Vocabulary

  • Why is vocabulary important?

    Vocabulary development is the understanding of specific words presented in text or oral language. Vocabulary is an important prerequisite for developing reading comprehension and oral and written expression. Students who do not have a strong vocabulary continue to struggle to gain meaning from text while reading, and struggle to understand new concepts presented in oral discussions. Vocabulary is an essential skill for learning to read and write, and vocabulary strategies are necessary when students are “reading to learn.”

    Research Base for Vocabulary (Key findings):

    • Children learn the meanings of most words indirectly. They do so by engaging daily in oral language, listening to adults read to them, and reading extensively on their own.
    • Although a great deal of vocabulary is learned indirectly, some vocabulary should be taught directly.
    • Repetition and multiple exposures to words contribute to students’ understanding of word meaning.
    • Even weak readers’ vocabulary knowledge is strongly correlated to the amount of reading they engage in: "Research has shown that children who read even ten minutes a day outside of school experience substantially higher rates of vocabulary growth between second and fifth grade than children who do little or no reading." 
    • Words are typically learned from repeated encounters (often 8-10 exposures), rather than from a single context or encounter.
    • Children who enter with limited vocabulary knowledge grow much more discrepant over time from their peers who have rich vocabulary knowledge.

    Considerations for Teaching Vocabulary:

  • Vocabulary items that are required for a specific text should be taught directly—this helps both vocabulary learning and reading comprehension (NICHD, 2000).
  • The more connections that can be made to a specific word, the better it is learned (NICHD, 2000).
  • Pre-instruction of vocabulary in reading lessons has been shown to have significant effects on learning outcomes (NICHD, 2000).
  • Students should be given strategies to use when they encounter new words in oral and written language (NICHD, 2000).
  • The context in which words are learned is very important. Vocabulary words should be words that the learner will encounter in many contexts because students learn new words better when they encounter them often (Armbruster et al., 2001).
  • A large portion of vocabulary items should be derived from content learning materials (NICHD, 2000).
  • Teachers should select vocabulary words that are important for understanding text and words that students will encounter often (NICHD, 2000).
  • Teachers should include both context and definitions for words (Stahl, 1986).
  • Children learn words best when they are provided with instruction over an extended period of time and when that instruction has them work actively with the words (Armbruster et al., 2001).

    Instructional Strategies (Key elements):  

    • Students learn new vocabulary from oral language experiences like listening to adults read to them. Teachers should read aloud to students, no matter what grade they teach:
      • Reading aloud works best when the teacher discusses the selection before, during and after reading, talking with students about new vocabulary and concepts and helping them to connect the words to their prior knowledge and background.
    • Teachers need to help students develop word-learning strategies that they can use with new words that have not been taught directly.
      • These strategies include how to use dictionaries and other reference aids to learn word meanings, how to use information about word parts to figure out the meanings of words in text, and how to use context clues to determine word meanings.
    • Teachers should provide many opportunities for students to read in and out of school. The more students read on their own, the more words they will encounter and the more word meanings they will become familiar with.
    • Because it is not possible to directly teach students all the words in a text that they are not familiar with, teachers should focus on teaching three types of words.
      • Important words: words that are critical for understanding a concept or the text
      • Useful words: words that students are likely to see and use again and again
      • Difficult words. Direct instruction should be provided for words that are particularly difficult for your students (e.g., words with multiple meanings, idiomatic expressions) (Armbruster et al., 2001).
    • Students learn vocabulary more effectively when they are actively and directly involved in constructing meaning rather than in memorizing definitions or synonyms (Baker et al., 1997).
    • When implementing direct vocabulary instruction, teachers should be sure that students are aware of what the task is and how to complete it. Students should know why they are doing the task and the components of vocabulary learning, as opposed to solely focusing on the words to be learned (NICHD, 2000).