What does the current research on vocabulary instruction say? (REL)
The members of the Massachusetts Reading Association Studies and Research Committee set out to determine what research from 2000 to 2010 says about vocabulary instruction
The NRP’s synthesis of vocabulary research identified eight findings that provide a scientifically based foundation for the design of rich, multifaceted vocabulary instruction. The findings are:
Provide direct instruction of vocabulary words for a specific text. Anderson and Nagy (1991) pointed out “there are precise words children may need to know in order to comprehend particular lessons or subject matter.”
Repetition and multiple exposures to vocabulary items are important. Stahl (2005) cautioned against “mere repetition or drill of the word,” emphasizing that vocabulary instruction should provide students with opportunities to encounter words repeatedly and in a variety of contexts.
Vocabulary words should be those that the learner will find useful in many contexts. Instruction of high-frequency words known and used by mature language users can add productively to an individual’s language ability (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). Research suggests that vocabulary learning follows a developmental trajectory (Biemiller, 2001).
Vocabulary tasks should be restructured as necessary. “Once students know what is expected of them in a vocabulary task, they often learn rapidly” (Kamil, 2004).
Vocabulary learning is effective when it entails active engagement that goes beyond definitional knowledge. Stahl and Kapinus (2001) stated, “When children ‘know’ a word, they not only know the word’s definition and its logical relationship with other words, they also know how the word functions in different contexts.”
Computer technology can be used effectively to help teach vocabulary. Encouragement exists but relatively few specific instructional applications can be gleaned from the research (NICHD, 2000).
This publication reviews the most recent research on vocabulary acquisition and instructional practices since the release of the National Reading Panel’s report.
Sweeny, S. M., & Mason, P. A. (2011). Research based practices in vocabulary instruction: An analysis of what works in grades preK–12. Boston, MA: Studies & Research Committee, Massachusetts Reading Association.
Available from: http://massreading.org/wp-conte…/uploads/2013/…/vocpaper.pdf
. Our review revealed several categories of best practices for teaching all students, and specific considerations for working with special populations, including at-risk learners, ELLs, and students with learning disabilities, as well as recommendations for content-area vocabulary instruction. The review also prompts a suggestion of what not to do, specifically, to avoid drill and practice!
The following sections provide a synthesis of the research findings, specific suggestions teachers can use in their classrooms, recommendations for supporting the vocabulary development of special needs students and English Language Learners, content area vocabulary instruction, and school-level considerations. A brief explanation for each category is provided and interested readers can use the Reference section to locate original research articles for more details.
Hairrell, A., Rupley,W., & Simmons, D. (2011). The state of vocabulary research. Literacy Research and Instruction, 50(4). 253–271.
Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com/…/…/10.1080/19388071.2010.514036…
Twenty-four studies were included in this systematic review of vocabulary research literature. The review corroborates the findings of past studies that several strategies have emerged that increase students’ vocabulary knowledge. Findings further reinforce the National Reading Panel’s recommendations regarding the context and magnitude of studies needed. Additionally, the analysis of the methodological characteristics of the 24 studies reveals mixed alignment of research methods with standards recommended by educational and research organizations.
Gifford, M., & Gore, S. (2010). The effects of focused academic vocabulary instruction on underperforming math students (ASCD Report). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Available from: https://www.ascd.org/…/academic_vocabulary_math_white_paper…
The study was designed using the book Building Academic Vocabulary: Teacher’s Manual (2005) by Robert Marzano and Debra Pickering as well as research by Marzano, John Kendall, and Barbara Gaddy from the book Essential Knowledge: The Debate Over What American Students Should Know (1999).
Apthorp, H., Randel, B., Cherasaro, T., Clark, T., McKeown, M., & Beck, I. (2012). Effects of a supplemental vocabulary program on word knowledge and passage comprehension. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 5, 160–188.
Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com/…/…/10.1080/19345747.2012.660240…
A cluster randomized trial estimated the effects of a supplemental vocabulary program, Elements of Reading® vocabulary on student vocabulary and passage comprehension in moderate- to high-poverty elementary schools. Forty-four schools participated over a period spanning 2 consecutive school years. At baseline, 1,057 teachers and 16,471 students from kindergarten, first, third, and fourth grade participated. The schools were randomly assigned to either the primary or intermediate grade treatment group. In each group, the non-treatment classrooms provided the control condition. Treatment classrooms used the intervention to supplement their core reading program, whereas control classrooms taught vocabulary business-as-usual. The intervention includes structured, weekly lesson plans for 6 to 8 literary words and aural/oral and written language activities providing multiple exposures and opportunity for use. Hierarchical linear modeling was used to estimate both proximal (Year 1) and distal (Year 2) effects on vocabulary and passage comprehension. The intervention had positive and statistically significant proximal effects but no statistically significant distal effects. The results indicate that the intervention can improve targeted vocabulary and local passage comprehension, but expecting global effects may be overly optimistic.
Biemiller, A., & Boote, C. (2006). An effective method for building meaning vocabulary in primary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 44–62.
Available from: http://www.wce.wwu.edu/…/Vocab%20Effective%20method%20for%2…
Teaching vocabulary to primary grade children is essential. Previous studies of teaching vocabulary (word meanings) using story books in the primary grades reported gains of 20%-25% of word meanings taught. The present studies concern possible influences on word meaning acquisition during instruction (Study 1) and increasing the percentage and number of word meanings acquired (Study 2). Both studies were conducted in a working-class school with approximately 50% English-language learners. The regular classroom teachers worked with their whole classes in these studies. In Study 1, average gains of 12% of word meanings were obtained using repeated reading. Adding word explanations added a 10% gain for a total gain of 22%. Pretesting had no effect on gains. In Study 2, results showed learning of 41% of word meanings taught. At this rate of learning word meanings taught, it would be possible for children to learn 400 word meanings a year if 1,000 word meanings were taught. The feasibility of teaching vocabulary to primary grade children is discussed.
Elleman, A. M., Lindo, E. J., Morphy, P., & Compton, D. L. (2009). The impact of vocabulary instruction on passage-level comprehension of school-age children: A meta-analysis. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 2, 1–44.
Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com/…/full/10.1080/19345740802539200…
A meta-analysis of vocabulary interventions in grades pre-K to 12 was conducted with 37 studies to better understand the impact of vocabulary on comprehension. Vocabulary instruction was found to be effective at increasing students’ ability to comprehend text with custom measures (d = 0.50), but was less effective for standardized measures (d = 0.10). When considering only custom measures, and controlling for method variables, students with reading difficulties (d = 1.23) benefited more than three times as much as students without reading problems (d = 0.39) on comprehension measures. Gains on vocabulary measures, however, were comparable across reading ability. In addition, the correlation of vocabulary and comprehension effects from studies reporting both outcomes was modest (r = .43).
Marulis, L. M., & Neuman, S. B. (2010). The effects of vocabulary intervention on young children’s word learning: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 80, 300–335.
Available from: http://sbneuman.com/pdf/marulisNeuman.pdf
This meta-analysis examines the effects of vocabulary interventions on pre-K and kindergarten children’s oral language development. The authors quantitatively reviewed 67 studies and 216 effect sizes to better understand the impact of training on word learning. Results indicated an overall effect size of .88, demonstrating, on average, a gain of nearly one standard deviation on vocabulary measures. Moderator analyses reported greater effects for trained adults in providing the treatment, combined pedagogical strategies that included explicit and implicit instruction, and author-created measures compared to standardized measures. Middle- and upper-income at-risk children were significantly more likely to benefit from vocabulary intervention than those students also at risk and poor. These results indicate that although they might improve oral language skills, vocabulary interventions are not sufficiently powerful to close the gap—even in the preschool and kindergarten years.
Nelson, J. R., & Stage, S. A. (2007). Fostering the development of vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension through contextually-based multiple meaning vocabulary instruction. Education and Treatment of Children, 30, 1–22.
Available from: http://muse.jhu.edu/…/education_and_tre…/v030/30.1nelson.pdf
The primary purpose of this study was to assess the effects of contextually-based multiple meaning (i.e., words with multiple meanings) vocabulary instruction on the vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension of students. Third and 5th grade students received either contextually-based multiple meaning vocabulary instruction embedded in the standard language arts instruction offered to all students over a three-month period or the standard language arts instruction alone (i.e., non-specific treatment). Students who received the contextually-based multiple meaning instruction generally showed statistically and educationally significant gains in their vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension relative to students who did not. These gains were most evident in reading comprehension. Additionally, students with low initial vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension achievement tended to show greater gains than those with average to high achievement. These effects were more pronounced in the case of 3rd grade students. The results and limitations are discussed.
Kamil, M. L., Borman, G. D., Dole, J., Kral, C. C., Salinger, T., & Torgesen, J. (2008). Improving adolescent literacy: Effective classroom and intervention practices: A Practice Guide (NCEE #2008-4027). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
Available from: http://ies.ed.gov/…/wwc/pdf/practice_gu…/adlit_pg_082608.pdf
The goal of this practice guide is to present specific and coherent evidence-based recommendations that educators can use to improve literacy levels among adolescents in upper elementary, middle, and high schools. The target audience for the practice guide is teachers and other school personnel who have direct contact with students. The practice guide includes specific recommendations for educators along with a discussion of the quality of evidence that supports these recommendations.
The first recommendation is that Teachers should provide students with explicit vocabulary instruction both as part of reading and language arts classes and as part of content area classes such as science and social studies. By giving students explicit instruction in vocabulary, teachers help them learn the meaning of new words and strengthen their independent skills of constructing the meaning of text.
Stone, B., & Urquhart, V. (2008). Remove limits to learning with systematic vocabulary instruction. Denver, CO: McREL.
Available from: http://www.mcrel.org/…/Produ…/01_99/prod10_VocabReading.ashx
Throughout this booklet, we describe the positive outcomes that result when a school-or district wide vocabulary program is strategically developed and intentionally implemented. The booklet includes three sections:
Section One is a brief overview of research on vocabulary development, including a rationale for helping students develop a rich working vocabulary
Section two details four research-based principles for vocabulary development
Section three provides strategies for translating research on vocabulary instruction into classroom practice.
Goodson, B., Wolf, A., Bell, S., Turner, H., & Finney, P. B. (2010). The effectiveness of a program to accelerate vocabulary development in kindergarten (VOCAB). (NCEE 2010-4014). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
Available from: http://ies.ed.gov/…/…/regions/southeast/pdf/REL_20104014.pdf
REL Southeast conducted a randomized control trial in the Mississippi Delta to test the impact of a kindergarten vocabulary instruction program on students’ expressive vocabulary — the words students understand well enough to use in speaking. The study found that the 24-week K-PAVE program had a significant positive impact on students’ vocabulary development and academic knowledge and on the vocabulary and comprehension support that teachers provided during book read-alouds and other instructional time.
White, C. E., & Kim, J. S. (2009). Putting the pieces of the puzzle together: How systematic vocabulary instruction and expanded learning time can address the literacy gap. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.
Available from: http://www.americanprogress.org/issu…/…/05/pdf/elt_may09.pdf
This report makes several recommendations to address disparities in vocabulary and spoken language based on children’s family income and English-language proficiency. Schools should use systematic vocabulary instruction throughout the school day and during expanded learning time, sustain a school-wide program, regularly assess student knowledge, and help teachers target the right words during instruction. The report suggests that expanded learning time policies may enhance the effectiveness of systematic vocabulary instruction for low-income children and English language learners.
Blachowicz, C. L. Z., Fisher, P. J., & Watts-Taffe, S. (2005) Integrated vocabulary instruction: Meeting the needs of diverse learners in grades K-5. Naperville, IL: North Central Regional Education Laboratory, Learning Point Associates.
Available from: http://www.learningpt.org/pdfs/literacy/vocabulary.pdf
The goal of this document is to provide the information that teachers and other educators need to implement an integrated and comprehensive approach to vocabulary instruction. Integrated means that vocabulary is a core consideration in all grades across the school and in all content areas across the school day. Comprehensive means that vocabulary instruction encompasses much more than a list of words to teach at the beginning of the week. Rather, it involves a common philosophy and shared practices, based on a solid understanding the knowledge base and supported by curricular considerations as well as classroom and school organizational procedures.
National Reading Technical Assistance Center: http://www.rmcres.com/ReadingandLiteracy
Reading Rockets, Vocabulary: http://www.readingrockets.org/reading-topics/vocabulary
Ohio Resource Center: Vocabulary for Content-Area Learning: http://ohiorc.org/…/Issue/2008-10/Article/orccollection.aspx
Sonoma County Office of Education: Vocabulary: http://www.scoe.org/pub/htdocs/vocabulary-comprehension.html
Databases and Websites
Institute of Education Sciences Resources: Regional Educational Laboratory Program (REL); IES Practice Guides; What Works Clearinghouse (WWC); Doing What Works (DWW); Institute of Education Sciences (IES); National Center for Education Research (NCER); National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE); National Center for Special Education (NCSER); National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)
Other Federally Funded Resources: The Assessment and Accountability Comprehensive Center; The Center on Innovation and Improvement; The Center on Instruction; The National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality; National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing; National Center for Performance Incentives; National Research and Development Center on School Choice, Competition and Achievement; National Research Center for Career and Technical Education; National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented
Search Engines and Databases: EBSCO Databases; ERIC; Google, Google Scholar; General Internet Search
For more information
For further questions, contact the REL Central Help Desk at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-888-840-8510.
This Ask A REL response was developed by REL Central under Contract ED-IES-12-C-0007 from the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. government.