If you’re a new teacher like me, your knowledge of evidence-based practice is probably frustratingly limited. This post reflects my line of inquiry into effective vocabulary instruction – an area in which I wish to plug some holes in my knowledge and strengthen my own teaching. My first post related to this line of inquiry can be found here.
The focus on phonics in the early years is well justified as this is the area in which students are most deficient upon entry to school. Yet phonics is only 1 of 5 keys so a focus on phonics alone will not ensure reading success. Vocabulary is a very important piece of the reading puzzle yet gains very little attention in comparison. Studies have found that if both decoding and vocabulary are sufficiently developed, only 1% of students present with comprehension difficulties (Spencer, Quinn & Wagner, 2014). This has lead Biemiller (2005) to conclude that “lacking either adequate word identification skills or adequate vocabulary will ensure [reading] failure.” Considering this, and the fact that 20-30% of students present with less than adequate vocabulary development upon arrival at school, vocabulary deserves much more attention than it currently receives.
Of course, all teachers are aware of the importance of vocabulary and it does have some focus in schools, but I think it is fair to say current vocabulary instruction is largely incidental in nature. Unfortunately, incidental vocabulary development through book readings and spoken language is not substantial enough to accelerate vocabulary development (Biemiller & Boote, 2006). A more direct approach is necessary. Mckeown (1985) says, “it takes a lot to know a word” and research indicates she is correct. The long-held folk-tale that children are ‘word sponges’ who pick up language easily from the world around them does not align with research findings. Word learning is cumulative; children acquire new words at a steady rate and their use of these words in spoken and written language accelerates over time. It can take up to 24 repeated exposures of a new word before a child gets to grips with its meaning at a deep level, which refutes the commonly held idea that vocabulary development follows a natural path (Pinkham et al. (2011); Hempenstall, 2016).
Contrary to current, incidental teaching methods, recent research indicates that all children benefit from direct instruction in vocabulary that is planned, sequenced and systematic (Neuman & Wright, 2014) What’s more, starting direct instruction early is key because the earlier word meanings are learnt, the more readily they are accessed in later life (Izura & Ellis, 2002). In a recent post, I wrote about how a systematic approach beginning in kindergarten could benefit a child. If they were to learn 10 words that are low-frequency in spoken language but high-frequency in written language every week for 7 years, they would accumulate some 2800 words crucial for reading comprehension. A child would benefit immensely from such a systematic approach, but, given how hard it is to learn and retain vocabulary at a deep level, how does one implement a planned, sequenced and systematic approach to ensure benefits for the long-term? There is much research in this area and a useful pattern of instruction for effective vocabulary development has been identified by Neuman & Wright (2014):
They write that “this instructional regime, applied at any grade level, promotes greater attention to the depth of processing of word meanings.” The rest of this post is devoted to explaining this pattern of instruction.
1) Identify words that need to be taught
English has many words but not all need to be taught. The words that are best taught explicitly are known as Tier 2 words. Tier 2 words are characteristic of sophisticated language not often used in spoken language but often used in written texts. The best ones to teach are domain-general and are more sophisticated terms for concepts with which students are already familiar. Notice is a Tier 2 word synonymous with seeing. Commotion is a Tier 2 word synonymous with noise.
The words can simply be found in books selected by a teacher. Read through the book and note down any Tier 2 words in the text. From the text, pick two or three words you think children will be most likely to apply in their daily lives. Below is a list of words taken from texts used in a study by Beck & Mckeown (2007) aimed at raising vocabulary in a disadvantaged school. It is worth noting that Beck & Mckeown’s study found that very young students were very much able to learn sophisticated vocabulary, so avoiding selecting vocabulary because it seems ‘too hard’ is not necessary.
2 Introduce the words and deepen knowledge through rich instruction
Introducing the vocabulary should be done in conjunction with the book reading. Lenfest & Reed (2015) give a good description of how this was done in their study:
“she [the teacher] introduced the target words using only the definitions provided in the curriculum materials. After providing the definition, she encouraged the students to say the word aloud as well as repeat the definition. Finally, the teacher read the big books.”
It is now important to note that just giving the definition of a word has not proven to be effective (Mckeown, 1985). If vocabulary instruction is to be effective, it needs to provide knowledge at a depth where connections are formed and knowledge is sufficiently flexible and accessible. For this reason, the instruction that follows the book reading – termed rich instruction – is crucial. Rich instruction takes place after the reading and includes explaining the words in student-friendly language, providing multiple examples and multiple contexts, and requiring students to process words deeply by explaining appropriate and inappropriate uses. Below are examples:
3) Review words to ensure sustainability over time
Repeated exposure is extremely important. As mentioned, it can take up to 24 exposures of a new word for students to know it at a sufficiently deep level. Frequency of exposure strongly predicts word learning and predicts later comprehension outcomes (Harris, 2011). When word learning was extended across several days, the pre to post-test gain in Beck & Mckeown’s (2007) study was significantly higher. Lenfest & Reed (2015) took these findings seriously. They made students keep a vocabulary folder (with materials related to the words inside) at their desks to help create chances for repeated exposures. When beginning the day’s lesson, the teacher would ask the students to review the words they learnt the previous day. This was used as a prompt to cultivate discussion of the words and gave the teachers the chance to add more rich instruction. More rich instruction is crucial. Using a folder as a prompt seems a very clever idea, it also gives students a sense of ownership. At the end of the week, students would take the folder home to show their parents, gaining further exposure to the new words.
4) Monitor children’s progress and reteach if necessary
Weekly pre and post tests should be taken for formative purposes. The teacher can then monitor and reteach vocabulary where necessary. This can be done in two ways: as a picture test or an oral test. In a picture test (it’s pretty much the PPVT), students need to identify the picture that best depicts the concept (e.g. Which couple is standing elegantly?). In an oral test, the student simply needs to approve or disapprove of the use of a word in a particular context or the stated definition of a word. Below are examples of a verbal test used in Beck & Mckeown’s (2007) study:
As stated at the beginning of this post, the focus on phonics in the early years is well justified, but if we really want students to find success with reading then a focus on vocabulary is important too. Research indicates this is best done in a systematic way. I plan on implementing this model in the classroom and I look forward to seeing how it gets on!
The most important references for further reading (well worth it)
Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (2007). Increasing young low-income children’s oral vocabulary repertoires through rich and focused instruction. The Elementary School Journal, 107(3), 251-271.
Lenfest, A., & Reed, D. K. (2015). Enhancing Basal Vocabulary Instruction in Kindergarten. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 30(1), 43-50.
Neuman, S. B., & Wright, T. S. (2014). The Magic of Words: Teaching Vocabulary in the Early Childhood Classroom. American Educator, 38(2), 4-13.
Harris, J., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2011). Lessons from the crib for the classroom: How children really learn vocabulary. Handbook of early literacy research, 3, 49-65.
Hempenstall, K. (2016) Read About It: Scientific Evidence for Effective Teaching of Reading
Izura, C., & Ellis, A. W. (2002). Age of acquisition effects in word recognition and production in first and second languages. Psicológica, 23(2).
McKeown, M. G. (1985). The acquisition of word meaning from context by children of high and low ability. Reading Research Quarterly, 20(4), 482–496.
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.
Pinkham, A. M., Neuman, S. B., & Lillard, A. S. (2011, November). You Can Say That Again! Preschoolers Need Repeated Exposures to Gain Expressive Vocabulary. In annual meeting of the Literacy Research Association, Jacksonville, FL.
Spencer, M., Quinn, J. M., & Wagner, R. K. (2014). Specific reading comprehension disability: Major problem, myth, or misnomer?. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 29(1), 3-9.