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Teaching and Developing Vocabulary—Part Two
by John J. Pikulski, Ph.D., and Shane Templeton, Ph.D.

Dr. John J. Pikulski is professor of education at the University of Delaware. He is also senior author of Houghton Mifflin Reading‚ and coordinating author of Reading Intervention for EARLY SUCCESS.

Shane Templeton is foundation professor of literacy studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, and senior author of Houghton Mifflin Spelling and Vocabulary.

This is the second part of a two part article on vocabulary instruction. This section provides eight research-based methods for cultivating students' vocabulary. Part one discusses the theories behind vocabulary acquisition.

A Comprehensive Approach to Teaching and Developing Vocabulary
The amount of vocabulary that children need to acquire each year is staggering in scope-it is estimated to be about three thousand words per year. Therefore, a comprehensive approach consisting of the following components needs to be in place:

  • Use "instructional" read-aloud events.
  • Provide direct instruction on the meanings of clusters of words and individual words.
  • Systematically teach students the meaning of prefixes, suffixes, and root words.
  • Link spelling instruction to reading and vocabulary instruction.
  • Teach the effective, efficient, realistic use of dictionaries, thesauruses, and other reference works.
  • Teach, model, and encourage the application of word-learning strategies.
  • Encourage wide reading.
  • Create a keen awareness of and a deep interest in language and words.

Use Instructional Read-aloud Events
The recommendation that parents and teachers read aloud to children is among the most popular recommendations in the field of reading. The prestigious research-based report Becoming a Nation of Readers (Anderson et al. 1985) concluded, "The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children." One very obvious way in which reading aloud to children can be expected to be beneficial is to increase their language and vocabulary skills. Indeed there is research to support this position (Elley 1989).

The study by Elley (1989) strongly suggested that vocabulary growth was much greater when teachers discussed, even if briefly, the meanings of the words in addition to just reading the books aloud. The recent study by Juel et al. (2003) showed that while teachers in kindergarten and first grade spent considerable time reading and discussing books to children with below-average vocabularies, these activities had minimal impact on the progress of the children. Only when teachers spent focused time on the vocabulary did significant growth occur. We apply the term "instructional read-aloud" to read-aloud events where, in addition to reading aloud to stimulate an interest in books and reading, there is also a deliberate teaching of skills that will promote independence in reading, such as an increased vocabulary.

Provide Direct Instruction in the Meanings of Words
Which words should be taught? In deciding which words to teach we have found it helpful to think about "levels" of vocabulary:

  • Level I Words: These are words that are used over and over in everyday speech. Since they are so frequently used in a variety of contexts, virtually all children learn them. Some examples of these words would be house, girl, cat, up, umbrella, etc. Level I words are sometimes referred to as "conversational speech." Children who are learning English as a second language will sometimes make progress with this level of vocabulary but have difficulty making progress with words at levels beyond this one.

  • Level II Words: These are words that are likely to be learned only through reading or through instruction. They have been referred to as the vocabulary of educated persons, as "academic vocabulary," and as "instructional vocabulary." They are words that are necessary for general success in school. Words such as perspective, generate, initiate, intermediate, calculation, etc. are examples.

  • Level III Words: These are words associated with a particular field of study or profession. These words make up the technical vocabulary or jargon of a field. Examples of Level III words from the field of reading instruction include the terms digraph, diphthong, schwa, and metacomprehension. As one might expect, some words such as calculation might be classified as either a Level II or Level III word, or both.

  • Level IV Words: These are words that are interesting but so rare and esoteric that they are probably not useful even in most educational environments, and they are not associated with a field of study or profession. Examples are words that were but no longer are used: majuscule (a capital letter), xanthodont (one who has yellow teeth like a rodent), noctuary (an account of what happens in a night). Notice, however, that some Level IV words are useful for teaching morphological clues such as noct meaning "night" and dont or dent referring to teeth. Level IV words are also helpful for creating an interest in words and language.

Just by their definitions, it should be apparent that a major responsibility of teachers is to expand the Level II and Level III words of their students. Teachers of content areas have a special responsibility for teaching Level III words.

Systematically Teach the Meaning of Prefixes, Suffixes, and Root Words
The majority of English words have been created through the combination of morphemic elements, that is, prefixes and suffixes with base words and word roots. If learners understand how this combinatorial process works, they possess one of the most powerful understandings necessary for vocabulary growth (Anderson and Freebody 1981). This understanding of how meaningful elements combine is defined as morphological knowledge because it is based on an understanding of morphemes, the smallest units of meaning in a language. In the intermediate grades and beyond, most new words that students encounter in their reading are morphological derivatives of familiar words (Aronoff 1994). In recent years, research has suggested some promising guidelines for teaching the meanings of prefixes, suffixes, and word roots as well as for the ways in which knowledge of these meaningful word parts may be applied (Templeton 2004). Word roots such as dict, spect, and struct are meaningful parts of words that remain after all prefixes and suffixes have been removed but that usually do not stand by themselves as words: prediction, inspection, contract.

In the primary grades students begin to explore the effects of prefixes such as un-, re-, and dis- on base words. In the intermediate grades students continue to explore prefixes and an increasing number of suffixes and their effects on base words: govern (verb) + ment = government (noun). Common Greek and Latin roots begin to be explored, along with the effects of prefixes and suffixes that attach to them (Templeton 1989). These include, for example, chron ("time," as in chronology), tele ("distant, far" as in television), and fract ("break," as in fracture). A large proportion of the vocabulary of specific content areas is built on Greek and Latin elements. As this morphological knowledge develops, teachers can model how it may be applied to determining the meanings of unfamiliar words encountered in print.

Link Spelling Instruction to Reading and Vocabulary Instruction
Spelling knowledge applies not only to the ability to encode words during writing; importantly, it also underlies individuals' ability to decode words during the process of reading (Templeton 2003a, 2003b). Students' spelling knowledge is, therefore, a powerful foundation for their reading and their vocabulary development. This latter aspect is linked to the role that morphological knowledge plays, as discussed in the previous section. Words that are related in meaning are often related in spelling, despite changes in sound.

Among intermediate students, examination of how spelling patterns reflect meaning leads to vocabulary growth. To get a sense of how the connection works between spelling and meaning, examine the following words: bomb/bombard; muscle/muscular; compete/competition. Because the words in each pair are related in meaning, the spelling of the underlined sounds remains constant; although the sound that letters represent may change in related words, the spelling usually remains the same because it preserves the meaning relationship that these words share.

Once students understand the spelling-meaning relationships among words, they can learn how the spelling or structure of familiar words can be clues to the spelling and the meaning of unknown words, and vice-versa. For example, a student who spells condemn as condem in her spontaneous writing may be shown the word condemnation: This not only explains the so-called "silent" n in condemn but expands the student's vocabulary at the same time.

Teach the Use of Dictionaries, Thesauruses, and Other Reference Works
Exploring dictionary entries can be one important and effective component of understanding a word deeply. The entries can also help students determine the precise meaning of a word.

Dictionaries can also provide helpful information about the history of a word and reinforce the interrelationships among words in the same meaning "families." For example, a discussion of run-on entries illustrates how one word's entry can include information about related words-the entry for entrap also includes entraps and entrapment. The usage notes in dictionaries often explain subtle but important differences among words--usually the appropriateness of one word over another in a particular context. Words for which the dictionary is essential may be entered in a student's vocabulary notebook. Dictionaries can also contribute to an interest in and attitudes toward words that teachers and students explore.

Teach the Application of a Word Learning Strategy
As noted earlier, written texts contain richer vocabulary than oral language and, therefore, more opportunities for vocabulary expansion. However, the probability of learning a new word's meaning through encountering it in reading is not high-only about one chance in twenty. There is research that shows that students can be taught strategic behaviors to improve their ability to learn the meaning of words (Kuhn and Stahl 1998). While morphological clues, reference works, and spelling clues are all useful to determine word meaning, they become more powerful and functional when combined with the use of context clues in a deliberate strategy.

Based on a review of research and our experience in working with students, we suggest the following sequence:

  • Step 1: Carefully look at the word; decide how to pronounce it.
    Carefully processing the letters or chunks of letters of a word and thinking about the sounds for them will leave a memory trace for the word even if it is not a word that the reader knows. At very least, it is likely that if the reader encounters the word again in future readings, there will be at least a modicum of familiarity with it.

  • Step 2a: Check around the word for context clues: look within the sentence, reread previous sentences, and read ahead for more context clues.

  • Step 2b: Look in the word for prefixes and suffixes, base words, and root words that might offer clues. We have listed this and the previous step as 2a and 2b because with experience students will apply one or the other first depending on the word. For a word with a common prefix such as un, morphological clues would likely be used before the use of context clues. The hallmark of a strategic reader is the flexible application of strategies.

  • Step 3: Make your best guess at the word's meaning.
    It is important to stress with students that natural context most often will not lead to a clear understanding of a word's meaning and that some words will not contain recognizable morphological clues. Nevertheless, it seems useful to take the step of making a best guess at the word's meaning since this further mental activity is likely to make the word more familiar the next time it is encountered-even if the student's understanding of the word has to be revised.

  • Step 4a: If you don't have a good idea as to the word's meaning and if the word seems important, use a dictionary or glossary.
    We suggest two touchstones for determining whether or not a word is important. First, if the reader is beginning to have difficulty understanding what he or she is reading, the word is important because its meaning may contribute to a better understanding of what is being read. Second, if the reader has encountered a word before, but still has no good idea as to its meaning, it is probably important. Also, they will most likely encounter it again.

  • Step 4b: If you think you have figured out the meaning of the word or if the word doesn't seem important, keep reading.
    It would be unrealistic to tell a reader to look up every unknown word in a dictionary; mature readers don't. Therefore, it is legitimate to move on if context and morphological clues have been somewhat helpful or if the word doesn't seem to be important for comprehension of what is being read or for adding to one's functional vocabulary.

Teachers need to strategically and flexibly model and teach each of the above steps. Eventually, as students mature in their reading skills, they can and will internalize the steps in this strategy. Application of these steps then becomes much smoother and more automatic, requiring less attention. In fact, good readers usually "blend" these steps.

Encourage Wide Reading
The importance of wide reading in the growth of students' vocabulary is critical (Nagy and Anderson 1984). Given the staggering number of new words that children must add to their vocabularies each year, it would be impossible to directly teach all of them; Anderson (1996) estimates that it would require teaching about twenty new words a day each day of the school year.

Through wide independent reading, students come in contact with vocabulary that rarely occurs in spoken language but that is much more likely to be encountered in printed language. Cunningham and Stanovich (1998) present evidence that vocabulary used in oral communication such as television shows or adult conversation is extremely restricted. For example, prime-time television shows have less challenging vocabulary than children's books, and college graduates talking with friends and spouses use vocabulary that is less challenging than that in preschool books.

Research is clear regarding implications for instruction that will ensure the development of large, useful vocabularies: wide reading plays a critical role in developing knowledge, and teachers facilitate this process by teaching strategies for learning words independently, including teaching morphological units, the use of dictionaries and other reference works, and exploring the link between spelling and learning words. Teachers should also directly teach important specific words, and they should develop and sustain students' interest in and curiosity about words.

Anderson, R. C. 1996. Research foundations to support wide reading. In Promoting reading in developing countries, ed. V. Creany, 55-77. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Anderson, R. C., and Freebody, P. 1981. Vocabulary knowledge. In Comprehension and teaching: Research reviews, ed. J. Guthrie, 77-117. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Anderson, R. C., Hiebert, E. H., Scott, J. A., and Wilkerson, I. A. 1985. Becoming a nation of readers. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Education.

Aronoff, M. 1994. Morphology. In Encyclopedia of English studies and language arts, ed. A. C. Purves, L. Papa, and S. Jordan, 2: 820-821. New York: Scholastic.

Bear, D. R., Ivernizzi, M., Templeton, S., and Johnston, F. 2004. Words their way: Word study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Cunningham, A.E. and Stanovich, K.E. 1998. What reading does for the mind. American Educator Summer: 8-15.

Elley, W. B. 1989. Vocabulary acquisition from listening to stories. Reading Research Quarterly 24: 174-187.

Juel, C. Biancarosa, G., Coker, D., and Deffes, R. 2003. Walking with Rosie: A cautionary tale of early reading instruction. Educational Leadership April: 13-18.

Kuhn, M. R., and Stahl, S. A. 1998. Teaching children to learn word meanings from context: A synthesis and some questions. Journal of Literacy Research 30: 119-138.

Nagy, W. E., and Anderson, R. C. 1984. How many words are there in printed school English? Reading Research Quarterly 19: 304-330.

Pikulski, J. J., and Chard, D. J. 2003. Fluency: Bridge from decoding to reading comprehension. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Templeton, S. 1989. Tacit and explicit knowledge of derivational morphology: Foundations for a unified approach to spelling and vocabulary development in the intermediate grades and beyond. Reading Psychology 10: 233-253.

Templeton, S. 2003a. Spelling. In Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts, 2nd ed., J. Flood, D. Lapp, J. Squire, and J. M. Jensen, 738-751. Mahwah, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Templeton, S. 2003b. Teaching of spelling. In Encyclopedia of education, 2nd ed., ed. J. Guthrie, 2302-2305. New York: Macmillan.

Templeton, S. 2004. The vocabulary-spelling connection: Orthographic development and morphological knowledge at the intermediate grades and beyond. In Vocabulary instruction, ed. J. Baumann and E. Kameenui, 118-138. New York: Guilford Press.

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