Oral Language: Vocabulary, Part 5: Instruction

There is a great deal of information out there in the wide world on vocabulary in relation to oral language development and reading. We need words to learn to read, to read, and to read to learn.

 Home and Preschool. Beginning in infancy, children learn useful words in real contexts with opportunities and reinforcement provided by parents, caregivers and preschool teachers. Children are amazingly practical: They learn useful “things.” Children are also amazingly smart: They know the value of play. In the earliest stages of oral vocabulary development, even babies under one year of age begin to pay attention to “words” and use them to carry on conversations with interested adults. By the time they “enroll” in day care of preschool they have acquired quite a few words. If they are lucky, they will be in a day care or preschool environment that values play as a medium for learning.

The vocabulary they bring from home and preschool will have a significant role in their academic success. Looking back at developmental norms and the consequences of the “Matthew” effect (poorer vocabulary acquisition of children from disadvantaged homes), we know that some children will arrive in K with a bank of many fewer words, while their less advantaged peers (for a number of reasons) will bring and extensive and rich vocabulary.     That wouldn’t be so bad if K enrollment allowed them to catch up and experience growth paced with their peers from K on. That probably will not happen unless teachers intervene.

 Fortunately, we don’t have to accept a “slow” beginning. There are lots of things that parents and preschool teachers can do to provide the opportunities all children need to become proficient vocabulary users. In former blogs there were posts on vocabulary development at home. We know a great deal about vocabulary development and the importance of parent/child conversation and story book reading.

From the Handbook of Language and Literacy Development (0 to 60 Months) Written by: Andrew Biemiller, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto http://www.theroadmap.ualberta.ca/vocabularies

Effects of Reading to Children

“In addition to studies of parent-child conversations, there are studies of the specific effects of reading to children. Just reading stories to children is not enough—children need more general supportive verbal interaction during reading and at other times.

There are methods of vocabulary support that could be included in story reading with preschool children and even with toddlers and infants. With the youngest children (1 and 2 years of age), effective story reading probably deals more with words shown in pictures and focuses on text within single pages and rhyming. Children generally like having such books read many times. It helps to give words for pictured things.

At ages 3 and 4 years of age, how you read to children is very important. Make sure you gain children’s attention to books by asking questions, pointing out parts of an illustration, and prompting the child to “read”. Similarly, more reading to children promotes children’s vocabulary. By age five (and probably earlier), children can acquire some vocabulary simply as a result of hearing a story read twice. Words that appear many times in a story more likely to be learned.”

 Preschool teachers can provide additional support for developing vocabulary.

 Bridging the Vocabulary Gap: What Research Tells Us About Vocabulary Instruction in Early Childhood by Tanya Christ and X Christine Wang


 They offer 4 suggestions:

Provide purposeful exposure to new words— through thematically related read alouds and media center activities.

Intentionally teach word meanings—using eliciting questions and embedded definitions (from text).

Teach word-learning strategies—by modeling, guiding, and practice.

Offer opportunity to use newly learned words—through art and craft projects and props related to themes.


Kindergarten becomes the linchpin for helping children to build their vocabularies and pace of vocabulary development by paying attention to 4 aspects of vocabulary growth: (1) word contexts. (2) word frequency, (3) word complexity, and (4) word relationships.

 Words in Context. Word meanings are defined by the context in which they occur and the ways in which they are used. A word doesn’t have a deep meaning if it stands alone. If it is part of a sentence, the other words in the sentence influence the target word’s meaning. And if the sentence is part of a paragraph/text/conversation, those units influence word meaning as well. Several approaches have been proposed for addressing this context dimension: Cunningham on themes, Hiebert on topics, and others on multitext reading. A great starting point for thinking about words in context, especially at the Kindergarten level is how K teachers introduce children to words through read alouds……and shared reading conversations.

 Word Frequency. Word frequency has 3 dimensions to consider for instruction:

(a)    How many words there are to learn (too many to learn them all)

(b)   How frequently those words appear in written language (depends on grade level and type of text)

(c)    How frequently those words occur in the text an individual child is expected to read at any point in his/her education (as determined by the teacher)

 Word Complexity. All words are not created equal. Some words are conceptually more complex and therefore more challenging to learn (and to read). There isn’t some magically list that orders core and unique/rare words, however, which tells us which words are more complex than other words. But there are characteristics of words that we can consider to determine the relative complexity of the word in light of the topic or theme or genre of reading material we are expecting children to master. Hiebert in a study of Information and Narrative Text mentioned in the prior post [http://www.textproject.org/assets/text-matters/Text-Matters_Unique-Words.pdf ] draws a distinction between word complexity in narrative and information texts:

“By definition, low-frequency words are rarely encountered by students, which means students have few ex­posures to them. We refer to them as unique words because, even though there are many words of this type, they make up only 10% of the vocabulary in texts (Hiebert, 2012). In narrative texts, these low-frequency words typically represent new ways of representing a known concept. Many students may not immediately recognize the mean­ing of the word nonplussed but most know what it means to be con­fused. In informational texts, the unique words typically represent conceptually complex concepts that are unknown to students and require factual information or a related system of concepts to under­stand (Nagy, Anderson & Herman, 1987). For example, to understand electrochemical energy requires that students understand terms such as chemical energy, conversion, and electric energy.­”

 Word Relationships. An individual word doesn’t stand alone. It’s meaning, beyond any dictionary definition, is determined by the words it is connected to; and words are connected in a variety of ways. A child’s ability to understand those connections will reflect his/her depth of word knowledge. For example, if a child only knows that “box” means a small enclosed “thing” that contains “things”, but not that “box” can be a noun or a verb, can vary in size, shape and material, is a subset of a category of “containers” which has several other exemplars (buckets, jars, …. ), the child will be limited in the ability to understand the word at a deeper and more useful level. Fortunately, several sources give us lots of instructional ideas on the kinds of word relationships that kids need to learn words at a deeper, and, therefore, more useful level. . See for example, the work of Klausmeier, Frayer, Deshler, and Pearson.

 These 4 dimensions of vocabulary knowledge and instruction needs to occur throughout a student’s school career, not just in kindergarten. Including and beyond instructional ideas specific to these 4 dimensions of words, there are several excellent sites with ideas about vocabulary instruction that are applicable from K through elementary school.

 Online resources for vocabulary development

 Three useful sites that address “academic” vocabulary are particularly helpful:

This Berkeley School District Professional Development site offers both grade coded academic vocabulary lists and instructional ideas.


“On the following pages is a research proven routine for instruction based on Robert Marzano’s six step vocabulary development (2009), Kate Kinsella’s vocabulary instruction routine (2010), and Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey’s Gradual Release of Responsibility (2007).”

They even offer ideas on how NOT to teach vocabulary.

Kate Kinsella’s Examples of Other Less Effective Vocabulary Instruction:

Many of us have been guilty at one time or another of utilizing inadequate techniques to teach vocabulary. Research has shown, however, that the following common practices are a waste of precious instructional minutes.

1. Incidental teaching of words

2. Asking, “Does anybody know what _____ means?”

3. Copying same word several times

4. Having students “look it up” in a typical dictionary

5. Copying from dictionary or glossary

6. Having students use the word in a sentence after #3,4, or 5

7. Activities that do not require deep processing (word searches, fill-in-the-blank)

8. Rote memorization without context

9. Telling students to “use context clues” as a first or only strategy. Asking students to guess the meaning of the word

10. Passive reading as a primary strategy (SSR)”

The Tennessee (Academic Words) site also offers both grade based lists of [http://www.tennessee.gov/education/ci/doc/VOCABULARY.pdf ] academic words and a list of 33 instructional ideas, the last of which was: Talk, Talk, Talk, Talk, Talk…

“In this game students are in pairs (A & B), with student A facing the screen, and student B with his/her back to the screen. On the screen (PowerPoint, whiteboard, or overhead projector), a category is shown at the top of a page and the terms in the category will be shown in a list. The category will be shown first and student B can look at the screen to see the name of the category but must face away from the screen before the list is shown. Student A can describe any word on the screen and must continue talking until his/her partner has said every term on the screen in any order. No words on the list may be used while Student A is giving the clues. This game could be done on a whiteboard/chalkboard, with paper taped over the list or on an overhead transparency with the list covered until student B has seen the category and has turned away from the screen.”

English Language Learners (applicable to other groups of children as well)


Research suggests that we need to come in contact with a new word 6-14 times in various contexts in order to truly learn it. So in addition to the methods already discussed, we reinforce new vocabulary knowledge in other ways, such as regular classroom games, use of Vine and Instagram to create definitions of the words (we show an example below, and you can see more here), and having students use online academic vocabulary exercises (our favorites are Vocabulary Exercises For The Academic Word List, The Academic Word List at UoP and English Online).”

Additional resources come from practicing teachers who regularly contribute to their literacy blogs:


We Can’t Wait

This brings us back once again to the idea that “We Can’t Wait” for children to “fail” as readers. One important component of their reading success is beginning early to develop vocabulary.


“…differences in vocabulary growth between children in low income families and high income families begin to appear as early as 18 months…” Without thoughtful and ongoing vocabulary intervention we will not close that gap.

Words and Learning to Read: Part 2, The Matthew Effect/The Achievement Gap

We have a long history of research that tells us that children who enter Kindergarten behind their peers in language skills, particularly vocabulary skills, will be at a great educational disadvantage and often will not catch up for many years, if at all. This is still another indicator that “We can’t wait” until 3rd grade to decide that children are behind and need to catch up.

 One of the first studies on the “achievement gap” that I read has had a great influence on my work and teaching of courses in “Language and Learning” and “Reading Comprehension”. In 1976 NCTE published a monograph titled Language Development, Kindergarten through Grade Twelve by Walter Loban. Loban reported on a study where Loban (and his team) followed a group of 211 students who differed in sex, ethnic background, socioeconomic status and spread of intellectual abilities. Data were provided on 3 subgroups of children described as high functioning, low functioning, and mixed (high and low functioning) based on a range of listening, speaking, reading and writing measures along with teacher ratings every year of the amount of language, quality of vocabulary, skill in communication, organization, purpose and control of language, wealth of ideas, and quality of listening. Loban’s most telling finding was that “those superior in oral language in kindergarten and grade one before they learned to read and write are the very ones who excel in reading and writing by the time they are in grade six.

 A second influential group of studies looked at vocabulary specifically and the differences in achievement, even at the preschool level.

The Hart and Risley Study (The Matthew Effect)


The Thirty Million Word Gap

“In this groundbreaking study, Betty Hart and Todd Risley entered the homes of 42 families from various socio-economic backgrounds to assess the ways in which daily exchanges between a parent and child shape language and vocabulary development. Their findings were unprecedented, with extraordinary disparities between the sheer number of words spoken as well as the types of messages conveyed. After four years these differences in parent-child interactions produced significant discrepancies in not only children’s knowledge, but also their skills and experiences with children from high-income families being exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on welfare. Follow-up studies showed that these differences in language and interaction experiences have lasting effects on a child’s performance later in life.”

See other resources from the Rice center for education: the OWL Lab in Action (Videos) (Oral and Written Language Laboratory for preK students)


What the Research Tells Us about Vocabulary Instruction in Early Childhood

by Tanya Christ and X Cristine Yang

Reprinted from Young Children • July 2010

Personal use or limited free distribution of photocopies. No permission is needed to photocopy up to 25 copies of NAEYC-copyrighted articles from Young Children and Teaching Young Children or excerpts from articles, or selections from NAEYC-copyrighted books, booklets, and brochuresas long as the copies are distributed at no cost and a credit to NAEYC is evident on each copy. Excerpts from a book cannot exceed more than one chapter of that book. Booklets and brochures may not be copied in their entirety, but brief excerpts may be used. Creating more than 25 copies (even for free distribution) requires written permission. Send written requests to NAEYC’s permissions editor.


“It is important for children to develop knowledge of words’ meanings from a young age because vocabulary development has

an impact on their reading comprehension and academic success as they get older (Chall, Jacobs, & Baldwin 1990). Put simply, when children do not understand the meanings of important words in a text, they are unlikely to understand the text.…..

….Hart and Risley (1995) studied young children’s vocabulary development and found that when children from families

with low incomes were 3 years old, they knew 600 fewer words than children the same age from families with upper

incomes. By grade 2, the gap widens to about 4,000 words (Biemiller & Slonim2001).…..

 This review identifies effective ways for teachers to help young children learn new word meanings. First, we discuss

factors that affect young children’s vocabulary development. Then, we present four research-based vocabulary

teaching practices for early childhood classrooms: providing purposeful exposure to new vocabulary, intentionally

teaching word meanings, teaching word learning strategies, and giving children opportunities to use newly learned words. We conclude by offering classroom tips on vocabulary instruction based on our review of the research.”

 Language gap between rich and poor children begins in infancy, Stanford psychologists find By Bjorn Carey

http://news.stanford.edu/news/2013/september/toddler-language-gap-091213.html Research by Stanford psychologists reveals that 2-year-old children of lower-income families may already be six months behind in language development. Future work aims to devise intervention methods.

Starting Early to Close the Achievement Gap by the Ounce of Prevent Fund http://www.ieanea.org/region/40/assets/closingtheachievementgap.pdf

It isn’t just poverty that creates a vocabulary/achievement gap, it is also the ability to read words, especially “complex text” based words. When children start with an oral vocabulary gap, learning just gets more difficult when they cannot add words to their vocabulary because of reading difficulties.

So, we need to ask who is having difficulty reading words, why, and what kind of words and why?….Who: ELL student, students with dyslexia or other learning disabilities, students in classrooms that don’t meet their needs.

The questions of what kinds of words and why will be addressed in Parts 3 and 4 of this Vocabulary series.





Oral Language: Words (Part 1 of 5)

 Words and Learning to Read and Reading to Learn

We move from a focus on sounds to words in understanding early literacy development. Children need to be able to identify words (to read them silently or to recognize and pronounce them in oral reading) as they read text. They also need to know the meaning of the words they read, which will be our primary focus at the word level. First a few links for word identification info/ideas.

Word Identification
Word identification instruction has a long history in learning to read and reading to learn. There are many systematic programs and approaches to teaching word identification skills.


Generalizing word identification knowledge and skill to text reading. This is wide ranging issue to be addressed later in the discussion of Discourse/Text.

Word Meaning
Vocabulary knowledge is central to reading and reading comprehension. Five topics are of importance to be addressed over the next few weeks:

^Oral Language Development of Vocabulary—as the basis for reading vocabulary
^The Matthew Effect—the impact of early vocabulary development and the achievement gap
^Academic Vocabulary
^Vocabulary Differences in Narrative and Information Texts
^Vocabulary Instruction.

Oral Language Development & Vocabulary: Three perspectives

Speaking and Listening for Preschool Through Grade Three, Lauren B. Resnick and Catherine B. Snow, IRA, 2009

“Speaking and listening are the foundation of reading and writing. A child who does not have a large and fluent vocabulary will have difficulty with every aspect of reading, from recognizing or sounding out words to making sense of a story or directions.” (p. vi)

“From the time they are infants until they are about 8 years old, children learn most of what they know by hearing other people talk: Talking is the main way children get to know the world, understand complex events, and encounter different perspectives.” (p. 3)

* * * *
Harvard Graduate School of Education, Winter 2001 by Lori Hough

The beginning of the reading process…
“The reading process begins, of course, way before kids even walk into classes like McCaffrey’s. As Shonkoff, a former pediatrician and current director of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, says, “Kids learn to understand words before they speak them.” As soon as parents and caregivers pick up a cooing baby and coo back, the process begins, with the baby beginning to understand the back and forth of conversation.
By the time a child is 18 months old, Shonkoff writes in his book, From Neurons to Neighborhoods, their world is a language explosion, acquiring, on average, about nine new words a day, every day, through preschool.”
“By the time children enter formal education, it is estimated that they know the meaning of about 5,000 to 6,000 words when they hear them, and can probably recognize in print a handful of easily memorized “sight words” — words like “the” and “to” and “stop” that pop up often in books and on signs and menus.”

Read more: http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news-impact/2011/01/you-need-r-ee-d-to-read/#ixzz2xPHYEHeR

* * * *

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto
The Importance of the Number of Words Known by Age Five for Later School Achievement by Andrew Biemiller,

“Children who do not know many words by the end of kindergarten often have poor reading comprehension in later grades. By the time children begin kindergarten, they have already acquired much of their language. They speak in sentences and they understand simple stories and simple explanations. By 5 years of age, most children probably know more than one or two thousand root word meanings.”


“I estimate that by the beginning of kindergarten, children’s vocabulary size ranges from 2300 root word meanings (average for children with low vocabularies) to 4700 root word meanings (average for children with high vocabularies).

During the grades from kindergarten to grade two, the difference between children with small and large vocabularies continues to get larger. By the end of grade two, children in the low vocabulary group average 4000 root word meanings, children in the average vocabulary group know about 6000 meanings, and children in the large vocabulary group average 8000 meanings. These large vocabulary differences have developed before children have had much of an opportunity to build vocabulary from their own reading. Beginning readers (kindergarten-grade two) mainly read “primer” texts using relatively few words.”

How Word Meanings are Learned

“In this section, I discuss how words are learned and how some children come to know many more words than other children. I will also discuss how home differences and child-care interventions affect word development.”


“See Table 1 for a list of some preschool words and their meanings. See Table 2 for a list of word meanings recommended for attention, explanation, or instruction for children ages 3 to 5 years. [There are approximately 40 pages that make up these lists.”






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