Carl B. Smith
ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication
knowledge has particular importance in literate societies. It contributes significantly
to achievement in the subjects of the school curriculum, as well as in formal
and informal speaking and writing. Most people feel that there is a common sense
relationship between vocabulary and comprehension--messages are composed of ideas,
and ideas are expressed in words. Most theorists and researchers in education
have assumed that vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension are closely related,
and numerous studies have shown the strong correlation between the two
Although the opportunities for vocabulary instruction are especially pronounced
in language arts and reading, vocabulary instruction properly belongs in all subjects
of the curriculum in which learners meet both new ideas and the words by which
they are represented in the language. This Digest will consider several viewpoints
on teaching vocabulary, offer some strategies for implementing vocabulary teaching,
and suggest some sources for further reading.
a teacher's point of view the issue in the classroom usually revolves around how
to improve the student's reading comprehension, whether it be in content area
reading or in the language arts. Should the teacher teach vocabulary directly
or incidentally? That is, should words be targeted for the learners or should
they develop naturally through reading and the learner's desire to clarify concepts?
Evidence falls in both directions. Certainly vocabulary knowledge can be acquired
through reading and discussions about certain contexts
(Nagy et al, 1985). But it appears that direct instruction is more effective
than incidental learning for the acquisition of a particular vocabulary, and also
more efficient (McKeown
and Beck, 1988). However, in one study of fourth graders that examined whether
a context or a definitional approach was better for vocabulary development,
Szymborski (1995) found that there was no significant difference in raw scores
between the samples using the two different approaches.
is generally accepted that students learn vocabulary more effectively when they
are directly involved in constructing meaning rather than in memorizing definitions
or synonyms. Thus, techniques such as webbing that involve students' own perspectives
in creating interactions that gradually clarify targeted vocabulary may be a way
to combine direct teaching and incidental learning in one exercise. Teachers can
use students' personal experiences to develop vocabulary in the classroom. Through
informal activities such as semantic association students brainstorm a list of
words associated with a familiar word, pooling their knowledge of pertinent vocabulary
as they discuss the less familiar words on the list. Semantic mapping goes a step
further, grouping the words on the list into categories and arranging them on
the visual "map" so that relationships among the words become clearer. In semantic
feature analysis, words are grouped according to certain features, usually with
the aid of a chart that graphically depicts similarities and differences among
features of different words. Finally, analogies are a useful way of encouraging
thoughtful discussion about relationships among meanings of words.
In content area reading, the development of vocabulary as a study of relationships
seems particularly pertinent. Recognition of isolated information in an article
on mechanization, for instance, may represent little understanding of the changes
that are occurring as industry moves from human labor to robotics.
Barton and Calfee (1989) suggest using a vocabulary matrix to establish the
dimensions of a subject. The power of any vocabulary matrix lies in its image
of connected ideas, in its process of discovering context for a new word, and
in its visual reminder of gaps in our understanding.
Vocabulary development in any subject can proceed by asking students to reveal
any vocabulary framework that they already have. Those known words may help them
associate meaning with new vocabulary. In that way, definitions and the particular
meaning within a given sentence have a context and a set of relations to build
One group technique
that enables students to list synonyms and/or definitional phrases that they already
associate with the topic involves the construction of a simple T-bar chart. Suppose,
for example, an article on protecting the environment includes the word "menace."
The teacher lists words that students associate with threats to the environment.
Associated terms and synonyms are them listed in the T-bar chart.
With this kind of visual representation of a word and related terms, a matrix
is begun for most students and the definition is enriched. The semantic context
may now be rich enough for the reader to use this word in its context
(Moore et al, 1989). To build background and to understand vocabulary in content
area reading, students need the benefit of seeing multiple relationships.
and Murphy (1991) contend that research clearly emphasizes that for learning
to occur, new information must be integrated with what the learner already knows.
They feel that teaching vocabulary as a prereading step is an instructional intervention
that should be considered when readers lack the prior or background knowledge
to read in a content area.
Kueker (1990) also argues that prereading activities help enormously in reading
technique to help students see a word in a broader context is to have them answer
the following questions: (1) what is it?; (2) what is it like?; (3) what are some
and Raphael (1985) believe that this list of 3 questions helps students see
relationships between familiar and less familiar terms and also brings the meaning
of an unknown term into focus by requiring analogies and examples.
vocabulary instruction in the language arts classroom,
Hodapp and Hodapp (1996) suggest using vocabulary packs and cued spelling
as intervention strategies, while
Cooter (1991) discusses using storytelling.
Wilkinson (1994) opts for enlivening vocabulary lessons by combining them
with two effective teaching strategies--cooperative learning and story development
Ruddiman (1993) also offers activities for vocabulary development.
Bear et al (1996) presents a practical way for teachers to study words with
students, providing more than 300 word study activities which are set up to follow
literacy development from emergent to more mature, specialized stages. For an
overview of current information on vocabulary instruction and acquisition, see
K., et al (1995).
"Vocabulary Acquisition: Curricular and Instructional Implications for Diverse
Learners." Technical Report No. 14. Eugene, OR: National Center to Improve
the Tools of Educators. [ED 386 861]
Barton, J., and R. Calfee (1989).
"Theory Becomes Practice: One Program." in Diane Lapp et al (Eds.), Content
Area Reading and Learning: Instructional Strategies. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice
Hall. [ED 304 673]
Bear, Donald R., et al (1996).
Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction.
New York: Merrill. [ED 386 685]
Christen, William L., and Thomas J. Murphy (1991). "Increasing
Comprehension by Activating Prior Knowledge." ERIC Digest, Bloomington, IN:
ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication. [ED 328 885]
Cooter, Robert B., Jr. (1991).
"Storytelling in the Language Arts Classroom." Reading Research and Instruction,
30(2), 71-76. [EJ 424 278]
Hodapp, Joan B., and Albert F. Hodapp (1996).
"Vocabulary Packs and Cued Spelling: Intervention Strategies." Paper presented
at the Annual Convention of the National Association of School Psychologists (Atlanta).
[ED 396 271]
"Prereading Activities: A Key to Comprehension." Paper presented at the International
Confreence on Learning Disabilities (Austin, TX). [ED 360 785]
McKeown, Margaret G., and Isabel L. Beck (1988). "Learning
Vocabulary: Different Ways for Different Goals," Remedial and Special Education
(RASE), 9(1), 42-46. [EJ 367 432]
Moore, David W., et al (1989).
Prereading Activities for Content Area Reading and Learning. Newark, DE: International
Reading Association. [ED 300 786]
Nagy, William E., et al (1985). "Learning
Word Meanings from Context: How Broadly Generalizable?" Technical Report No.
347. Urbana,IL: Center for the Study of Reading. [ED 264 546]
Nagy, William (1988).
Teaching Vocabulary to Improve Reading Comprehension. Urbana, IL: National
Council of Teachers of English; Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
[ED 298 471]
"Expanding and Refining Vocabulary in Content Areas." Journal of Reading,
29, 626-33. [EJ 331 215]
Ruddiman, Joan, et al (1993).
"Open to Suggestion." Journal of Reading, 36(5), 400-09. [EJ 459 161]
Schwartz, Robert M., and Taffy Raphael (1985). "Concept
of Definition: A Key to Improving Students' Vocabulary." Reading Teacher,
39(2), 198-205. [EJ 325 191]
Szymborski, Julie Ann (1995).
Vocabulary Development: Context Clues versus Word Definitions. M.A. Project,
Kean College of New Jersey. [ED 380 757]
Wilkinson, Molly (1994).
"Using Student Stories to Build Vocabulary in Cooperative Learning Groups."
Clearing House, 67(4), 221-23. [EJ 486 167]
publication was prepared (Digest #126, EDO-CS-97-07, June 1997) with funding from
the U.S. Department of Education under contract number RR93002011, and published
by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English and Communication.
opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or
policies of Learn2study, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products,
or organizations imply endorsement by Learn2study.