Johnny Key

Commissioner of Education

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A Division of the Arkansas Department of Education


What Does the Research Say About Vocabulary Learning and Instruction?

Research indicates that estimates of the rate at which vocabulary is acquired in childhood can vary greatly.  In 2000, the National Reading Panel determined that repetition and multiple exposures to vocabulary items are important.  This exposure and repetition, is often called word consciousness and includes exposure to print and literacy experiences at home and in school. Many things affect how quickly a child acquires new vocabulary.  The way families interact and communicate, their culture, and socioeconomic level play a role in word acquisition for children.  Research has demonstrated that vocabulary of students in grades 1-3 who live in poverty increases significantly less than the vocabularies of middle class students in the same grades. (White, Graves, & Slater, 1989). It is thought that vocabulary sizes vary so much because the quantity and quality of the  children’s exposure to words differs greatly. 

Words are key to thinking, reading, writing, listening, and speaking – skills that students use throughout life. Having a large vocabulary helps students to better analyze, reason, infer, evaluate, apply, and synthesize concepts and ideas, thereby promoting powerful and interesting communication and understanding.

Hazards of Continuing Current Practice

In most classrooms, words are often selected and introduced by the teacher. He/she pronounces the word, uses the word in a sentence, and directs students to find and write down the definition for the word from the dictionary. Research has shown that students often know many of the words that teachers target for instruction (Ryder and Graves, 1994).  Because of this, the process of word-learning becomes mundane. If students are permitted to select their own words for learning, there is more engagement and ownership by the student.  Students need many opportunities to explore words in varied ways and contexts, to discuss words and their relationships, and to incorporate new words into their everyday lives.  When students have a variety of meaningful and different experiences with words over time, they come to know the word and its dimensions well.  Then the word becomes part of the child’s receptive and expressive vocabularies.

(adapted from Bromley, K. (2002). Stretching Students' Vocabulary. New York, NY: Scholastic Professional Books.)

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