Teaching and Developing Vocabulary - Education Place® ?· Young children naturally learn to communicate ... words make up about 50% of most English texts; ... Teaching and Developing Vocabulary

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  • Teaching and Developing Vocabulary:Key to Long-Term Reading Success


    The Central Importance ofVocabulary

    It seems almost impossible to overstate the power ofwords; they literally have changed and willcontinue to change the course of world history.Perhaps the greatest tools we can give students forsucceeding, not only in their education but moregenerally in life, is a large, rich vocabulary and theskills for using those words. Our ability to functionin todays complex social and economic worlds ismightily affected by our language skills and wordknowledge.

    In addition to the vital importance of vocabularyfor success in life, a large vocabulary is morespecifically predictive and reflective of high levels ofreading achievement. The Report of the NationalReading Panel (2000), for example, concluded, Theimportance of vocabulary knowledge has long beenrecognized in the development of reading skills. Asearly as 1924, researchers noted that growth inreading power relies on continuous growth in wordknowledge (pp. 415).

    Vocabulary or Vocabularies?In everyday conversation we speak of vocabulary inthe singular; we speak of a persons vocabulary.This is actually an oversimplification. The AmericanHeritage Dictionary defines vocabulary as the sumof words used by, understood by, or at thecommand of a particular person or group. In thispaper we are concerned with extending the sum ofwords that are used by and understood by students.

    However, it seems important to point out that inalmost all cases there are some differences in thenumber of words that an individual understandsand uses. Even the terms uses and understandsneed clarification. For example, the major way inwhich we use vocabulary is when we speak andwrite; the term expressive vocabulary is used to referto both since these are the vocabularies we use toexpress ourselves. We understand vocabularywhen we listen to speech and when we read; theterm receptive vocabulary is used to refer to listeningand reading vocabularies. Finally, to round out theterminology, meaning or oral vocabulary refers to thecombination of listening and speaking vocabularies,and literate vocabulary refers to the combination ofour reading and writing vocabularies. Are ourlistening, speaking, reading, and writingvocabularies all the same? Are they equally large?Is our meaning vocabulary larger or smaller than

    C u r r e n t R e s e a r c hIN READING / LANGUAGE ARTS

    Words, so innocent and powerless as they are, standing in a dictionary; how potent for good and evil theybecome in the hands of one who knows how to choose and combine them.

    Nathaniel Hawthorne

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    meaning vocabularies. We tend to have a largergroup of words that we use in reading and writingthan we use in our own speech. This is becausewritten language is more formal, more complex,and more sophisticated than spoken language.

    Reading Vocabulary Young children naturally learn to communicatethrough listening and speaking. In order to makethe transition to communicating through readingand writing, they need a large meaning vocabularyand effective decoding skills. There is anabundance of research evidence to show that aneffective decoding strategy allows students not onlyto identify printed words accurately but to do sorapidly and automatically (Pikulski and Chard,2003). Given the focus of this paper, we will notattempt to review the rather complex topic ofdeveloping fluency. However, we do feel it isimportant to briefly address one aspect of decodingthat is crucial for beginning readers: high-frequencyvocabulary.

    our literate vocabularies? Figure 1 shows therelationship of the eight different terms.

    For the first five years or so of their lives,children are involved in the process of acquiring ameaning/oral vocabularywords that theyunderstand when they hear them and that they canuse in their speech. During this period, childrenhave essentially no literate vocabularies. Mostchildren acquire reading and writing skills uponentering school. They need to acquire a basicknowledge of how printed letters relate to thesounds of spoken words and how printed wordsrelate to spoken words. Being able to translate ortranscode print into speech allows children to usewhat they know about meaning/oral vocabulary fortheir literate vocabulary. So for very youngchildren, their meaning vocabularies are muchlarger than their literate vocabularies.

    The acquisition of decoding skills leads to rapidexpansion of literate vocabularies by allowingchildren to transcode their meaning vocabulariesinto their literate vocabularies. This is so much thecase that for older students and for adults ourliterate vocabularies are probably larger than our


    Reading Writing





    Figure 1


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    potential for fostering improvement in another.Therefore, one responsibility of teachers is to helpchildren transfer vocabulary skills from one form toanother.

    The Need to ImproveVocabulary Instruction

    While the dependence of both general achievementand reading achievement on vocabulary growth hasbeen clearly established for decades, those findingsdo not appear to have been put into practice. In arecent text, Beck et al. (2002) draw the research-based conclusion: All the available evidenceindicates that there is little emphasis on theacquisition of vocabulary in school curricula. In aclassic classroom observational study, Durkin (1979)found that in the 4,469 minutes of readinginstruction that were observed, a mere nineteenminutes were devoted to vocabulary instruction andthat virtually no vocabulary developmentinstruction took place during content instructionsuch as social studies.

    The effects of the lack of attention to vocabularyinstruction, however, may not manifest themselvesin the earliest grades where tests of readingachievement tend to contain passages that havesimple content and common vocabulary. Whilemost students who succeed in reading in the earlygrades continue to achieve well, some do not. TheReport of the Rand Reading Study Group (2002)concluded, Research has shown that many childrenwho read at the third grade level in grade 3 will notautomatically become proficient comprehenders inlater grades.

    Indeed, a commonly reported phenomenon inreading test results is for achievement to be goodthrough second or third grade and to falterthereafter. This drop off in achievement seems verylikely due to weaknesses in language developmentand background knowledge, which are increasinglyrequired for reading comprehension beyond theearly grades and for reading informational andcontent-area texts.

    The most recently released study of internationalreading achievement provides some strong evidencethat the weakness in U.S. student performance isnot the result of decoding problems or inability tocomprehend narrative texts. Instead, it seems to bedue to weakness in ability to comprehend

    High-frequency vocabulary refers to those wordsthat are used over and over again in ourcommunicationsthey are important to both ourmeaning and literate vocabularies. A mere 100words make up about 50% of most English texts;200 words make up 90% of the running words ofmaterials through third grade; and 500 words makeup 90% of the running words in materials throughninth grade. If a reader is to have at least amodicum of fluency, it is critical that these words betaught systematically and effectively.

    The research of Ehri (1994, 1998) is particularlyinformative. Her research strongly suggests thathigh-frequency words should be introduced withoutwritten context so that students focus on their visualcomposition, that they should be practiced inmaterials that are at an appropriate level of challenge,and that they should be practiced several times inorder to allow developing readers to recognize theminstantly or, in other words, at sight. She also makesthe important point that although many of thesewords do not conform completely to phonicgeneralizations or expectations (e.g. was), theynonetheless very frequently do have elements thatare regular. For example, the w in was is regular andthe s at the end of that word sometimes does have the/z/ sound. Ehris research strongly suggests thatthese phonic regularities are powerful mnemonics forremembering the words and should be pointed out,rather than expecting that students will rememberthe vague shape of the word, as was the traditionwith flash-card instruction for many years.

    The High But Less Than PerfectRelationship Among the Vocabularies

    There is no question that people who have largespeaking vocabularies generally tend to have largelistening, reading, and writing vocabularies; like-wise people who are limited in one of these aspectsare likely limited in other aspects as well. We haveseen that this close relationship does not exist in pre-literate children. Also, some children who developlarge reading vocabularies may not use that vocabu-lary in their writing without teacher help and guid-ance. However, in the years during which childrendevelop as readers and writers, there is an increas-ingly high relationship among all four aspects ofvocabularylistening, speaking, reading, and writ-ing. Fostering improvement in one aspect has the

  • concluded that although these children wereexposed to much oral language stimulation inschool, it was too incidental and insufficiently directand intense to have a major impact.

    A Comprehensive Approach toTeaching and Developing

    VocabularyThe amount of vocabulary that children need toacquire each year is staggering in scope, estimatedto be about 3,000 words a year. Therefore, acomprehensive approach consisting of the followingcomponents needs to be in place.

    Use instructional read-aloud events.

    Provide direct instruction in the meanings ofclusters of words and individual words.

    Systematically teach students the meaning ofprefixes, suffixes, and root words.

    Link spelling instruction to reading andvocabulary instruction.

    Teach the effective, efficient, realistic use ofdictionaries, thesauruses, and other referenceworks.

    Teach, model, and encourage the application ofa word-learning strategy.

    Encourage wide reading.

    Create a keen awareness of and a deep interestin language and words.

    Use Instructional Read-Aloud Events

    The recommendation that parents and teachers readaloud to children is among the most popular recom-mendations in the field of reading. The prestigiousresearch-based report Becoming a Nation of Readers(Anderson et al. 1985) concluded, The single mostimportant activity for building the knowledgerequired for eventual success in reading is readingaloud to children. One very obvious way in whichreading aloud to children can be expected to be ben-eficial is to increase their language and vocabularyskills. Indeed there is research to support this posi-tion (Elley, 1989; Leong and Pikulski, 1990; Robbinsand Ehri, 1994).


    informational texts (Progress in International ReadingLiteracy Study, 2003). When compared to studentsfrom the 35 participating nations, United Statesfourth graders ranked fourth on the narrativesection of the test but thirteenth on theinformational section. This disparity of ninerankings was by far the largest among the nationsparticipating in the study.

    Vocabulary and LanguageDevelopment: The Important

    Preschool Years Scarborough (2001) reviews very convincingevidence that children who enter kindergarten withweak language skills are likely to encounterdifficulty in learning to read. Hart and Risley (1995)conducted a careful, intensive study of earlylanguage development and found huge differencesthat reflected parents socioeconomic status.Extraordinary variation was found in the amount oftalk that took place between parents and childrenfrom family to family. At the extremes, the childrenfrom high socioeconomic status had 16 times morelanguage stimulation than children from lowerstatus families. These differences in languageexperiences directly influenced childrens languagegrowth. Children from parents of professionals hada cumulative vocabulary of about 1,100 words,those from working class families had about 650words, and those from welfare families had justover 400 words. These differences systematicallywidened between the onset of speech and threeyears of age when the vocabulary measures weretaken.

    More recently Farcus (2001) presented similarresearch data. He found that once children whowere falling behind in language growth enteredkindergarten, with its greater language stimulation,the language gap no longer widened. Nevertheless,although the gap didnt widen, neither did itnarrow.

    Research reviews such as that by Barnett (2001)suggest that it is possible for children who are behindin early language development to overcome theselimitations. However, reviews such as that by Becket al. (2002) and Juel et al. (2003) clearly show thatnot enough is being done in our school programs tohelp children who enter school with weak languageand vocabulary development to catch up. Juel et al.

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    jargon of a field. Examples of Level III wordsfrom the field of reading instruction include theterms digraph, diphthong, schwa, metacomprehension,etc. As one might expect, some words such ascalculation might be classified as either a Level IIor Level III word or both.

    Level IV Words These are words that areinteresting but so rare and esoteric that they areprobably not useful even in most educationalenvironments, and they are not associated with afield of study or profession. Examples are wordsthat were but no longer are used: majuscule (acapital letter), xanthodont (one who has yellowteeth like a rodent), noctuary (an account of whathappens in a night). Notice, however, that someLevel IV words are useful for teachingmorphological clues such as noct meaningnight and dont or dent referring to teeth. LevelIV words are also helpful for creating an interestin words and language.

    Just by their definitions, it should be apparentthat a major responsibility of teachers is to expandthe Level II and Level III words of their students.Teachers of content areas have a specialresponsibility for teaching Level III words.

    Purposes For Teaching Vocabulary One reasonteachers are concerned about teaching vocabulary isto facilitate the comprehension of a text thatstudents will be assigned to read. If students do notknow the meaning of many of the words that theywill encounter in a text, their comprehension of thatselection is likely to be compromised. When thepurpose of vocabulary instruction is to facilitate thecomprehension of a selection, it is obvious that thisinstruction must take place as an introductionbefore the reading of the selection.

    As a rule, new words in narrative selections arenot as critical to the overall understanding of theselection as are new words in informationalselections. Before guiding students reading of aparticular n...


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