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The Research Behind the Importance of Teaching Vocabulary


A review of the very large body of research related to the teaching and learning of vocabulary indicates that there are very strong reasons for implementing a systematic and principled approach to the teaching and subsequent learning of vocabulary as a cornerstone for developing comprehension. Several researchers and vocabulary experts agree, vocabulary learning is really a special case of reading comprehension (Blachowicz and Ogle, 2001; Cunningham and Stanovich, 1998; Nagy and Anderson, 1984; McKeown, et al.,1983).

In addition, by implementing a systematic and principled approach to teaching and learning vocabulary, learners see vocabulary as a very important element in language learning and reading (Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, 2002; Bormuth, 1966; Davis, 1944, 1968).

Besides indicating what methodology seems to work best in helping learners acquire vocabulary, a review of the research reveals that there is a large body of information available about what kinds of vocabulary to focus on.Therefore, there are a wide variety of word lists that can be used successfully (Vacca,Vacca, and Gove, 2000;Allen, 1999; Baker, Simmons, and Kameenui, 1995; Bauman and Kameenui, 1991;Adams and Cerqui, 1989; Marzano and Marzano, 1988; Nagy, 1988).

Thus, the consensus among the researchers and experts, related to choosing or rejecting one or another means of instruction, suggests that those who are choosing or rejecting a program have a thorough understanding of the following:

  • How the program deals with vocabulary
  • The principles behind the methodology that is used
  • The theoretical and experimental justification upon which the methodology is based (Nation, 1990)

Related to the aforementioned, the following is a condensation of the issues related to the questions of,“Why teach vocabulary?” and, “What premises should guide educators in choosing a program?”

Direct and Indirect Vocabulary Teaching

Most researchers and vocabulary experts believe that the best methodology employs both direct and indirect teaching and provides opportunities for both receptive and productive learning to occur. Thus, vocabulary teaching can fit into any course that involves language learning, not just reading or language arts classes.The amount of time spent either on direct or indirect instruction depends on the teacher’s judgment in relation to a large number of factors, such as time available, the age of the learners, and the amount of contact the learners are likely to have with the variety of English words, both in and out of school (Vacca,Vacca and Gove, 2000;Allen, 1999; Marzano and Marzano, 1988).

It is often thought and expressed that vocabulary will be learned simply through wide exposure to listening and reading. In this regard, research indicates that reading and listening will increase the quality of receptive knowledge of words. However, in many cases, direct instruction must be provided in order to encourage quantity of receptive word knowledge before quality growth will occur (Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, 2002; Kameenui, Dixon, and Carnine, 1987).

Receptive knowledge of words requires that the learner recognize a word and recall its meaning when it is met. Instructional techniques that help students become familiar with a large number of words are the best facilitators for this level of vocabulary learning and, because of this facilitation, can eventually lead to greater student reading comprehension (Beck, et al., 1987; Anderson and Freebody, 1981; Anderson and Kulhavy, 1972).

In direct vocabulary instruction, learners do many specific exercises and activities that focus their attention directly on certain words in lists, learning word parts, and vocabulary games. These techniques will benefit all learners, but have been shown to especially benefit learners with limited personal experience with words as well as limited knowledge of words (Vacca,Vacca and Gove, 2000; Omanson et al., 1984; Jenkins, Stein, and Wysocki, 1984; McKeown et al., 1983; Kameenui, Carnine, and Freschi, 1982).

Direct vocabulary instruction techniques have also been shown to benefit all readers who are required to read a specific text and deal with vocabulary items that are necessary for understanding that text (Herber and Nelson-Herber, 1993).

Although direct instruction is very important to vocabulary learning, it is not the entire issue.The effort given to the learning of new words can be wasted if it is not followed up with later interactions with the words through what are often called indirect instructional techniques such as practice with the use of context for guessing the meaning of unknown words; paraphrasing, using word parts, dictionary use, and mnemonic techniques. Guided practice with these strategies encourages learners to use the strategies effectively and leads to permanent knowledge and establishment of vocabulary. (Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, 2002; Beck, Perfetti, and Mckeown, 1982; Crist, 1981; Eeds and Cockrum, 1985; Nation, 1990; Stahl, 1983).


In reviewing the research related to the importance of the methodologies associated with quality vocabulary instruction, it is clear that vocabulary learning should not be left to chance. Experts in the field support the use of a systematic and principled approach, incorporating both direct and indirect teaching and learning practices.

“Vocabulary instruction that improves comprehension generally has the following characteristics:

  • Multiple exposures to instructed words
  • Exposure to words in meaningful contexts
  • Rich or varied information about each word
  • The establishment of ties between instructed words and students’ own experience and prior knowledge
  • An active role by students in the word-learning process”

(Nagy and Herman, 1987; Beck, et al., 2002; Beck, et al., 1987) All of these characteristics are exemplified in Zaner-Bloser’s Word Wisdom.

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