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Nurturing Vocabulary Development

1. Why is vocabulary level so important to the development of reading skills?

  • Vocabulary level is strongly correlated with reading comprehension. Children with restricted oral vocabularies comprehend at lower levels. Researchers have reported a correlation of .55 between oral receptive vocabulary at first grade and reading comprehension at 11th grade.

  • Vocabulary size in kindergarten is an effective predictor of reading comprehension in the mid elementary years. (Are they talking about 3rd grade???)

  • Children with restricted vocabulary by the third grade have declining comprehension scores in the later elementary grades.

  • By the end of second grade , children in the lowest vocabulary quartile (25%) had acquired slightly more than 1.5 root words a day over 7 years of their life, for about a total of 4000 root word meanings. Children in the highest quartile (25%) had acquired 3 root word meanings a day for a total of 8000 root word meanings. Thus, by the end of second grade , there is a 4000 word difference in root vocabulary knowledge between children at the highest vocabulary quartile and those in the lowest quartile.

  • By the second grade, the lower quartile students’ root word meaning is about the same size as an average child in kindergarten. By the fifth grade, lower quartile children have not yet attained the same size vocabulary as high quartile children have in the second grade. The lowest quartile children remain about two years behind average children. This gap is unlikely to be closed.

  • In summary, the size and effective use of a child’s vocabulary is an important indicator of future literacy ability. Vocabulary, not early reading skill, is the best predictor of later reading comprehension. By third grade , many children can read words, but they fail to understand what they read due to vocabulary limitations.
2. What is the range of individual differences in students’ vocabulary levels in the primary grades?
  • Low quartile children begin kindergarten with 1000 fewer word meanings than do average children. They continue to acquire fewer words during the primary grades, so by the end of second grade , they have 2000 fewer word meanings than the average child. The most significant differences in vocabulary development occur prior to third grade. .

  • Average vocabulary increases from an estimated 3500 root word meanings at the beginning of kindergarten, to 6000 root words at the end of the second grade, to approximately 20,000 root words by fifth grade. This means that from Grades 1 to 5, students need to learn approximately 3500 words per year. Consider the challenge for low-performing students who begin so far behind.
3. What factors account for these substantive differences in vocabulary?
a) Differences in vocabulary reflect
  1. the level of parental support and encouragement of language development and literacy-related activities;
  2. the level of exposure to cognitive stimulation and language exposure from parents and other sources (caregivers, school, and library stimulation).
  3. children's constitutional differences in the ase of acquiring new words.
b) Consider the following research findings to better understand the origins of students' differences in vocabulary development.
  1. Average children acquire about two root words a day or 800 words a year from age one on. Economically disadvantaged children acquire about one word a day or 400 words a year.

  2. Economically disadvantaged or low vocabulary children acquire words about as fast as other children from third grade on. But by this point, they are 3000 to 4000 words behind more advantaged children. Children in third grade at the lowest 25% have an average of 2500 root words, while those in the highest 25% have an average of 6000 to 8000 words. Economically disadvantaged children are exposed to fewer words spoken by parents. They are exposed to fewer different words and experience less adult clarification of words.
  3. This means that most economically disadvantaged children hear perhaps a third as many words as advantaged children and they receive fewer explanations of word meanings. These differences were highlighted by a study reported by Hart and Risley (1997) who found marked socio-economic differences in mother-child interactions for 7 to 12 month old infants.
    • Children of welfare mothers heard an average 620 words per hour from their mothers
    • Children of working class mothers heard an average 1250 words per hour from their mothers
    • Children of professional mothers heard an average of 2150 words per hour from their mothers

Also, professional mothers are more likely to ask their children more questions and they are more likely to respond and expand their child's comments. As a result, by age 3, children of professional mothers would have heard approximately 30 million words; children of working class mothers would have heard 20 million words; and children of welfare mothers would have heard 10 million words. These social interaction differences contribute to differences in vocabulary, IQ and school readiness. These factors play a critical role in academic achievement.

Moreover, low-income students who are more prone to aggressive behaviors read less, have fewer books at home, are infrequent library patrons, and spend more time watching television than do their middle-income counterparts.

4. What are you doing now to promote vocabulary development in your classroom?
How many words a day do you teach? At many schools, and especially at many preschools, little is being done to promote vocabulary development before third grade . Unless we provide explicit opportunities for improving children's oral vocabulary and comprehension, disadvantaged children will continue to lag significantly behind more advantaged children. Most children acquire new words when the words are explained - in context. Few children acquire new words simply from hearing them read or used.

Acquiring new words is not like acquiring knowledge of word sounds or phonics. Word identification involves a set of skills that can be acquired and then have long-term influence on reading. However, acquiring root words is an on-going process. Learning an adequate number of words in one year is not enough for continuing progress. An adequate number of new words is needed each year.

For example, successful readers read more, and that makes them even more successful. The least proficient students might read 100,000 words a year by the middle school grades. Average children at this level might read 1,000,000 words a year. The figure for the voracious middle grade reader might be 10,000,000 words a year, even as high as 50,000,000 words a year (Nagy & Anderson, 1984). 5. How can teachers promote vocabulary development in the primary grades?
The differences in vocabulary that students exhibit upon entering school, which increase over time, often seem overwhelming. What can educators do to teach all of their students vocabulary and begin to close the vocabulary gap?

The first thing for educators to do is it to remain positive. The good news is that children with small vocabularies do acquire new words during instruction, as do children with large vocabularies. Low vocabulary students acquire words in roughly the same order and speed as do students with larger vocabularies. Low vocabulary students have the ability to significantly increase their vocabulary if taught properly.

But what does being taught properly mean? During the primary grades, vocabulary words (or new root words) are learned mainly from explanations from others rather than from direct vocabulary instruction. When teachers read aloud from books several times in a week, and when they provide explanations of 8 to 10 words a day, their students gain 2 to 3 words a day. Research indicates that all students acquire understanding and learn to use about 20% to 30% of the new words taught each day (2 to 3 words out of the 10 taught each day). Some recent studies have raised this retention/application rate to 40% of the words taught. Consider this pace:
  • At 3 words a day for approximately 140 days of instruction (a conservative estimate out of the 180 days students' attend school), up to 400 words could be learned during a school year. This is in addition to vocabulary words learned at home and other settings. (Some schools have more than 140 days of instruction.)
  • If this growth of 400 words a year were to be sustained over three years, this would add about two thirds of the words needed to bring children from the lowest vocabulary quartile to average vocabulary levels, assuming these children will continue to learn some words out of school.
In the primary grades, the key to improving students' vocabulary is to have teachers (older reading buddies, parents, other adults) read each story several times to students, use explanations of selected words and include regular word reviews.
As students move into middle school and high school, they more readily improve their vocabularies by use of other strategies such as:
  • Using active inference
  • Asking others
6. What other strategies, besides reading aloud, can teachers use to build students' vocabularies?
  • Teachers can use a Word Wall.
  • Teachers can have students keep a word list book.
  • Teachers can conduct daily and weekly reviews of words taught.
  • Teachers can use newly taught words in a different context when talking to students.
  • Teachers can involve parents. They can send lists of newly acquired words home to parents to use with accompanying examples. Words can be included in parent newsletters or on the teacher's website. Parents should be encouraged to ask their children questions similar to those raised by the teacher. The parents can also be asked to report back to the teacher examples of common words that their child fails to understand.
  • Teachers can encourage students to ask about words they don't know. Teacher should keep track of words asked for. Note: Students usually ask for help with particular words only once or twice, not more.
  • Teachers can keep the love of words alive. Teachers can have “A Class Word” or “Word of the day” posted. Preferably, the word of the day should be one that will be used in class. Students can be asked to submit a word for the day. For example, in some schools, they hold assemblies on themes derived from a Character Education curriculum. The theme for the assembly may be “Courage” on Martin Luther King's birthday or other themes such as “Consideration”, or “Honesty”. These words can be posted on the bulletin board or on the Word Wall and used in classroom activities and stories. Students can be encouraged to use the “Word of the Day” in class. Students can be asked to interview their parents, asking them for examples of “courage” and to bring the feedback to class.
  • Teachers should make deliberate attempts to use the “Word of the Day” in social discourse with students. “I saw Joseph show consideration on the playground when he allowed Mary and Billy to go first at the water fountain.”
  • Teach student reading buddies and tutors how to read stories. Give them specific words to highlight.
  • Teachers can give parent workshops using videotape modeling films of how to and how not to read stories aloud.
  • Administrators and fellow teachers can observe teachers reading aloud and provide constructive feedback.
7. What are some of the practical problems primary teachers face in promoting vocabulary, and how can these be addressed?
The major barrier teachers may face is the length of time needed to read with explanations so students can acquire at least 2 to 3 words a day. The Read Aloud procedure to be described will take about 30 minutes each day. This 30-minute period entails reading aloud, giving word explanations, maintaining some focus on comprehension, holding reflective discussions, conducting assessment and record keeping. Thirty minutes is a lot of time to devote on a daily basis, given the present curriculum demands. The challenge is to acknowledge the importance of having students become literate. Teachers can creatively utilize other areas of required curriculum for vocabulary development.

In kindergarten, children need about the same amount of time for vocabulary development and comprehension, as they do for work in word sounds, letters and printed words. It is vocabulary, not early reading skills, that is the best predictor of later reading comprehension. The way that words are introduced orally will influence the increase in students' vocabulary. Teachers are unlikely to engage in the daily 30minute vocabulary instructional routine without the principal's full support. Vocabulary development needs to be incorporated throughout the day and across the curriculum and not seen as competitive with or exclusive of other content areas.

Besides deciding on the amount of time to be devoted to Reading Aloud, another important question to be addressed is when should Reading Aloud take place in the course of the day and what function does Reading Aloud serve? For example, is Reading Aloud being used as a relaxation activity, conducted just after lunch? How effective is the Reading Aloud activity that the teacher is conducting? How many students are learning 2 to 3 new words a day? How does the teacher read aloud in conjunction with direct instruction designed to nurture comprehension and reflection, as well as develop vocabulary?

Addressing these questions will help educators identify possible barriers and develop possible solutions.

This web site has been produced by The Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment to provide research-based school violence prevention procedures for educators. The web site has been made possible with the generous support of the Robert and Renee Belfer Foundation and other supporters.
The Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment to provide research-based school violence prevention procedures for educators
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