The Role of Vocabulary Instruction in Adult Basic Education


Mary E. Curtis
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Annual Review of Adult Learning and Literacy, Volume 6
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

Vocabulary has long been recognized as a key factor in reading comprehension. In this chapter, Curtis analyzes research and theories on vocabulary, vocabulary acquisition, and reading comprehension. She presents approaches to vocabulary instruction that have been proven effective and also makes recommendations for practice, research, and policy. 

Curtis begins by describing four hypothesis that attempt to explain the relationship between vocabulary and reading comprehension: instrumental hypothesis, byproduct hypothesis, knowledge hypothesis, and language proficiency hypothesis. In the next section she discusses ways vocabulary might be learned - contextual analysis, morphological knowledge, and definitional skill. - and the nature of vocabulary - its breadth and depth. Next, Curtis explains effective approaches for teaching vocabulary. Due to a lack of research with adults, Curtis uses the research with children. This research shows that direct instruction, differentiation of word meanings, promotion of word consciousness, and engagement in wide reading are useful instructional approaches. Curtis ends the chapter by making recommendations for research, policy, and practice.

What the experts say

This chapter is important for researchers, graduate students, and adult literacy educators who are interested in the role of vocabulary instruction in ABE. It does not provide teachers with many "how to" strategies, but it does provide them with a strong understanding and rationale of why vocabulary instruction is important and how it is related to reading growth. 

Curtis is a recognized expert on the topic of vocabulary instruction. She is the logical person to write a review of research such as this. She has selected appropriate research to include, and she has organized the review in a logical, approachable manner. Her clear writing style should be accessible by just about anyone working in the adult education field.

Methods to collect and analyze the data: This is a research review, multiple methods were used to collect and analyze data.

Resource Notice

This site includes links to information created by other public and private organizations. These links are provided for the user’s convenience. The U.S. Department of Education does not control or guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness, or completeness of this non-ED information. The inclusion of these links is not intended to reflect their importance, nor is it intended to endorse views expressed, or products or services offered, on these non-ED sites.

Please note that privacy policies on non-ED sites may differ from ED’s privacy policy. When you visit, no personal information is collected unless you choose to provide that information to us. We do not give, share, sell, or transfer any personal information to a third party. We recommend that you read the privacy policy of non-ED websites that you visit. We invite you to read our privacy policy.