The Words That Matter the Most
Reading vocabulary consists of all the words children instantly recognize and understand. Some words occur quite often. Of the 1,000 most frequently used words for beginning readers, a mere 300 account for a whopping 65% of the words in text. Children learn to automatically recognize often-used words because they read and write these words time and again (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). You do not need to teach the meaning of these words because children already use them in everyday conversations.
Rare words are a second type of word. Rare words occur so infrequently that they have little likelihood of affecting comprehension and hence it is not worthwhile spending precious class time to teach these words (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). The third group consists of words that occur occasionally (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). It is important to teach these words because (1) they are important for comprehension and (2) children may not see or hear them often enough to learn them on their own. For example, the reader is far more likely to come across baby than toddler or infant. Although readers come across infant and toddler only occasionally, these words appear with enough regularity to make them useful for readers to understand.
For the purposes of organizing classroom instruction, we will divide words into six categories: (1) multiple-meaning words, (2) homophones (words that sound alike but differ in spelling, such as sail–sale), (3) synonyms (words with nearly the same meaning), (4) antonyms (words with the opposite meaning), (5) special words in content subjects, such as decimal and subtract, and (6) the special words children want to know.
Many words have more than one meaning. For example, band refers to a group of musicians in “He played in the band” and to a ring in “She wore a gold wedding band.” Readers use context clues to help them figure out which meaning is appropriate. Text for fourth, fifth, and sixth graders uses more multiple-meaning words than the text read by children in lower grades. is a list of common multiple-meaning words that are important for understanding text.
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