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Word Finding Difficulties

Disclaimer: This information sheet is for education purposes only. Please consult with your doctor or other health professional to make sure this information is right for your child.

What is it?

A "word retrieval difficulty" or "word finding problem" is when a person knows and understands a particular word, but has difficulty retrieving it and using it in their speech. Most people have experienced what we know as "tip of the tongue" phenomenon, when we try desperately to remember the name of a show or a persons name etc, this is generally the same concept.

For some people with an acquired brain injury, word retrieval difficulties can be a significant problem, making it very difficult to communicate clearly and competently. A child with an acquired brain injury will also experience greater word finding difficulties when tired, stressed or cognitively fatigued.

What are the symptoms?

A child may:

  • Have a good understanding of words but a poor expressive vocabulary
  • Use too many words when only one or two would do
  • Use non-specific words or over use words such as, thing, there, that, you know
  • Explain the word the can not find eg. "You know, the thing I brush my hair with"
  • Speech may be hesitant and contain fillers, such as, um, ah, pauses
  • Related words may be substituted eg. "spoon" for "fork"
  • Word searching behaviours may be obvious
  • May take a long time to respond to question
  • Rarely use a lot of content words eg. "I got the... it from her"

Who do I see and how is it diagnosed?

A Speech Pathologist will be able to assess whether a child is experiencing specific word retrieval difficulties or is possibly having other difficulties with their language development.

What is the treatment?

There are several ways to assist with word finding difficulties however these generally depend on:

  • The severity of the problem
  • The age of the child
  • The child's awareness of the problem
  • Other underlying cognitive and communication disorders

A speech pathologist can advise the best method for an individual child, however, some general techniques are outlined below:

  • Support the child's efforts in everyday interactions and provide on-line assistance as necessary
  • Encourage them to actually search for the word, rather than skirting around it
  • Encourage them to think of the sound the word starts with
  • If they are unable to think of the sound, assist their retrieval by offering the first sound in the word, eg. `b' for ball or offer the initial syllable for the word eg. `bir' for bird
  • Encourage description of the object eg. what does it look like, what do we do with it
  • Offer a gesture, eg. drinking movement for milk
  • Use a sentence completion strategy eg. Cows and sheep eat...... (grass)


  • Always consult your Speech Pathologist if you have any concerns that your child may be experiencing word finding difficulties or other difficulties with their communication
The Children's Hospital at Westmead Rehabilitation Department
The Children's Hospital at Westmead
Cnr Hawkesbury Rd & Hainsworth St, Westmead
Locked Bag 4001, Westmead, 2145
Tel: (02) 9845 2132 - Fax: (02) 9845 0685

© The Children's Hospital at Westmead - 1997-2013

This document was published on Friday, 6 June 2003

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