Why Is Vocabulary Instruction Important?
If you are also a teacher, you are probably thinking to yourself, “Well this is obvious.” Vocabulary instruction is important because without understanding the meaning of the words you read, you cannot comprehend text (Christ & Wang 2010). In observations of sixth graders in a school with a population that was ethnically diverse and came from low-income homes, Kelley, Lesaux, Kieffer, and Faller (2010) found that approximately 10% of English Language Arts time was spent on teaching vocabulary. These students scored lower on standardized tests than students who were part of classrooms with increased vocabulary instruction. In these classrooms, words were taught with nonfiction texts in 45 minute periods, and the words were used for two weeks. Therefore, the discussion needs to be, “Why is more vocabulary instruction important?”
One of the main reasons I believe that vocabulary instruction needs an increased role in the classroom because it is one of the areas that my struggling and good readers alike have the most difficulty with. They have little knowledge, besides asking me, how to determine the meaning of an unfamiliar word. As I proctor some standardized tests this month to students that are in my classes and others, I notice a number of them having a difficult time understanding what is being asked of them. Kelley et al. (2010) states, “academic vocabulary, the specialized and sophisticated language of a test, is a particular source of difficulty for students who struggle with comprehension” in urban middle schools (p. 5). I would argue that this is also the case in many middle class suburban schools. Bromley (2007) identifies vocabulary as being instrumental in students’ comprehension of texts, reading fluency, and achievement. Along similar lines Richek (2005) concludes that vocabulary knowledge is one of the top predictors of reading success. If we want our students to succeed, they need quality vocabulary instruction. Not a list of words that are squeezed in using a dictionary.
Furthermore, I believe vocabulary instruction is important because once students begin to struggle with vocabulary and comprehension, they disengage. Good readers on the other hand, that read often continue to improve their vocabulary knowledge and comprehension skills. Struggling readers then fall even further behind their peers. It is for this reason that I believe more vocabulary instruction is important at all grade levels.
Wasik (2010) recognizes that learning vocabulary is a vital element when a child is developing reading skills and it plays a significant role in their success throughout school. According to Hart and Risley (1995), children they studied that were 3 years old and came from low income households knew 600 fewer words than other 3 year olds from wealthier families. By the time these children were in the 2nd grade, the difference between the two populations was estimated at 4,000. Students generally begin to lose interest in reading by 4th grade, and even more so if the student is identified as a struggling reader (Applegate & Applegate 2010). This piece of data clearly indicates to me that we must increase vocabulary instruction at the primary level in order to limit the decrease in at-risk students’ motivations to read.
Furthermore, it is important that vocabulary instruction does not only include teaching of words. We also must spend increased instructional time teaching how to use context cues, the meaning of specific morphemes, related words, and outside resources in order to determine what a word means in specific contexts. “If our goal is to help students improve understanding … then words need to be pulled apart, put together, defined informally, practiced in writing, and played with regularly …” (Kelley 2010). A significant amount of time must be spent on learning and using words in a variety of media with different shades of meaning for a student to truly understand a word and begin to include it in their own speaking vocabulary. There needs to be specific vocabulary instruction time carved into not only the Language Arts periods, but the content areas as well.
(Listed in order that they appeared, and when possible linked to the publishing organization’s online copy of it — although a subscription may be required. Also, yes I read all of these — except the book, which I only read a small part of).
Bridging the Vocabulary Gap: What Research Tells Us about Vocabulary Instruction in Early Childhood, Tanya Christ and Christine Wang, Young Children, July 2010
What Teachers Can Do to Promote Preschoolers’ Vocabulary Development: Strategies From an Effective Language and Literacy Professional Development Coaching Model, Barbara A. Wasik, The Reading Teacher, May 2010
Hart, B., & T. Risley. 1995. Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young children. Baltimore: Brookes.