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Handout: Vocabulary

The importance of building an expansive vocabulary increases as reading ability improves and children begin learning more complex information through reading. But readers cannot understand what they are reading unless they know most of the words in the text. Even as early as the second grade, children must learn the meaning of new words that are not in their oral vocabulary as they move on to more advanced texts.

According to CIERA, the research on vocabulary instruction reveals that, while most vocabulary is learned indirectly, some vocabulary must be taught directly. Children learn word meanings indirectly in three ways:

  • They engage daily in oral language. Conversations, especially with adults, provide opportunities for children to learn word meanings.
  • They listen to adults read to them. Simply by listening to adults read to them, children can learn word meanings. Adults can definitely build on this effect by pausing to define unfamiliar words or by asking the child questions after reading.
  • They read extensively on their own. Children figure out word meanings as they read and are exposed to more words that are not in their traditional oral vocabulary. Text selection is important here, however. Ideally, students should know 90–95 percent of the words in a text; this background vocabulary knowledge helps them learn the remaining 5–10 percent of the words (Hirsch 2003). If more than 10 percent of the words are unfamiliar, the passage will not make sense to the students and they will not be able to learn the new word meanings.

Because children learn vocabulary in these three ways, their exposure to vocabulary varies widely due to income and socioeconomic differences. This variation is evident even from preschool age. Hart and Risley’s study (2003) showing a substantial gap between the number of words known by children from welfare and working-class families and children from professional families observed young children and measured vocabulary use at age three, and then followed up with those children in third grade. They found that the children’s reading comprehension scores on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS/U) could be predicted by their vocabulary use, with middle-income students outperforming low-income students.

Recommendations for effective instruction: Although children learn a great deal of vocabulary indirectly, some vocabulary should be taught directly, especially as students delve more deeply into specific subjects. CIERA suggests that teachers introduce specific words in a text before reading it, both to help children learn new words and to help them understand the text.

While the National Reading Panel (2000) acknowledged the important role of vocabulary in reading comprehension, it found little research on the best methods or combinations of methods for teaching vocabulary or on measuring vocabulary growth in relation to instruction. After reviewing more than 20,000 research citations, only 50 studies met NRP’s research methodology, and no single method of vocabulary instruction stood out. Rather, studies indicated that using a variety of methods increased vocabulary knowledge. Such methods include:

  • Key word method: Students and teachers devise a key word “word clue” that helps students learn a new vocabulary word. For example, if the class were trying to learn archipelago (a group of small islands), the teacher might say, “This reminds me of pelicans, so to remember the word’s meaning, I’ll think of a pelican flying over a group of islands.”
  • Repeated exposure: Students and teachers use new vocabulary repeatedly. Encountering the same words again and again, especially across the curriculum, increases learning gains.
  • Context method: Teachers show students how to use clues in the text (such as other words they do know, or the meaning of common prefixes and suffixes) to help figure out new words. Several studies indicate that a blend of direct-definition instruction and vocabulary learning through context clues is more effective than one method alone.


This research review was prepared for the Center for Public Education by freelance writer Eileen M. O'Brien with additional editorial contributions from Sally Banks Zakariya. Much of O'Brien's work has focused on access to quality education for disadvantaged and minority populations. She has a master of public administration from George Washington University and a bachelor of science degree in psychology from Loyola University of Chicago. Zakariya, a free-lance writer based in Arlington, Virginia, is former editor-in-chief of American School Board Journal and director of publications for the National School Boards Association.

Posted: October 17, 2008

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