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Word Wisdom: An Effective, Research-Based Vocabulary Program

by Jerry Zutell, Ph.D.

Introduction: Vocabulary—A Foundation of Literacy

A crucial foundation of literacy is an extensive meaning vocabulary—a large set of words that we know and understand when we encounter them and that we can use appropriately to express ourselves effectively. For English speakers, developing such a vocabulary can be challenging because the language is extremely complex. One reason is its sheer size. The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary estimate that English contains at least a quarter million distinct words, many more than comparable world languages (Oxford Dictionaries, 2010a, b). A second reason is its intricacy. In the English vocabulary, many synonyms represent one concept, but each one suggests a slightly different shade of meaning, is more appropriate in a specific context, and/or indicates the background of the speaker or writer. A third reason is that English vocabulary continues to evolve over time. As new concepts and ideas are developed, new words are coined or old words take on new meanings. Abbreviations and acronyms appear frequently. In addition, English regularly incorporates non-English words into the general lexicon.

Preschool and Learning to Read. As small children, we learn oral language basics from our family; when we enter the educational system, we rapidly amass more words, especially as we learn to read and write. In the early primary grades, decoding words— recognizing the alphabet, learning letter-sound relationships, and reading basic words and simple sentences—is the focus of language arts instruction. The emphasis on both hearing and reading words at the same time helps young students by connecting written language to something they already know, speech. Research consistently shows that reading stories and books aloud to early learners increases their vocabulary (Penno et al., 2002; Biemiller & Boote, 2006).

Primary Grades. By the end of second grade, an average student has learned about 6,000 root word meanings; by sixth grade, she has added nearly 4,000 more (Bowers and Kirby, 2010). Clearly, teachers cannot teach a large proportion of the words students need to learn—the vast majority of these must come from reading and listening. What complicates student learning is the scope of what they must learn. Anderson and Nagy (1992) estimate that there are more than 180,000 word families in printed school English, which students encounter in roughly grades 3–9. Fortunately, not all words must be learned as individual items: Many everyday words are built from base words plus endings, and a large number of more sophisticated words are members of word families, constructed from a combination of Greek and Latin roots, prefixes, and suffixes. Students who understand these relationships can often use them to unlock word meanings and retain those connections in memory.

From about grade 3 and beyond, students consistently gain domain-specific, academic vocabulary from their work in content areas such as science, social studies, and mathematics. In these situations, students learn new words that they must immediately put to use in understanding the subject matter. Educators often call this moment in a student’s career a switch from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” For students who have struggled in the early grades with literacy and its foundation of word meanings, this transition can be significantly challenging.

Vocabulary Instruction. The regular and direct teaching of a chosen set of words is critical to student development as readers and writers. These vocabulary words will not only be important in themselves but will also serve as anchors and examples for self-directed learning. Regular instruction keeps students focused on the importance of word learning and gives them the tools to unlock word meanings as they encounter new words in their assigned and independent reading. The Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts ( emphasizes vocabulary significantly; the standards’ adoption by the majority of states suggests that vocabulary instruction will become a central part of the language arts curriculum. The strategies we use to develop students’ vocabulary must be research-based and proven effective in order to help them achieve high levels of literacy and success.

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