Teaching vocabulary

Much vocabulary develops naturally through exposure to spoken language in the child’s environment, and eventually through reading. But there are wide disparities in children’s vocabulary development and evidence-based instruction helps to bridge the gaps in vocabulary that contribute to development of reading comprehension.

Wide-scale reviews of multiple vocabulary instruction studies spanning the full school age range (K– 12) have concluded that high quality vocabulary instruction can have a significant effect on reading comprehension (Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986; Wright & Cervetti, 2017).

In addition, in the younger primary years, there is research showing that oral language intervention programs, which include a vocabulary instruction component, significantly improve reading comprehension outcomes for 4- to 5-year-old children (Fricke et al., 2013) and for 8- to 9-year-old children (Clarke et al., 2014).

However, to have the desired effect, the type of vocabulary instruction matters. Many studies point to rich explicit vocabulary instruction as the most effective evidence-based approach.

In one study, children given rich vocabulary instruction linked to storybook reading learned over four times more vocabulary than children exposed to typical storybook reading alone (Pollard-Durodola et al., 2011). Other studies have shown that, unlike children given more shallow definition-type vocabulary instruction, children given rich vocabulary instruction make significant gains in comprehension tasks requiring integration of word meaning and context, and they are able to use new words productively in complex story recall tasks (e.g., Beck & McKeown, 2007; Moore et al., 2014; Sinatra et al., 2012)

Ideally, rich instruction should extend over several days. When it does, vocabulary uptake is significantly better than when instruction is limited to a single day (Beck & McKeown, 2007).

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