Why is it important?

Imagine that it is your first time driving in England (assuming you’re from the U.S.). Not only are you trying to find your way in an unfamiliar area, but you are driving on the opposite side of the road, the traffic laws are different, and you have to drive a manual shift car (when you’re used to an automatic). Nothing about this experience feels automatic. Your heart rate would go up and you would focus all of your attention on trying to get to where you’re going without any mishaps. Now contrast that to your everyday experience of driving to and from work or the grocery store which you can do on “auto-pilot.” You can plan your meeting or meal on the way there (and probably listen to music at the same time).

The effortlessness of driving a well-known route can be referred to as automaticity. In reading, such fluency (or automaticity) allows one to see an object, symbol, or word, and name or process it quickly and accurately. The lack of automaticity (in the first driving example above) is precisely what people with dyslexia encounter when they have to read something (particularly when they do not have familiarity with the content). Difficulty in this skill can hamper speaking, reading, and writing.


Standardized tests such as the Comprehensive Test Of Phonological Processing (CTOPP) and RAN-RAS (Rapid Automatized Naming-Rapid Alternating Stimulus) assess rapid automatic naming of pictured items, numbers, and letters. Once you have formally tested your student’s difficulty with rapid naming or word retrieval, you may wish to probe a little further. Below are several questions to consider as you are conducting your dynamic assessment:

  • Is my student better at word recall for oral or written tasks?
  • How does the stimuli affect my student (i.e., Does he do better when there is a picture?)
  • Are divergent or convergent naming tasks more difficult? (i.e., Is it easier to name ten fruits or to hear "orange, grapefruit, and lime" and provide the category citrus fruits?)
  • What type of learning does your student prefer?
  • What strategies (if any) does he use when he experiences difficulty with naming?

Don’t forget to use your most valuable source of information—the student himself! Ask him what contexts are the hardest for him to produce the right word. It will likely be very insightful. With the data that you have gleaned, it is time to begin intervention for word retrieval fluency and rapid automatic naming.


It is advantageous to incorporate some type of meta-cognitive task. Your student will benefit from knowing what area you are working on and how that fits into the larger picture. For example, a second grader who cannot read letters or numbers aloud when he is called on may be relieved that this is because of trouble with RAN, not because he is “dumb.” Armed with this knowledge and the awareness that therapy will help him with this problem, he will likely persevere with the arduous task that lies before him rather than give up.

Meta-cognitive tasks can be fun! For example, you could have an early elementary school student have “a race” against the clock to see how quickly he can name written/pictured items. Alternatively, he can compete against himself to name as many animals as he can in a minute. Have him tally up the animals that you wrote down and compare his scores. This type of collaboration in therapy results in greater awareness of goals and progress, as well as more carry-over into the classroom (and everyday life).

Teaching to your student’s strengths and interests

You should tailor your intervention to the student’s relative strengths and use this as a bridge for improving his weaknesses. If your student is a visual learner, guide him in how he can use visualization to name more words (in less time). For example, if the task is “Name as many appliances as you can in one minute,” he should try to see himself walking through each room in the house (in his mind’s eye) while noting the appliances in the kitchen, laundry room, bathroom, etc. You may scaffold this task by doing the task yourself and verbally mediating the process (“I am standing in the kitchen and I place my hand on the stainless steel refrigerator and I notice the digital clock on the microwave above the stove.”) Vivid and lifelike mental images facilitate greater fluency for naming.

Auditory learners are going to gravitate more to the sounds of words. For example, if you provide a rhyming word or the first sound of the word, they will be able to generate more words in a rapid naming task. A fourth grader trying to generate as many words as possible with the “er” sound may need a single word “turn” to name “burn” “churn,” “learn,” “concern” and “earn.” Initially, you may need to provide the first word in a category, but you can teach your student to use this strategy to self-cue independently. He may need to verbalize the sounds corresponding to the letters of the alphabet to cue himself as well.

A multi-sensory approach for fluently describing objects is presented in the Expanding Expression Tool (www.expandingexpression.com). Visual learners will benefit from the stickers with symbols, templates, and color-coded organization. Auditory learners will learn to self-cue using the chant that reminds them of the multiple ways to describe an object. Kinesthetic learners will gravitate towards the manipulatives that are provided.

Curriculum relevant activities interspersed with high interest topics and games will provide the necessary motivation for students to work on rapid automatic naming. For example, you may begin with the student writing down as many chemicals on the periodic table in one minute as possible (after he has become quite familiar with them). After that, you could teach a strategy that incorporates his learning style and “retest” the same set of elements using the strategy. Ask the student to compare the number of words and to assess the effectiveness of this strategy. (Remember, you may have to try a few strategies before you find the “right fit”.) If your student is interested in sports, you might turn to the “sports section” of a picture dictionary and cover up the written words. You could ask him to name all of the sports in the pictures (as quickly as possible). You could repeat this activity for “sports equipment,” “cars,” or whatever the student is interested in. The Internet is a great source of pictures as well. You can type a category into Google images and use those as stimuli. It is important to pick a topic that the student is “an expert” in, so that all of tasks are addressing automaticity for previous knowledge.

Games are another intrinsically motivating context for addressing automaticity. There is also ecological validity for these when you are doing group therapy. There are a host of games that require word retrieval and place time constraints on the students (bear in mind that you can alter the rules or adjust the timers to make the games more accessible for your students). Several rapid naming/word retrieval games are listed below.

  • Password
  • Scattergories
  • Taboo
  • Boggle
  • UpWords
  • Catch Phrase
  • Tri bond
  • Last Word
  • Crosswords
  • Guesstures
  • Charades
  • Pictionary

Word retrieval and rapid automatic naming can be improved through high interest tasks. Moreover, students who learn meta-cognitive skills will be more apt to self-cue and carryover new skills. An individualized approach that takes the student’s learning preferences into consideration will help him or her to automatically navigate in the high-speed world of words that we live in. Success starts here!