InferCabulary: Improving Literacy with Semantic Reasoning, with Beth Lawrence | EDB 186

Speech and language pathologist and InferCabulary co-founder Beth Lawrence

(24 minutes) Beth Lawrence, MA, CCC-SLP is a certified speech-language pathologist who received her Master of Arts from Northwestern University in 1994. Since 2000, she has run a private pediatric practice, Lawrence Speech Pathology Services, in Baltimore. Beth is th co-founder of InferCabulary, InferCabulary a web-based vocabulary tool for 1st – 12th grade students that uses images to help students learn words in a variety of contexts using kid-friendly definitions. She discusses the use of InferCabulary as a tool for improving literacy, the concepts of Semantic Reasoning, the importance of reading for a developing brain, and how parents can best set up their children for success.

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Meeting Beth Lawrence, MA, CCC-SLP

HACKIE REITMAN, M.D. (HR): Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman. Welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains. Today we’re going to have a lot of fun with Beth Lawrence from the Baltimore area, who’s a speech pathologist and the co-founder of InferCabulary. And we’re going to learn all about it. Beth, welcome to Exploring Different Brains!

BETH LAWRENCE (BL): Thank you so much for having me! I’m really excited to just be here with you and have this opportunity. I’m really appreciative.

HR: Very cool. Now let’s have you introduce yourself correctly.

BL: You did a great job. I wouldn’t correct a thing. Yes, so I am a speech language pathologist. The last 18 years prior to that, I had worked with the little itty-bitties under the age of five. And in the last 18 years, I’ve really focused my practice on working with school-aged children, elementary, middle, high school, who have different types of learning differences, speech language disorders. And a lot of my students have dyslexia and language based learning disabilities. So I’ve really, really been immersed in helping students with literacy and including written language reading, reading comprehension, all of that so that’s my background.

The birth of InferCabulary

HR: Tell us how you got into this. How it led you into this.

BL: So I’m the CEO of a technology company, an educational technology company called InferCabulary with my co-founder, who’s also a speech language pathologist. And we did not wake up one day and say “I know. I have this great idea. I’m gonna go start a company and learn about marketing and get an NBA the hard way.” No, no. That was not what happened. Actually what happened was about seven years ago, it was up until that point I had been working with educators, speech language pathologists, special educators, tutors. Really kind of honing in on best practice instruction for the five pillars of literacy. So phonemic awareness and phonics and fluency and vocabulary and reading comprehension. And so I was keeping abreast of what’s what was considered best practice. And I had a huge tool box. So when I was working with my own students, I was using those tools. And I met a girl in 8th grade. And I just did a TedX talk on this very story, where everything I was pulling out, like I pulled out everything. I like pretty much dumped the box and nothing was working for her. She was really struggling with comprehending Animal Farm by George Orwell. And the big issue I was seeing was the vocabulary. So I was trying everything I knew how to do, and literally, she told me that that prominent–after we had done lots of really cool edgy, like cutting edge work–she told me that prominent meant tall. And I was like “Oh, we have a problem.”

So I pulled out her psychoeducational assessment hoping that I could find some clues in that and–oh my gosh, I had this massive epiphany that even though I was using all kinds of multi-sensory approaches to help her because she was dyslexic, she had a language issue, she had a different ring. And I had this epiphany that I had still been using language as the primary modality to teach language to a kid whose primary deficit was–her nonverbal performance quotient the VISQ on the you know, IQ testing was a 125 and her verbal with an 85. And I’m like “Oh my Gosh, what am I doing using language?” So I scratched my head and was hoping to find something that could be a tool I could use and there was nothing commercially available. So I went online and I found a bunch of images and I put them on a powerpoint page. And I put the word prominence at the top and I’m like, “I’m gonna see how well she can do with solving this problem and figuring it out for herself.” And it was literally a miracle. So six seconds, she goes “Oh, prominent means to stand out in some way.” And then she was able to tell me two additional examples of prominency that I didn’t even have on the page. And so, you know, with my focus on one student at a time in my in my private practice, and I had worked in public school as well, I really just thought this was a cool vocabulary way to help her and then I started using it with some other students. And then I started sharing with colleagues as you do.

And then somebody, somebody along the way suggested “Oh, you could turn this into an app.” You know. And I knew that there would be a lot of work involved, and time and resources so I wanted to make sure there was a there there with it. And so I have very good fortune from Martha Danklof from Johns Hopkins whose a pretty prominent–one of the Grand Dams–she’s the woman who discovered, like, the role of fluency, and the importance of rapid automatic naming in the whole reading process. So anyhow, she invited me to come to Johns Hopkins and I gave her a 20 minute, you know, and she was like “You have to do this.” So that launched us, Gina and me, on this this adventure that we’re on. We ended up publishing a norm-referenced assessment tool along the way, and realizing that what we had designed for one student and then the 10% of students that we’re kind of trained to focus on, those in special education, really with some market research at 65% of students in this country who struggle with reading comprehension. And then University of Virginia did a research study, and it was small study, but what his results found was that all of the students, the students on IEPs, those who were struggling but not getting the special help, and the high flyer students, all of them, did better the weeks that they use them for InferCabulary to learn words in their ability to apply their understanding to new contexts. So it kind of opened up this whole “Oh, this might just be another best practice tool that we can encourage educators to use.”

Technology and InferCabulary

HR: Tell us how technology plays a role with InferCabulary.

BL: Yeah, so my co-founder has been extraordinarily patient with me these last seven years because I–my husband still thinks it’s quite amusing that I am a CEO for technology. I used to be like “Where’s the delete button, right?” I’ve come a long way. I’m very grateful for neuroplasticity for sure, it’s like my favorite thing to be grateful for. But technology, it’s everywhere and kids are on it. Kids are using it. I definitely, even though I have a technology company, I still want kids to have playtime, hands on, you know so, I am not an advocate of “let’s replace good instruction, the human interaction teacher and student.” I’m not an advocate of replacing you know tummy time in babies with screen time, I’m not. It has its place. It’s here. It’s here to stay. And what with the technology has enabled is really access so one of the things that Dean and I care about is equity, and making sure that kids of all needs and all socio-economic backgrounds have access to good quality materials and tools and instruction. So, it’s kind of enabled that many high percentage of schools in our country at least have access to technology so it’s kind of one of those things that levels the playing field.

And our tool is very customizable so if it were just workbooks, it would be kind of static, and usually those get distributed to the entire class and everybody’s doing the same thing. And with InferCabulary, say you are a fifth grade teacher, you’re teaching the novel “The Giver” you have the ability to go into our tool and we, as the language experts, have pulled out the tier-2 and the academic words, those words that kids are going to need as they go through life, and also can cause them to stumble with their comprehension. We’ve pulled those words out and the teacher can assign those words from whatever the book is that they’re reading. But, within my class, if I know that they’re really students struggling with vocabulary, I can bump down their grade level, I can bump up the grade level of other students who are gifted and intelligent, and who might need a little bit of a push. So technology is one of those who the other thing that it does is allow for that differentiation.

Where reading and speech intersect

HR: Talk to us about, in your view, where reading and speech intersect.

BL: Oh that’s a good one. So I’m Just old enough that when I was getting a degree in speech and language, It was just the beginnings of us really delving in and and getting those great brain studies at NIH and lots of other places that really honed in on reading being a sound based process. So, the parts of the brain that are involved with processing sound is is really what is the foundation for reading. And so that’s what introduced the whole idea of phonemic awareness. Having that understanding. My favorite example is, you know, the word “bread.” Now say the word “bread” without the “r” sound and so that ability to be able to kinda go, “Oh I’m hearing it.” And and not the letters, b, r, e, a, d. But just the sounds that are just four sounds “bread.” So, phonemic awareness is that the brain’s ability to go “Oh, Take out the ‘R’ that says bed.” Or exchange the “R” with an “O,” or how many syllables are in onomatopoeia? When I was in graduate school, that wasn’t being taught. And it wasn’t until, gosh I think 1990, I attended a course on Ortan Gillingham, and that was when everything started to make a lot more sense, where the speech language pathologist really have a role in literacy. Because now we’re asking students to think about sounds, and manipulate, and have a have that strength, and now apply that understanding to do the letters and squiggles that are on the page and that’s the process of reading.

Tools for literacy in children

HR: If parent is watching this, and they have a newborn and they want to begin early with best practices for their child to learn language. What’s your advice?  

BL: Oh that’s a good one. Lots of experiential play. I would definitely stay in for Infocabulary doesn’t doesn’t really kick in until kids are six-ish six years old, seven, that’s when critical thinking really starts to kick in for kids. So lots of language, lots of labeling things, lots of talking about how this item goes into this item, laying down Categories and subcategories like: “Oh, you put your clothes on the baby or on the teddy bear,” “Oh, those look like winter clothes, your teddy bear is going to be nice and warm.” That’s the type of conversation, that back and forth and listening too. But for older students, InferCabulary is the only tool that’s going to challenge them to use semantic reasoning which is kind of our secret sauce with InferCabulary.  

InferCabulary and neurodiversity

HR: I think labels are a lousy way to describe a unique human being, but sometimes you need them and sometimes you don’t. And you obviously, with InferCabulary, you’re looking at all different brains. But knows that you’re teaching, knows that you’re reaching, what would you estimate some of the top bidders are for labels?  

BL: Definitely kids who have a diagnosis of dyslexia or a language based learning disability. They are, like I said, if you are not spending time getting those multiple encounters over time with these great words like compliance and prominence and prudent, those will be stumbling blocks as you’re trying to comprehend. And there’s some great research, there are a coupe of studies, one said 95%, another said 98%. And that’s the percentage of words that you already need to know when you encounter them in a text. We teach a lot about teaching kids how to use context clues when they are reading. And unfortunately, authors are not tat nice. Like they don’t sit down, going “I’m going to write something with context clues.” They write with great vocabulary. And so just over time, you develop that.

And so kids who have decoding issues, they’re not going to be encountering unless they’re listening to a lot of audio books. I highly recommend that. Another population is kids with receptive and expressive language disorders. That’s another population. We definitely have a lot of schools that are Title I, because as you intimate, when you don’t have that–with kids in poverty, there’s a high possibility that they may not have grown up in a language rich environment. So those are probably the top three. We do have speech language pathologists and special educators who are using this tool with people who are on the autism spectrum. It definitely would need to be modified to do that. The reason it would not necessarily be appropriate to have a student who has autism just sign up and log in and go is because we ask them to engage in critical thinking, they have to use inductive reasoning, deductive reasoning, and they figure out the meanings of the words. We do not tell them the definition until they have gone through that process. So you could imagine that that has high potential to be difficult for someone with autism. However, in the hands of a therapist or tutor who is trying to approve those skills, it can be adapted and used to really hone in on exactly one of the major aspects that they need to work on. So it’s an adaptable tool.  

What is Semantic Reasoning?

HR: Very interesting. How do you define semantic reasoning?  

BL: So semantic reasoning is, if you Google it, it is an artificial intelligence, computing, it’s a term that’s been in that world. We had a fantastic researcher colleague who became a very big supporter of what we’re working on. Back in the days when I presented it to him, and I was like “look at this cool vocabulary thing we came up with,” and he’s like, “You realize this is a lot more than that,” and I’m like “No, I didn’t know that! help me understand!” So lots of fantastic conversations back and forth, and he was Mr. Miyagi and I was trying to figure it out. What we came up with was is its semantic reasoning is requiring the learner to use inductive and deductive reasoning in the semantic domain. Which is the vocabulary domain. Or asking people to do that can be done with sentence examples. We find it really useful to use photographs and images just because it kind of takes away, rather than having you use an area of thinking of language that may not be your strength, that we can really draw on the visual, the visual strengths that a lot of people have. And then we can also go younger, so rather than requiring you to read to read a complex sentence, if you’re in first grade, it can be done with just the visual.  

HR: Let’s say somebody in our audience, they want to learn more about you and your work and everything else. And you you’re into some different things too it’s not all InferCabulary. It’s Speech Pathology, it’s other interest in everything. How do they learn more about you?  

BL: Well I’m on LinkedIn, I’m pretty active on LinkedIn. That’s my that’s my preferred social media, because for the most part it stays away from political and focuses on business and education, and that kind of thing. So that’s my favorite. Our website is There is an “About” page there, we do still have some Services of our business. We have seven or eight who work for us, and so we continue to provide services to families to provide their children with additional support between our ages two through college. So just a quick Google search would find that. And for InferCabulary’s mission–we’ll be presenting at the American Speech Hearing Association.We have our Powerpoint presentation on our website. We have handouts there.

InferCabulary is a tool that can be purchased, but we also teach teachers and instructors just how to create their own semantic reasoning lessons. So you could also check on Google, just acquired one of her one of our good friends companies called Workbench. so Workbench by Google has all kinds of teach great hands-on teacher lessons, so I would definitely recommend people check that out. But one of them is a lesson that we put in there basically teaching people, here’s the process that you can create your own semantic reasoning lessons. You don’t have to purchase our products. We just really, really believe that it can have a profound impact on, in addition to other vocabulary instruction methods and approaches, this is another one to add your tool box. So we’ll be at International Dyslexia Association this year in Oregon, we’re going to be in passion we’re doing two presentations in at ASHA in Florida this year. Those are some ways you can find us.  

Challenging the status quo

HR: What do you feel is the biggest single stumbling block, if there is one, to prevent the greater educational establishment, if you will from “getting” what you want to stand about this?  

BL: That’s a really good question. I think shifting really, really hard. You know, “there’s this is the way we’ve always done it, why do we need something new.” When it’s such a visual tool, that it’s kind of one of those “let me show you,” I can’t tell you how many times we hear “that makes so much sense,” and it does. And we hear “that makes so much sense, this is way more fun than the normal way, we’ve got you know ERB scores, stanine scores improving.” One of the weeks that University of Virginia, is Michael Kennedy did a research study. It was only 75 students but they alternated approach. So InferCabulary with teacher A one week. Teacher B taught the same words with business as usual, and then they kept the same kids the whole six weeks. So it wasn’t like one better teacher compared to the other. And then Week 2, Teacher One was using business as usual, and Teacher Two was using InferCabulary. And that way we could compare from one group to the other. but in addition to that, what excited me the most was kids special education–they had a cohort of kids in special education of at least 75 kids who struggle, but were not identified or getting special help. And then the kind of like the highflyer students who were doing well on reading comprehension assessment. they did great at the vocabulary screening. No concerns. So they looked at the score, they could compare the group units in groups to one another. They could compare one individual student to him or herself from week to week. So the cool thing is there was actually across-the-board, whoever was using InferCabulary was outscoring the other group. Individuals did better for the most part with InferCabulary. But the cool part was there was one week that the kids in special education outperformed the highflyer.  

HR: How cool is that?  

BL: And they all reported liking and having fun. So those are the kind of things that we want to see more of that.  

HR: Well, Beth Lawrence – InferCabulary – it’s been such a pleasure to have you here at Exploring Different Brains. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to be with us.  

BL: Of course, it was absolutely my pleasure. I really really enjoyed chatting with you and having an opportunity to share what we’ve been working on.