Research on Vocabulary Learning (page 3)
In reviewing recent research on vocabulary learning and its role in reading, one conclusion becomes crystal clear: reading and writing activities, obviously, are dependent on words. Indeed, all good readers have a large store of high-frequency words they can read and spell instantly and automatically (Allington & Cunningham, 1996). So what do we know about vocabulary learning? To partially answer this question, we discuss in the following section key findings supported by recent research (Adams, 1990; Allington & Cunningham, 1996; Burns, Griffin, & Snow, 1999; Guthrie, 1982; Johnson, 2001; Krashen, 1993; Beck & McKeown, 1985; Nagy et al., 1985; National Reading Panel, 2000; National Research Council, 1998; Partnership for Reading, 2001; Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986; Stahl, Hare, Sinatra, & Gregory, 1991; Stahl & Jacobson, 1986; Templeton, 1995).
Vocabulary Is Built Through Language Interactions
Children who are exposed to advanced vocabulary through conversations learn words needed later on to help recognize and comprehend while reading. Burns et al. (1999) explain it this way:
Vocalization in the crib gives way to play with rhyming language and nonsense words. Toddlers find that the words they use in conversation and the objects they represent are depicted in books—that the picture is a symbol for the real object and that the writing represents spoken language. In addition to listening to stories, children label the objects in books, comment on the characters, and request that an adult read to them. In their third and fourth years, children use new vocabulary and grammatical constructions in their own speech. Talking to adults is children’s best source to exposure to new vocabulary and ideas.
Reading and being read to also increase vocabulary learning. Books give us challenging ideas, colorful descriptive words and concepts, and new knowledge and information about the world in which we live. Conversely, children who come to school with limited vocabularies, because of either second-language learning or the effects of poverty (Cooter, 2003), struggle to take even their first steps in reading and understanding texts. Burns et al. (1999) ask, “How can they understand a science book about volcanoes, silkworms, or Inuits?” What if they know nothing of mountains, caterpillars, or snow and cold climates?”. As teachers, we must make sure that no child is left behind because of weak vocabulary development.
Research Findings by the National Reading Panel
To determine how vocabulary can best be taught and related to the reading comprehension process, the National Reading Panel examined more than 20,000 research citations identified through electronic and manual literature searches. From this set, citations were removed if they did not meet predetermined scientific criteria. Fifty studies dating from 1979 to the present were reviewed in detail.
The studies reviewed suggest that vocabulary instruction does not necessarily lead to gains in comprehension unless the methods used are appropriate to the age and ability of the reader. The use of computers in vocabulary instruction was found to be more effective than some traditional methods in a few studies and is clearly emerging as a potentially valuable aid to classroom teachers in the area of vocabulary instruction.
Vocabulary also can be learned incidentally in the context of storybook reading or in listening to others read. Learning words before reading a text is also helpful. Techniques such as task restructuring and repeated exposure (including having the student encounter words in various contexts) appear to enhance vocabulary development. In addition, substituting easy words for more difficult words can assist low-achieving students.
Four Types of Vocabulary
Though we often speak of vocabulary as if it were a single thing, it is not; human beings acquire four types of vocabulary. They are, in descending order according to size, listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Listening vocabulary, the largest, is made up of words we can hear and understand. All other vocabularies are subsets of our listening vocabulary. The second-largest vocabulary, speaking vocabulary, is comprised of words we can use when we speak. Next is our reading vocabulary, or words we can identify and understand when we read. The smallest is our writing vocabulary, or words we use in writing. These four vocabularies are continually nurtured in the effective teacher’s classroom.
Levels of Vocabulary Learning
The truth is, words are not either “known” or “unknown.” As with most new learning, new vocabulary words and concepts are learned by degree. The Partnership for Reading (2001), in summarizing conclusions drawn by the National Reading Panel, described three levels of vocabulary learning: unknown, acquainted, and established. Definitions for each of these three levels are presented in the below figure. Bear in mind that these levels or “degrees” of learning apply to each of the four vocabulary types—listening, speaking, reading, and writing—so helping children build strong reading and writing vocabularies can sometimes be a formidable task indeed.
If you think about it, sometimes we learn new meanings to words that are already known to us. The word race, for example, has many different meanings (to run a race, a group of people, and so on). One of the most challenging tasks for students can be learning the meaning of a new word representing an unknown concept. According to the research,
Much of learning in the content areas involves this type of word learning. As students learn about deserts, hurricanes, and immigrants, they may be learning both new concepts and new words. Learning words and concepts in science, social studies, and mathematics is even more challenging because each major concept often is associated with many other new concepts. For example, the concept deserts is often associated with other concepts that may be unfamiliar, such as cactus, plateau, and mesa. (Partnership for Reading, 2001, p. 43)
Levels of vocabulary learning (Partnership for Reading, 2001)
|Level of Word Knowledge||Definition|
|Unknown||The word is completely unfamiliar, and its meaning is unknown.|
|Acquainted||The word is somewhat familiar; the student has some idea of its basic meaning.|
|Established||The word is very familiar; the student can immediately recognize its meaning and use the word correctly.|
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