Vocabulary knowledge is fundamental to reading success. It goes hand in hand with comprehension. A child simply cannot understand text without having a working knowledge of what the words actually mean. Just like phonemic awareness and phonics, vocabulary development is one of the five components of effective reading instruction.
Teaching reading is a huge task. Big enough that a complete and comprehensive approach needs to be taken, which is why research now identifies that reading instruction should include five components or pillars:
- phonemic awareness – the ability to hear and identify phonemes, the smallest units of sound
- phonics – the sound/grapheme relationship of letters and combinations make words and meaning
- fluency – the ability to read with ease, to read accurately, quickly and expressively
- vocabulary – the knowledge of word meaning
- comprehension – using the four other components to conjure meaning in a written passage
Exclude one of those components and children may suffer in their reading skills and experience unnecessary difficulty in learning to read.
This post on vocabulary development is the third installment of five in this series. Visit the others linked in the bulleted list above.
What is Vocabulary?
Vocabulary is having an understanding of a working body of language with the knowledge of word meanings. More specifically, we typically refer to vocabulary as the kind of words that children must know to read demanding text.
There are two types of word knowledge associated with vocabulary: definition knowledge and contextual knowledge.
- Definition knowledge is like that found in a dictionary, a direct and literal definition of a given word.
- Contextual knowledge comes from exposure to the same word in multiple contexts, preferably contexts with diverse perspectives.
Both are important in developing vocabulary and research has found that instruction that includes both types of vocabulary knowledge is better than only one.
Why is Vocabulary Instruction Important?
It quite literally is essential to reading. Children cannot understand a given text without a working knowledge of words and without having a thorough and complete understanding of their meaning. Like other components of reading, how big and strong a child’s vocabulary is has an impact on how well that child will read, and the ease at which that child learns.
But…Building Vocabulary is Difficult
There is an alarming difference of word-knowledge between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who come from advantaged backgrounds. And these differences begin well before children ever enter school. How much a child reads, or is read to, has a huge impact on how many words a child has in their arsenal. The reason for this is because the more a child reads, or is read to, the higher a frequency to exposure of new and repeated words.
Let’s take a look at some numbers and facts:
- Children from professional families enter school with a word bank of over 50 million words.
- Children from working class families enter school with approximately 30 million words.
- Children from poverty enter school with a vocabulary as small as only 15 million words.
Clearly, the average classroom is filled with a very wide gap between the lowest and the highest performing students. That gap can be very intimidating to address.
So, How is Vocabulary Developed?
There are four types of vocabulary, and each are important and have an impact on reading success.
- listening vocabulary
- speaking vocabulary
- reading vocabulary
- writing vocabulary
Take a look at the chart below for how those vocabularies are developed and why they are important. It is evident that vocabulary is developed by more than simply teaching new definitions. In fact, that by itself, may be quite ineffectual.
What Else Should Teachers Know About Vocabulary?
When it come to vocabulary instruction, there are three tiers. These tiers help guide instruction so that teachers many spend their precious instructional time on the most important words for a student to know.
Surprisingly, these words are not always the really difficult, content related vocabulary. Take a look at the following chart to understand why:
What Are Some Tips for Teaching vocabulary?
For success in teaching vocabulary, try some of these tips:
- focus instruction on Tier 2 words
- provide direct instruction for vocabulary words in specific text
- provide multiple exposure in different contexts of the same words
- provide rich and varied language experiences
- actively engage students in vocabulary activities that go beyond definitional knowledge
- use a variety of vocabulary strategies, as only one or two will not result in building word knowledge
What Else Does Research Say About Vocabulary?
- “Knowledge of a word is not an all or nothing proposition; it is not the case that one either knows or does not know a word. Rather, knowledge of a word should be viewed in terms of the extent or the degree of knowledge people can possess.” (Beck and Morrow, 1991)
- “Twenty-five to fifty percent of annual vocabulary growth can be attributed to incidental learning from context while reading.” (Nagy, Anderson, and Herman, 1987)
- “To be effective, vocabulary instruction must provide adequate definitions and illustrations of how words are used in natural contexts. Integration, repetition, and meaningful use are three priorities in vocabulary instruction that increase reading comprehension.” (Stahl 1986; Graves and Prenn 1986; Carr and Wixson, 1986)
- “Vocabulary acquisition is crucial to academic development. Not only do students need a rich body of word knowledge to succeed in basic skill areas, they also need a specialized vocabulary to learn content area material.” (Baker, Simmons, and Kameenui, 1995)
- “Differences in the amount of independent reading, lack of strategies to learn words from context, and diffuse word knowledge appear to be the most critical obstacles to vocabulary development for students with disabilities.” (Stahl & Shiel, 1999).
What About Preschool Literacy Instruction?
Just like teaching reading in kindergarten and above consists of five important pillars of instruction, preschool literacy is also guided by its own four components. Check out these articles for more information about how to teach literacy in an early childhood classroom:
The Big Four of Preschool Literacy Instruction: An Introduction
The Big Four of Preschool Literacy Instruction: Print Awareness
The Big Four of Preschool Literacy Instruction: Alphabetic Principle
The Big Four of Preschool Literacy Instruction: Oral Language Development
The Big Four of Preschool Literacy Instruction: Phonological Awareness