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