You’re right! Reading’s not just about phonics.
There are 5 keys to reading identified in the scientific evidence for effective teaching of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension (See here and here). Of the 5 keys, phonics gets the most attention, and rightfully so. Phonics is the area in which students are most deficient upon entry to school and therefore special attention to phonics instruction needs to be made. Yet phonics is only 1 of 5 keys to reading and a focus on phonics alone will not ensure reading success. One worth a heavy focus is vocabulary. Vocabulary is a very important piece of the puzzle yet gains very little attention.
The importance of vocabulary is well established. The link between vocabulary and the goal of reading comprehension is profound. The rationale for a focus on vocabulary is obvious: if you do not know the meaning of a decoded word then you will not be able to make sense of what you read. Biemiller (2005) has this to say on its importance:
“Teaching vocabulary will not guarantee success in reading, just as learning to read words will not guarantee success in reading. Lacking either adequate word identification skills or adequate vocabulary will ensure failure.”
This claim is backed by a very interesting study made by Spencer, Quinn and Wagner (2014) who endeavoured to find out if there is any such thing as a specific reading comprehension disability. They found that when decoding and vocabulary were both sufficiently developed, only 1% of students presented with comprehension difficulties. The focus on phonics is well justified, but if you want them to read well, you better focus on vocabulary too.
Consider the following example as a demonstration of just how crucial vocabulary is for reading comprehension. Words considered common in written language but not necessarily spoken language have been underlined. If a child moving through the grades who is an adequate decoder does not learn these words, they have very little chance of comprehending the text.
Johnny Harrington was a kind master who treated his servants fairly. He was also a successful wool merchant, and his business required that he travel often. In his absence, his servants would tend to the fields and cattle and maintain the upkeep of his mansion. They performed their duties happily, for they felt fortunate to have such a benevolent and trusting master.
Given how vital vocabulary is, it is concerning that 20% of all students who enter kindergarten are deficient in the vocabulary domain. Even more concerning is how much deficiencies are weighted towards the disadvantaged. The level of deficiency reaches 30% in disadvantaged areas.
I think it is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of students presenting with deficient vocabulary knowledge are either not detected or not provided with adequate assistance. Its systematic development is not a priority. All teachers will tell you they do focus on vocabulary, but this is likely to be in incidental fashion (book readings and spoken language). Kerry Hempenstall (2016) writes that this preference could have to do with a widely held belief that vocabulary development follows a natural developmental trajectory. This could well be the case. The belief that education should accommodate the natural development of a child is widespread and is a key driver behind the constructivist teaching philosophy. What’s more, academics who teach teachers often hold a belief that language must always be taught in context, which could also contribute to a more incidental vocabulary instruction model.
Nevertheless, vocabulary is important and teachers should take note of the research. It indicates vocabulary instruction should start early through a range of strategies. Students can learn the meanings of many new words indirectly, through personal experiences, speech and being read to – the incidental teaching and learning common in schools. They can also learn new vocabulary through reading texts; however, teachers cannot rely on this route of vocabulary development because those who can read well tend to read more and therefore learn more vocabulary through reading. This reality is one of the key drivers behind the Matthew effect. A logical way to overcome such a problem would be to teach students the code (the top priority of early instruction), but some will lag behind and even if all do learn the code to an acceptable level, some will still be restricted in their access to texts outside of school.
Learning indirectly does help, but students need to be taught vocabulary systematically through direct instruction. Direct instruction supports students to learn complex concepts and ideas that are uncommon in spoken language but perhaps more common in written texts. What words to teach directly is an important question. In Bringing Words to Life (2002), Isabelle Beck breaks vocabulary down into 3 tiers:
- Tier 1 – high frequency in spoken language (table, slowly, write, horrible)
- Tier 2 – high frequency in written texts (gregarious, beneficial, required, maintain)
- Tier 3 – subject specific, academic language (osmosis, trigonometry, onomatopoeia)
Tier 1 vocabulary does not need to be taught because we can reasonably assume this set of vocabulary will be picked up incidentally. If students are presenting with serious deficiencies in Tier 1 vocabulary, then keywords may need to be addressed in class and most certainly in out-of-class intervention. Tier 3 vocabulary is subject-specific and should be addressed whenever the time arises. For example, trigonometry can be introduced when students first encounter it in maths class.
Tier 2 vocabulary is the vocabulary we should target directly because such words are frequent in written text but are less likely to be learned incidentally through spoken conversation. The words underlined in the example above (merchant, required, maintain etc.) are examples of Tier 2 vocabulary. Knowing the meanings of Tier 2 words like these will have a profound impact on reading comprehension.
If a primary school were to design a systematic approach to building vocabulary concentrating on a core pool of Tier 2 words, then the effects on reading comprehension could be profound. Consider a kindergarten child who is directly taught 10 Tier 2 words a week (2 words, 15 mins a day) every week for 7 years of primary school. That child would learn roughly 2800 words that are high- frequency in written text at a deep level. Support this learning with the study of synonyms, cumulative retrieval practise, incidental exposure through text reading and a knowledge-based curriculum (the importance of a knowledge curriculum for vocabulary development cannot be underestimated) and the impact could be very profound indeed, especially for the disadvantaged.
References for further reading:
Beck, Isabel L. McKeown, M., & Kucan, L. (2002). Choosing Words to Teach. In Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (15-30). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
CESE (2017) Effective Reading Instruction in the Early Years
Didau (2014) Closing the Language Gap
National Reading Technical Assistance Center 2010, A review of the current research on comprehension instruction, research synthesis, report prepared by S Butler, K Urrutia, A Buenger & M Hunt.
Hempenstall, K. (2016) Read About It: Scientific Evidence for Effective Teaching of Reading