The Effects of Vocabulary Instruction on
Research supports the view that reading comprehension and vocabulary growth share a symbiotic relationship (Nagy, 1989; Allen, 1999; Osborne & Armbruster, 2000). The more you read, the better your vocabulary is; the better your vocabulary is the better your reading comprehension is. “Measures of word meanings correlate highly with reading comprehension…. Even the child with limited reading comprehension skills will build vocabulary and cognitive structures through reading.” (Kuhn & Stahl, 1998, p.2)
An important question to consider is whether new vocabulary words are learned through a process of “reading osmosis,” or whether they need to be systematically taught.Nagy (1989, p.3) states, “What is needed to produce vocabulary growth is not more vocabulary instruction, but more reading.” Kuhn and Stahl, (1998, p.2) who reviewed 14 studies aimed at teaching children to be more efficient at learning words from context support this view. "Ultimately, increasing the amount of reading that children do seems to be the most reliable approach to improving their knowledge of word meanings, with or without additional training in learning words from context." Osborne and Arbruster (2001, p.1) agree with this assessment and state, “Students who read widely know more words and knowing what words mean is strongly related to successful reading comprehension.”
On the other hand, Nagy (1989, p.1) reminds us that,” one cannot understand text without knowing what most of the words mean…. Increasing vocabulary knowledge is a basic part of the process of education, both as a means and an end.” Davis (2000, p.2) clearly deems it “necessary to teach vocabulary skills in order to aid in the process of reading and comprehending material,” and Anne Moore in her thesis, The Effects of Vocabulary Instruction on Reading Comprehension: Does Instruction Make a Difference, tells us why instruction is important. “If a student lacks meaning for basic words, he cannot understand what he reads. If his comprehension is low, then he will not enjoy reading and he will look on it as a tiresome and confusing activity to be avoided” (Moore, 1997, p.3) By avoiding reading, students will not then be exposed to the many new words they would otherwise be learning the meanings of.
However, McKeown (1985) cited in Kuhn and Stahl (1998, p.4) “found that struggling readers are significantly less efficient at deriving words from context.” Hunt and Beglar (1998. p. 3) state, “learning vocabulary from context is a gradual process, estimating that, given a single exposure to an unfamiliar word, there was about a 10% chance of learning its meaning from context.” Bloom (2000, p.18) states, “As children get older, they get better at picking up words from context…” According to Osborn and Armbruster, (2001, p.2) “the context does not always help. Although children learn most vocabulary through repeated exposures to words in context, explicit context cues to word meanings are seldom available in spoken and written language.” Dycus (1997) leads us to wonder whether we should encourage guessing in context at all, when he reminds us that the readers who already have larger active vocabularies can use available context better than those with smaller vocabularies.
(Nagy, 1989) informs us that children learn thousands of new words every year and there is only time to teach a small percentage of these. However, there is, a great deal of speculation regarding which words should be taught and how they should be taught. Hunt and Beglar (1998) make the case for directly teaching the definitions of the 3,000 most common words needed by college students. Moore (1987, p.2) tells us “Part of the problem has been that students receive very little vocabulary instruction on the elementary level.”
Furthermore, according to Nagy (1989), "Most vocabulary instruction fails to produce in-depth word knowledge.” A superficial definition-only learning of new words does not “stick-to-the-ribs”the way learning ought to. Other research (Allen, 1999 & McGuinness, 2000) supports the view that an in-depth learning of new words is an important factor in acquiring new vocabulary. Students will not improve their vocabulary skills if they are simply looking words up in the dictionary and memorizing definitions (Davis, 2002). “It takes more than definitional knowledge to know a word, and we have to know words in order to identify them in multiple reading and listening contexts and use them in our speaking and writing”(Allen, 1999, p.8). Allen (1999) further tells us, that even when children do look up words in the dictionary, often none of the definitions make sense to them and often they don’t even understand the words used in the definitions.
As in most things in life, it ends up to be “a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” Hunt and Beglar (1998) make a strong case for three different approaches to teaching vocabulary-- incidental learning, explicit instruction, and independent strategy development. They state, “the learners' proficiency level and learning situation should be considered when deciding the relative emphasis to be placed on each approach…Explicit instruction is probably best for beginning and intermediate students who have limited vocabularies” (Hunt & Beglar, 1998, p.1).
Janet Allen (1999) makes the case for definitional and contextual approaches to learning new words both being necessary. Students need to both know the definitions of new words and be able to use these words in other contexts. According to Nagy (1989), the teacher ought to provide connections to prior knowledge or offer other contexts in which the words can be related. Nagy further relates that one of the biggest mistakes teachers make is teaching the new vocabulary words and definitions in isolation. According to (Davis, 2002) the children who use their new vocabulary words in real conversation with their peers develop the best and deepest understanding and learning of all. “By integrating the new vocabulary words into their writing, students will begin to develop ‘ownership’ of the new words and increase their current vocabulary base,” (Davis, 2002, p. 3). This larger vocabulary base will continue the symbiotic circle between vocabulary growth and reading comprehension.
Allen, Janet. (1999). Words, Words, Words: Teaching Vocabulary in Grades 4-12. York: Stenhouse Publishers.
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Davis, Marlon. (2002). Vocabulary Instruction: A New Approach to Learning. [online website] Available: learnweb.harvard.edu/2821/v6.cfm
Dycus, David. (1997). Guessing Word Meanings from Context: Should We Encourage It? [online website] Available:
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McGuinness, Carmen & McGuinness, Geoffrey. (2000). How to Increase Your Child’s Verbal Intelligence. New Haven: Yale University Press.
McKeown, M.G. (1985). The Acquisition of Word Meaning from Context by Children of High and Low Ability. Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 482-496.
Moore, Anne E. (1997). The Effects of Vocabulary Instruction on Reading Comprehension: Does Instruction Make a Difference?
(Thesis: Masters of Science in Education, Eastern Oregon State College, LaGrande, Oregon)
Nagy, William E. (1988). Teaching Vocabulary to Improve Reading Comprehension (ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills.)
Nagy, William. (n.d.). Promoting Students’ Vocabulary Growth – an Overview. [online website] Available:
Osborn, Jean H., & Arbruster, Bonnie B. (2000). Vocabulary Acquisition: Direct Teaching and Indirect Learning. [online website] Available: www.c-b-e.org/be/iss0111/a2osborn.htm
Southern Oregon University, 2003
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