Grossberg, Psy.D.: It is. Even though they’re really bright, many of my students have a tough time with reading. In terms of vocabulary development, it’s hard to replace all those hours spent with a book.

Or when they do read, they might be missing some of the information about the words they know. A student with Asperger’s, for example, might have a great vocabulary but not a subtle sense of what the words they know mean.

VC: Do vocabulary deficits affect the rest of their learning?

BG: Absolutely. Kids are continually hamstrung by words they don't know. Take, for example, reading the US Constitution as part of a US History course. You can't separate out the words from the overall meaning. Words like amendment, legislative versus legislature, ratify, quorum, consul, appeal: if you don't know them, you won't understand the Bill of Rights.

VC: What are some strategies to help students with learning differences expand their vocabularies?

BG: In my practice, I always try to use a student's strengths to approach areas they don’t feel comfortable with. I remediate and shore up skills, go back and make sure that the structure of their learning is sound, increase the efficiency of their studying, and also in many cases prepare them for various standardized tests.

Vocabulary is integral to all of this. I begin with encouraging reading. I ask kids to keep word lists as they read, though that's something many of my students have a hard time remembering to do.

I use a lot of word roots when preparing kids for tests like the ACT, SAT or  ISSE. I will use classic word routes like cred, geo, biblio, as well as common prefixes and suffixes to get kids to amplify their vocabulary quickly. Once they start knowing ten to 20 roots they start seeing them everywhere, and it helps a lot.

For visual kids, I use vocabulary cartoons from various books. When we read together, I work with them on defining words from context, even if it's just getting to what they think the main idea of the word is. If they can practice that skill they get better at it.

VC: What is your goal for their ultimate vocabulary knowledge?

BG: I want my students to see connections between words. For example, in middle school, where social studies and science are highly vocabulary dependent, if a student learning about sedimentary rock already knows what sediment means, or knows catalyst before encountering that word in chemistry, they start to understand the connections, and see that this isn't all arbitrary. I like them to feel they can understand the system.

VC: How does Vocabulary.com fit into your vocabulary teaching?

BG: I think kids today really respond to anything that’s a game or is very interactive online. They’re very sophisticated with the educational games they play — and in my opinion what makes a site really educational is that it really responds to the kids and their needs. Vocabulary.com is able to gauge where you are — your average vocabulary site or flashcards can't do this. It's great that you can bypass the words you already know.

VC: Is there an emotional component to the connection kids feel with learning in this format?

BG: Definitely. A lot of kids with learning issues don’t really recognize how bright they are, and this site makes you feel good that you can recognize the word — you're playing at your own level. I like that it gives you choices, and is more about recognizing the word, which is really what kids need to learn how to do. It makes you feel good about what you know.

And I like that it takes parents out of the equation. It's great if your mom wants to sit down and do flashcards with you, but working with an online tool removes some of the negative emotional energy that sometimes exists when an adult is telling you whether you know something or not. This is objective.

VC: What about the learning resources embedded in the game? Are those of value?

BG: Yes. As a kid, I really enjoyed reading the dictionary. I think there’s something about the physical object, about holding it, about seeing the words in relation to each other, checking out the etymology. But using a dictionary or thesaurus can be dangerous. When my students right click on a word or use thesaurus in Microsoft Word, they won’t understand the shades of meaning. They’ll pick a word that the thesaurus gives that’s related but not exactly correct in that context.

That's why I really like that on Vocabulary.com, kids see the words they're learning in a sentence. Context is very subtle — I have a lot of kids who are very bright and might have a great vocabulary, but that doesn’t mean they understand the word in context at all. It’s the full shades of meaning and the subtle use of the words that they need to learn.

VC: We're so glad you were able to make time to speak to us. As a thank you, we want to point out a resource you might not be aware of: this learnable list of vocabulary from The Bill of Rights. Did you know it was there?

BG: I did not, but I will say the thing I absolutely love about Vocabulary.com beyond anything else is the ability to customize a Vocabulary List. That you can use a premade list or make your own is incredible.