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Teaching and Developing Vocabulary:
Key to Long-Term Reading Success
J. P
The Central Importance of Vocabulary
It seems almost impossible to overstate the power of words; 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 today’s 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 of reading achievement.
The Report of the National Reading 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. 4–15).
Vocabulary or Vocabularies?
In everyday conversation we speak of vocabulary inthe singular; we speak of a person’s vocabulary.This is actually an oversimplification.
TheAmerican Heritage 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 of words 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 “understands”need 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 “understandvocabularywhen 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 of our 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
Current Research
/ L
“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
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 of developing 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 vocabulary—words 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 WritingExpressiveVocabularyLiterate/WrittenVocabularyReceptiveVocabularySpeakingListening
Figure 1
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.
The Report 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 comprehendHigh-frequency vocabulary refers to those wordsthat are used over and over again in ourcommunications—they are important to both ourmeaning and literate vocabularies. Amere 100words make up about 50% of most English texts;200 words make up 90% of the running words of materials 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.
), theynonetheless very frequently do have elements thatare regular. For example, the
is regular andthe
at the end of that word sometimes does have the /z/ sound. Ehri’s 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 Perfect Relationship 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 of vocabulary—listening, speaking, reading, and writ-ing. Fostering improvement in one aspect has the

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