Saturday, July 21, 2012

Vocabulary: The Basics


Vocabulary is the set of words a person is familiar with and able to use accurately in order to communicate effectively with others.  A person's oral vocabulary is generally much larger than their reading vocabulary.  This is obvious with young children who can effectively communicate verbally with others but cannot yet read. 

Research Findings

Vocabulary plays an essential role in reading comprehension.  A student might be able to decode and thus read a word, but without knowledge of what that word means, little understanding is produced.  Originally published in "Insights on Learning Disabilities," Joan Sedita's Effective Vocabulary Instruction highlights four groups who face "significant obstacles to developing sufficient vocabulary to be successful in school."  The four groups are:
  1. Students with limited or no knowledge of English
  2. Students who do not read outside of school
  3. Students with reading and learning disabilities
  4. Students who enter school with limited vocabulary knowledge
Each year students should increase their vocabularies by 2,000 - 3,000 words, and students who fall into one or more of the above categories are already at a disadvantage.  Students with strong vocabularies are able to increase the amount of words they can read and understand at a quicker rate than those with poor vocabularies.  This creates an ever increasing gap between students that effects not only vocabulary and communication but reading comprehension as well.  

Approaches to Instruction

Like most areas of reading instruction, debate occurs over the best way to teach vocabulary.  In its study, the National Reading Panel concluded that "vocabulary should be taught both directly and indirectly.  It also noted that other important strategies include repetition, seeing the word multiple times, learning in context, incidental learning, and using technology.

The National Institute of Child Health & Human Development released a report on vocabulary instruction based on the NRP's findings.  A summary of their assessment of research-based instructional methods can be found below:

Explicit Instruction
Students are given definitions of words or examine word attributes like roots and affixes
Indirect Instruction
Students engage in reading and will develop meaning for words they do not know as they go
Multimedia Methods
Students use other resources like semantic mapping, graphic representations, various technologies, and even American Sign Language to go beyond just text
Capacity Methods
Through practice student make other reading activities (like decoding) automatic, so they have a larger capacity for concentrating on the meaning of words
Association Methods
Students draw connections between what they already know and words they do not know

Ultimately, the NRP concluded that it is important to use a variety of researched-based methods to help build large vocabularies for students.

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