Johnny Key

Commissioner of Education

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A Division of the Arkansas Department of Education

How Words Are Learned

The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read, Put Reading First is a summary of the findings from the 2000 National Reading Panel Report. The five areas of reading instruction (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension) are defined. The document also reviews the evidence from research, offers suggestions of classroom instruction implications, and describes proven strategies for teaching reading skills.

The scientific research on vocabulary instruction reveals that (1) most vocabulary is learned indirectly and (2) some vocabulary must be taught directly. (Put Reading First, 3rd Edition, p. 29)

Reading Rockets defines both indirect and direct vocabulary instruction.

Indirect Vocabulary Instruction

  • Scientific research on vocabulary instruction reveals that most vocabulary is acquired through indirect exposure to words (rich oral-language experiences at home and at school, listening to books read aloud to them, and reading widely on their own). The more students read, the better readers they become. 
  • Reading First in Virginia Professional Development offers the rationale and examples of lessons for providing indirect vocabulary instruction.  Five instructional strategies are discussed:  Analyzing Word Parts, Word Tree, Dictionaries, Word Wizard, and Access to Stories.
  • Word consciousness is “awareness and interest in words and their meaning” (Graves & Watts-Taffe, 2008). The Keys to Literacy Blog offers ways to “Create a Word Conscious Classroom.”  It includes additional links to sites such as A Word A Day and 50 Coolest Online Tools for Word Nerds.
  • K5Chalkbox gives examples of five easy ways to incorporate indirect vocabulary into your daily schedule:  Interactive Read Aloud, Vocabulary Notebook, Daily Words, Label Classroom Objects, and Integrate Use of Multi-media.

Direct Vocabulary Instruction

  • According to Stahl (2005), students probably have to see a word more than once to place it firmly in their long-term memories. Multiple exposures to a word in multiple contexts provides students with opportunities to encounter the words repeatedly.  
  • A general way to help students develop vocabulary is by fostering word consciousness: an awareness of and an interest in words. Word consciousness can be developed through creating a word rich environment, encouraging word play, and investigating word origins and histories.
  • According to the National Reading Panel (2000), explicit instruction of vocabulary is highly effective. To deepen students’ knowledge of word meanings, specific word instruction should be robust (Beck et al. 2002).  Explicit instruction in word-learning strategies gives students tools for independently determining the meanings of unfamiliar words that have not been specifically introduced in class. 
  • Rather than focusing only on the words themselves, teachers should be certain that students fully understand the instructional task (Schwartz and Raphael 1985). When students understand what is being asked of them, they learn more rapidly. 
  • Word learning strategies include word investigation, morphemic analysis, and contextual analysis, all of which are addressed on this website.
  • Reading First in Virginia Professional Development offers the rationale and examples of lessons for providing direct vocabulary instruction. Five instructional strategies are discussed:  Concept Maps, Word Cards, Four Square Vocabulary, Concept Sorting, List-Group-Label.
  • A Publication of the Children’s Learning Institute, TPRI Newsletter, Volume 2, Number 5 is devoted to vocabulary. A routine for teaching vocabulary explicitly is included.
  • Doing It Differently: Tips for Teaching Vocabulary (Edutopia, January 16, 2014) has tips for ranking words, or choosing which words to teach. Isabel Beck’s Three Tier is used to choose words, followed by Robert Marzano’s six steps for vocabulary instruction.
  • The authors of Bringing Words to Life discuss principles for choosing words for explicit vocabulary instruction. Examples are included for both younger and older students.
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