What Research Tells us About Teaching Vocabulary

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Most vocabulary is learned indirectly, but some vocabulary must be taught directly. The following conclusions about indirect vocabulary learning and direct vocabulary instruction are of particular interest and value to classroom teachers (National Reading Panel, 2000):

Children learn the meanings of most words indirectly through everyday experiences with oral and written language.

There are typically three ways children learn vocabulary indirectly. First, they participate in oral language every day. Children learn word meanings through conversations with other people, and as they participate in conversations, they often hear words repeated several times. The more conversations children have, the more word words they learn.

Another, indirect way children learn words is by being read to. Reading aloud is especially powerful when the reader pauses during reading to define an unfamiliar word and, after reading, engages the child in a conversation about the book. Conversations about books help children learn new words and concepts and relate them to their prior knowledge and experience (Partnership for Reading, 2001).

The third way children learn new words indirectly is through their own reading. This is one of many reasons why many teachers feel that daily independent reading practice sessions of 10 to 20 minutes are so critical (Krashen, 1993). Put simply, the more children read, the more words they’ll learn. There is a caveat to mention on this point, however. Struggling readers are often incapable of sitting and reading on their own for extended periods of time. For best results, many readers will get much more from their practice reading when working with a “buddy” who has greater ability.

From the evidenced-based reading research, we can conclude that students learn vocabulary indirectly when they hear and see words used in many different contexts. Conversations, read-aloud experiences, and independent reading are essential.

Students learn vocabulary when they are taught individual words and word-learning strategies directly.

Direct instruction helps students learn difficult words (Johnson, 2001), such as words that represent complex concepts that are not part of the students’ everyday experiences (National Reading Panel, 2000). We also know that when a teacher preteaches new words that are associated with a text the students are about to read, better reading comprehension results.

As mentioned previously, direct vocabulary instruction should include specific word learning as well as teaching students word-learning strategies they can use on their own.

Developing “word consciousness” can boost vocabulary learning.

Word consciousness learning activities stimulate an awareness and interest in words, their meanings, and their power. Word-conscious students enjoy words and are zealous about learning them. In addition, they have been taught how to learn new and interesting words.

The key to capitalizing on word consciousness is through wide reading and use of the writing process. When reading a new book aloud to students, call their attention to the way the author chooses his or her words to convey particular meanings. Imagine the fun you can have discussing some of the intense words used by Gary Paulsen (1987) in his book Hatchet, Shel Silverstein’s (1974) clever use of rhyming words in his book of poetry Where the Sidewalk Ends, or the downright “magical” word selection employed by J. K. Rowling (1998) in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Encourage your students to play with words, such as with puns or self-created raps. Help them research a word’s history and search for examples of a word’s usage in their everyday lives.

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