Renee L. Donohue



May 15, 2000

Biola University

June Hetzel, Ph.D.

ASED 520, Monday 4:30-7:00 a.m.



Need for Vocabulary Instruction
Where to Include Vocabulary Instruction
Necessary Components
Instructional Strategies
Vocabulary Activities


Renee L. Donohue


The purpose of this paper is to establish the need for vocabulary instruction and to determine where and how to include it in the classroom.

A rich vocabulary unlocks a wealth of knowledge and opens up worlds to its owner. A large portion of vocabulary is learned in context, but research concludes that if active instruction is not undertaken, students will be robbed (Bryant et. al. 1999). Both comprehension and fluency are affected by vocabulary knowledge (Flood et. al. 1991; Robb, 1997). Understanding this vocabulary must be included across the curriculum (Ediger, 1999).

The literature review uncovered certain components that must be present in successful vocabulary instruction. They are relevance, multiple exposures, relationship to other words and the context, application, background knowledge, and in depth learning (Ediger, 1999; Misulis, 1999; Rupley, Logan, & Nichols, 1999; Stahl, 1986; Bryant et. al., 1999). Keeping these components in mind, instructional strategies and activities can be effectively pursued. General principles and specific activities are both addressed within these pages.

The findings of this research paper show that vocabulary instruction is necessary, should be included across the curriculum, and should follow guiding principles, strategies and activities for maximum effectiveness.

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Vocabulary is an integral part of reading, comprehending, learning, and in fact, of life. The onset of adulthood does not negate the necessity for vocabulary development. Different arenas of life have established a unique vocabulary that adults need to understand in order to function in that arena. The same is true for school age children. There are an estimated 88,533 distinct word families in materials for grades three through nine which "result in a total volume of nearly one half million graphically distinct word types" (Flood et al, 1991, p. 604). To acquire this immense vocabulary students will need to receive instruction.

Research shows that "vocabulary is the glue that holds stories, ideas, and content together and that it facilitates making comprehension accessible for children" (Rupley, Logan, & Nichols, 1999, p. 5). Laflamme feels more strongly stating that "researchers have acclaimed vocabulary knowledge as the single most important factor in reading comprehension" (1997, p. 1). In addition to comprehension, vocabulary knowledge increases reading skills. Marlow Ediger discovered "one reason that pupils do not read well is that they do not possess a functional vocabulary for reading" (1999, p. 1). In fact the words of a struggling reader, "I know a lot more words now, and its easier to read," (Robb, 1997, p. 34) attests to this fact. Reading fluency and text comprehension necessitate vocabulary instruction.

Clearly, "the challenge facing language users, learners, and teachers is literally and figuratively immense" (Flood et al, 1991, p. 604). This paper will address the need for vocabulary instruction, where to include it, some necessary components, strategies for instruction, and vocabulary activities.

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Research links vocabulary knowledge with reading comprehension and fluency. Several "factor analytic studies document that vocabulary knowledge is an important predictor of reading comprehension" (Flood et. al., 1991, p. 608). And "intuitively it makes sense that teaching children word meaning will improve their comprehension. After all, the number of difficult words in a text is the strongest predictor of the text's overall difficulty" (Stahl, 1986, p. 662). Furthermore, Robb states that "teaching strategies for improving vocabulary also puts students on the road to better fluency as a reader" (1997, p. 34). While there is little debate over the connection between vocabulary knowledge, comprehension and fluency, there is debate over strategies. This problem arises because the link between vocabulary knowledge and comprehension is neither strongly established nor well understood. Is good comprehension obtained because of a large vocabulary or is the large vocabulary a by-product of good comprehension (Flood et. al., 1991)? The truth is there is a combination of directionality. Rupley, Logan, and Nichols summarize the connection nicely stating, "vocabulary is partially an outcome of comprehension skills and reading comprehension is partially an outcome of vocabulary. Thus, they provide a mutual benefit in promoting reading development." (1999, p. 1). The only conclusion to be drawn then is, "the ramifications of limited vocabulary knowledge include difficulties with reading and comprehending" (Bryant et. al., 1999, p. 3).

It is clear that "vocabulary instruction is an integral component of teaching children how to read both narrative and informational text" (Rupley, Logan, & Nichols, 1999, p. 2). For comprehension to take place, it is necessary for students to have some prior knowledge of the subject matter and vocabulary because both are fundamental to comprehending text (Bryant et. al., 1999; Manning, 1999; Rupley, Logan, & Nichols, 1999). Thus "prereading vocabulary instruction enhances students' ability to construct meaning from text" (Jensen, 1999, p. 658). In fact "studies on vocabulary instruction unequivocally identify vocabulary knowledge as a major factor influencing reading ability where comprehension was improved as a result of preteaching the vocabulary" (Laflamme, 1997, p. 374).

It has been proven that "children with broad vocabulary knowledge are better able to infer meanings of unfamiliar words in the texts that they read" (Rupley, Logan, & Nichols, 1999, p. 1). A large vocabulary not only helps students decipher unfamiliar words but also aids them in making connections to their existing background knowledge and to make coherent beyond-the-line inferences. Additionally, "an active vocabulary teaching program may make students more 'word conscious,' thus motivating them to learn more words through context" (Stahl, 1986, p. 667).

The above reasons to adopt vocabulary instructional strategies in the classroom seem obvious to any educator. But it is possible that some doubt still remains. As mentioned in the introduction, possessing a rich vocabulary is necessary for more than just education, it is important for life. The following list of reasons compiled by Marlow Ediger demonstrates the dire need for vocabulary instruction in the classroom.

1. Vocabulary development becomes a tool to take in, such as listening and reading, as well as provide communication to others within the framework of speaking and writing.

2. Subject matters and ideas are expressed with more clarity and accuracy.

3. Proficiency in the work place might well depend upon individuals having a quality vocabulary.

4. Individuals seemingly have more prestige if their listening, speaking, reading, and writing vocabularies are adequately developed.

5. Greater enjoyment of reading is in the offing if a person has a rich functional vocabulary.

6. Vocabulary development is salient in problem solving.

7. A person with a rich vocabulary should have a better opportunity to develop his/her personality.

8. Conversations carried on with other persons require a rich vocabulary.

9. Variety in selecting words to convey accurate meanings is necessary in speaking and writing, the outgoes of the language arts.

10. Use of diverse terms and concepts in speaking and writing adds variety to quality communication. (1999, p. 1)

The need for vocabulary instruction has been established through research. There is a circular connection between vocabulary knowledge, reading comprehension and fluency. Vocabulary instruction increases comprehension, the ability to infer meaning to unfamiliar words, enables one to apply personal experience to the text, and will aid in a successful life. Put more concisely, "the goal of vocabulary instruction is to help students develop and apply vocabulary knowledge across a variety of contexts and to increase their repertoire of strategies for figuring out new vocabulary independently" (Bryant et. al., 1999, p. 3).

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Traditionally vocabulary instruction was a separate subject where students looked up definitions and constructed sentences. Research has shown that vocabulary development is a gradual process that takes place over time in a broader learning context (Flood et. al., 1991). Vocabulary instruction is essential because "students with poor vocabularies do not acquire the meaning of new words as quickly as students with richer vocabularies" (Bryant et. al., 1999, p. 3). Understanding this, what does it mean to know a word, and where should vocabulary instruction be included in the classroom, become two vital questions.

What does it mean to know a word? Researchers have developed a variety of concepts. According to Kameenui et. al. (1987) there are "three continuous levels of word knowledge: full concept knowledge, partial concept knowledge, and verbal association knowledge" (Flood et. al., 1991, p. 607). On the other hand Stahl (1985, 1986) formulated an intuitive scale of three successively deeper word meaning processing levels: association, comprehension, and generation. Rupley, Logan, & Nichols (1999) have developed a word knowledge continuum, which seems to summarize nicely the ways a word can be known.

Word Knowledge Continuum

No knowledge


Narrow context-bound knowledge


Rich decontextualized knowledge of a word meaning


General sense


Having knowledge but not being able to access it quickly


Words can be known on a variety of levels but a word that is known in-depth will be the most useful for a student. Knowing this, where should vocabulary instruction be included to obtain in-depth learning? Jensen and Duffelmeyer make an accurate observation when they say "the meaning of a word can only be understood and learnt in terms of its relationship with other words in the language" (1996, p. 22). Coupled with Stahl's findings that "vocabulary instruction improves comprehension only when both definitions and context are given, and has the largest effect when a number of different activities or examples using the word in context are used" (1986, p. 663), the only conclusion to be drawn is that vocabulary instruction needs to take place across the curriculum. A deeper understanding will be acquired when more connections between new and known information is made and more mental effort is exerted. Learning vocabulary in the context of the subject matter being studied will ensure better comprehension of the subject matter, as well as the ability to use the new words properly.

Clearly, "developing a rich listening, speaking, reading, and writing vocabulary is important in all curriculum areas" (Ediger, 1999, p. 1).

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There are certain elements that are essential for vocabulary instruction to be effective, and "the effectiveness of any instructional program depends on how it is used, for what purpose it is used, and with whom it is used" (Higgins & Hess, 1999, p. 1). First and foremost, the educator must select quality objectives that emphasize what is relevant and functional for the pupils. Included should be objectives that reflect collaborative work and independent acquisition skills (Ediger, 1999; Misulis, 1999). Regarding collaborative work, "vocabulary instruction that encourages children to discuss, elaborate, and demonstrate meanings of new words, and provides varied opportunities for students to use words outside of their classroom has been shown to be effective" (Rupley, Logan, & Nichols, 1999, p. 4). Strategies for promoting independent learning include knowledge and use of context clues, structural analysis, and dictionary skills (Misulis, 1999; Ediger, 1999). Over all, student involvement will increase favorable attitudes towards vocabulary development, which in turn will increase students' vocabularies.

Second, one or two exposures of a new word, or simply learning the definition, does not improve comprehension or increase vocabulary (Stahl, 1986). Truly "effective vocabulary instruction consists of providing numerous encounters with words and concepts with discussions and opportunities to use these words and concepts across a variety of contexts" (Bryant et. al., 1999, p. 5). The time spent on instruction is highly correlated to the effect of the instruction.

Third, "to understand a word fully, a student must know not only what it refers to, but also where the boundaries are that separate it from words of related meaning" (Gairns & Redman, 1986, p. 13). While words have a range of meanings, each word covers a unique territory, distinct from other similar words. Furthermore, words rarely occur in isolation. To understand a word's meaning the reader must also understand "the way in which the meaning contributes to the cohesiveness of the context" (Rupley, Logan, & Nichols, 1999, p. 2). Thus, a word's separateness from other words, and its togetherness with the context, need to be grasped for comprehension to exist.

Fourth, "purposeful learning in vocabulary development means that pupils perceive reasons for achieving" (Ediger, 1999, p. 2). Educators need to generate interest in the units of study thus creating a desire for learning vocabulary. Students should also be encouraged to find personal use and applications for newly acquired vocabulary outside of school.

Fifth, "the key to successful vocabulary instruction builds upon students background knowledge and makes explicit the connections between new words and what they already know" (Rupley, Logan, & Nichols, 1999, p. 9). As students make connections between new and known words and prior knowledge, effective and long-term learning takes place.

Sixth, "knowing a word in the fullest sense goes beyond simply being able to define it or get some gist of it from the context" (Ibid., p. 3), it requires in-depth learning. In-depth word studies contain many exposures to new words in meaningful contexts, instruction in semantics and word structure, a word's definition, and its relationship to other words and the context (Ediger, 1999; Stahl, 1996). Flood et. al. maintains there are two levels of vocabulary knowledge, receptive and expressive. While "receptive vocabulary requires the reader/listener to associate a specific meaning with a given label, expressive vocabulary requires the speaker/writer to produce a specific label for a particular meaning" (1991, p. 606). In this sense, in-depth learning would produce expressive vocabulary.

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