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Vocabulary Development

What Is Vocabulary?

Vocabulary refers to knowledge of word meanings. Our vocabulary is the words we understand. The Partnership for Reading Web page on the National Institute for Literacy Web site defines oral vocabulary as the words we can use and understand in speaking and listening and reading vocabulary as the store of words we recognize and understand in print ( Although this seems straightforward, defining word knowledge gets complicated when we consider levels of understanding: We may be barely aware of a word, we may know its meaning in one context, or we may have a rich understanding of the term. (See "Issues in vocabulary testing," p. 59.)

Why Is Vocabulary Important?

Vocabulary is vital to reading comprehension in at least two ways. Oral vocabulary is the first key connection. When learning to read, a child or adult learns to connect printed words with words in his/her oral vocabulary. One way to make that connection is through decoding. Using letter sounds, the new reader in effect "translates" the printed symbols into meaningful words. But decoding is useful only if the words are already in the reader's oral vocabulary. Oral vocabulary is the basis for meaningful reading.

The second link between vocabulary and reading is an obvious one for learners at all levels: readers can't understand a writer's message unless they understand the meanings of most of the words in the text. As developing readers begin to read nonfiction in varied subject-matter areas, they often encounter words that are not in their oral vocabularies. For this reason teachers have long recognized the need to build vocabulary to allow readers to comprehend a variety of materials.

In summary, oral vocabulary is a key to early literacy development, and reading vocabulary is a crucial component of reading comprehension at all levels. For these reasons vocabulary has been described as "occupying an important middle ground in learning to read." (NICHD, 2000 p. 4-15)

Who Needs Vocabulary Instruction?

Adult beginning readers are not likely to encounter many words during reading lessons that are not in their oral vocabularies, so vocabulary instruction may be less important for them than it is for mid-to-high level readers (Strucker, 1997a). This is probably true regardless of curricular approach. Basal readers at the lowest levels use simple, everyday vocabulary. Approaches that base reading activities on learners' real experiences and materials taken from their lives also should (by definition) be using mostly words the learners are at least acquainted with. In fact, adult beginning readers may have larger oral vocabularies than children at the same reading levels because of their years of life experience (Kruidenier, 2002).6

6 However, some adults with serious reading problems may have language-based learning disabilities and as a result, have limited oral vocabularies.The primary task for these adults is to learn to recognize words they already know.

However, ESOL students may prove the exception to this rule. Even beginning readers may need vocabulary development simply because English isn't their first language. And at higher levels, readers may encounter unexpected problems. For example, English words that are similar to Spanish words and have common derivations ("roots") are often used very differently in English. So what would appear to be an advantage--the ability to make a connection with the first language--sometimes turns out to be the opposite.

Among native English speakers, many higher-level readers need vocabulary development for at least two reasons.

  • Good readers learn new words through reading. They figure out the meanings of words by their use in a context, and, through repeated exposures in different contexts, acquire relatively rich understandings of many words in varied subject-matter areas. Adults who don't read well, usually don't read very much (Kirsch, et al., 1993) and, therefore, have fewer opportunities to learn new words through reading. An additional problem is that some minimally functional readers learn to "bluff" their way through words/concepts they do not recognize, and thereby risk "learning" false or incomplete information about word meanings (E. A. McShane, personal communication, September 2004).
  • Most adults in family literacy programs and other adult basic and literacy education programs have not completed high school and have not acquired basic knowledge in secondary school curriculum areas, like science and social studies. That means they have neither the vocabulary nor the required conceptual background to understand some words even if they are well defined. If their reading skills stalled in elementary school, their vocabulary development may have slowed or stopped long before high school.

As adults, these learners are stuck in the classic vicious cycle: Their limited vocabulary and background knowledge create comprehension problems, and because they have difficulty with comprehension they don't choose to read much, so they don't develop vocabulary through reading (Curtis & Longo, 1999; Stanovich, 1986). Explicit vocabulary instruction is necessary to enable these adults to read material related to their educational, vocational, and family goals.

How Can We Assess Vocabulary?

Vocabulary may be measured in different ways, and varied approaches to assessment measure different aspects of vocabulary. The National Reading Panel concluded that vocabulary is complicated to measure for these and other reasons (NICHD, 2000 p. 4-15 & 16).


Written tests typically use a multiple-choice format, and ask readers to match words within sentences with their correct definitions. These tests may be administered to groups, which is an advantage in classroom instruction, but they have a serious limitation. They are not always valid measures of word knowledge because the individual being assessed can answer correctly only those items she can read. Learners may make mistakes not because they don't know the meanings of words, but because they can't read the vocabulary words or other words in the test questions.

Oral vocabulary tests get around this problem. Oral tests of receptive (listening) vocabulary may ask a person to match a spoken word with the picture that represents it. Oral tests of expressive (spoken) vocabulary require the individual to generate a definition of a spoken word. (See Chapter 8 for more on vocabulary test tasks.)

Issues in vocabulary testing

  • As noted earlier, even defining vocabulary is complicated. The concept of oral vocabulary as different from reading vocabulary is one distinction. Another is based on receptive and expressive functions. We understand many words (at some level) when we hear them spoken or see them in print but we don't understand them well enough to use them in speaking and writing. We all have more words in our receptive vocabularies (listening and reading) than in our expressive vocabularies (speaking and writing).
  • In addition, at least three levels of word knowledge have been identified: unknown, acquainted, and established (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborne, 2001).
    • An unknown word is completely unfamiliar.
    • we are acquainted with the word, we understand it at a simple level. (Lots of words in our receptive vocabularies fall into this category.)
    • If the word is established in our vocabulary, we understand and use it accurately and flexibly.
      And of course, words derive much of their meaning from the context in which they are used. A word may mean one thing in one context and something different in another. If a reader is familiar with a word in one context, is it a "known" word?
  • Finally, standardized vocabulary tests have several limitations. A written multiple-choice test may be a good measure of "acquaintance level" vocabulary, but won't allow the learner to demonstrate in-depth understanding or use of words. Another limitation has to do with decoding ability (as noted above): An adult may miss an item because he can't identify the word in print (or can't read the definition), even though he does know the meaning of the word. In addition, standardized tests (even oral tests) include only a small sample of the huge number of words learners may understand. We are not able to assess anyone's complete vocabulary. So as a measure of the learning resulting from a semester's instruction, for instance, a standardized test may not suffice because it is not sensitive enough to the specific vocabulary taught.

However, these limitations do not override the benefits of standardized oral vocabulary tests. As discussed earlier, reading problems fall into two broad categories: limited print skills (e.g., decoding) and limited meaning-related skills (vocabulary and comprehension). A standardized oral reading test provides reliable information about meaning-related skills. We need to know about strengths and limitations in students' knowledge of word meanings because this knowledge has a direct bearing on reading comprehension. In addition, standardized tests are useful for outcomes measurement and reporting.

No single measure will address all your needs and purposes, and it should not be surprising that standardized tests don't do everything well. A standardized vocabulary test is an important part of reading assessment. See Chapter 8 for details on the initial assessment process.

Be aware that ESOL adults will perform differently than native English speakers on vocabulary assessments.

Classroom/curriculum-based assessments. When assessing the outcomes of instructional units or activities, you may need specific assessments. The research on children suggests that teachers probably should design their own assessment activities and instruments to gauge the direct results of their vocabulary instruction (NICHD, 2000 p. 4-24--4-26). If you develop your own measures for ongoing monitoring, your assessment aligns directly with instruction.

Alternative assessments

One approach to alternative assessment integrates measurement with instruction in a natural, non-intrusive manner. For example, you might ask learners to use new words in a variety of ways--creating word maps, using words in journal entries, and developing word banks, for example. These activities obviously provide practice for learners, but at the same time they also create opportunities for you to observe and evaluate adults' growing ability to apply new skills and word knowledge.

A Vocabulary Assessment Plan
  • Initial planning: Analysis of the results of the vocabulary portion of the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE 9 & 10) and the Adult Basic Learning Examination (ABLE) may provide useful information for early decision making. However, a standardized oral vocabulary assessment is more useful, especially when working with poor readers. Oral vocabulary tests provide a measure of word knowledge not influenced by reading ability, and oral vocabulary is important because it is an indication of reading potential. A learner can (potentially) comprehend written material that contains words she understands. If you are using a textbook or other structured program you may also assess learners' knowledge of the specific vocabulary in those materials.
  • Ongoing progress monitoring: To measure the effects of vocabulary instruction you may use tests built into curriculum materials you are using or devise your own assessments.
  • Outcomes measurement: A collection and/or summary of the results of classroom-based measures may provide a highly meaningful picture of vocabulary growth over time. To document outcomes for external stakeholders, you need a standardized vocabulary test with equivalent alternate forms for pre- and post-testing. The vocabulary subtest of a standardized reading test may reflect progress in general reading vocabulary over the long term.

What Kind of Vocabulary Instruction is Most Effective?

Very few studies of different vocabulary teaching methods qualified for review by the National Reading Panel, and those that did qualify were extremely varied (NICHD, 2000, 4-16 & 4-17). Therefore, the Panel was unable to make judgments about the value of one approach over another. However, the Panel report states that the collection of vocabulary research does suggest that "a variety of direct and indirect methods can be effective." (NICHD, 4-17)

Direct vocabulary instruction

Following are suggestions from the research with children (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborne, 2001).

Pre-teach words in instructional text. Get into the habit of analyzing reading materials to identify words that may be unfamiliar. Teaching the meaning of those words before the learners read the text improves comprehension of the material and builds vocabulary.

Ensure multiple exposures. To be sure learners encounter new words frequently, teach vocabulary they will use. For adults, this guideline suggests teaching words they will encounter in real-life settings, such as family or work-related terms. (Find lists of adult words in The Reading Teacher's Book of Lists, Fry, Kress, & Fountoukidis, 2000.)

Keep learners actively engaged. Be sure they use the new words they are learning. One way to do this is to choose words related to a class project, employment issue, or parenting topic, so you will be sure the group works with the words over an extended period of time and learners have plenty of opportunities to use them in speaking, reading, and writing. This kind of project- and content-based instruction also builds background knowledge in a subject matter area and may introduce other new words you have not directly targeted.

Teach word-learning strategies. Give learners tools for discovering the meanings of words they encounter during independent reading.

  • Introduce common prefixes and suffixes (e.g., un, post, ful, ly) and demonstrate how they alter the meaning and function of base words. (Using word parts like these to identify and define words is called structural analysis.)
  • Teach specific strategies for using context clues to derive the meaning of unknown words (e.g., noticing a definition or explanation following the word and set off by commas).
  • Teach learners how to use a dictionary.
Indirect approaches to word learning

Encourage wide reading in varied subject matter areas. Vocabulary is often acquired indirectly through reading. The context of an unknown word provides many clues to meaning. Be sure, though, that the reading material is not too difficult. If a text has too many unknown words, the reader will not have enough context clues.

Choosing words to teach

For direct instruction in general vocabulary, you might decide to teach several new words each week, perhaps choosing especially useful or difficult words (Armbruster, et al., 2001).

  • Useful words:
    • Signal words and phrases that mark relationships between ideas and information, like therefore, in contrast, however, consequently, although, despite
    • Idiomatic expressions, like straight from the horse's mouth, a stiff upper lip, by the skin of your teeth
    • Words in the news (select words used in continuing stories from local or national news)
    • Subject-matter terminology, e.g., for preparation for the GED, higher education, work-focused classes, or job training
  • Difficult words:
    • Homophones (words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings), e.g., aloud and allowed, board and bored, cell and sell, brake and break
    • Homographs (words that look the same but have different meanings), e.g., bear (animal), bear (support or carry), and bear (tolerate) or content (what's inside) and content (satisfied)

Regardless of the approach you take, be aware that you may need to provide many exposures and require active work with the words to get learners to the point where they remember and "own" the new vocabulary. You should have them write the word and spell it aloud several times, write sentences using the word, and perhaps create a semantic map to reinforce associations with other words (see graphic organizers section in Chapter 7).

Addressing background knowledge

The knowledge required to read with understanding goes beyond the level of individual words. A reader may know what all the words in a given passage mean (at some level, in some context) but not understand the passage at all.

In order to read various kinds of materials, we must understand the way language is used in different types of literature and the ways words are used in phrases and expressions. We need to know the specialized meanings and uses of words in different disciplines: biology, math, history, or psychology for example. And we need to be able to make inferences about word meanings ("read between the lines") because writers don't state everything explicitly. We often must have some knowledge of the subject to be able use context clues to define unknown words.

In other words, reading with understanding requires some prior knowledge of the subject matter and structure of a text. That means it may not be enough to teach a list of science words, for example. Unless a reader has knowledge of the larger concepts the words relate to and the relationships between the terms, the definitions won't be very meaningful and may not contribute much to comprehension of a passage using those words.

All of this means you may need to find ways to build at least some measure of background knowledge. For a short-cut approach to general knowledge development (Strucker, 1997a) you could begin by teaching subject-matter vocabulary in math, literature, science, or social studies (terms are identified in publications such as The Reading Teacher's Book of Lists, Fry, et al., 2000). Then you might use videos, encyclopedias, and other informational digests to build broader knowledge.

You may also need to teach both words and content on an "as-needed basis." For example, when you pre-teach words in instructional text, you may discover you have to fill in some knowledge. And in goal-related or project work, if the learners are interested in reading further on a subject--perhaps child development, a balanced diet, or deciding whom to vote for--you will need to begin with some background reading as well as vocabulary building.

You also should pay close attention to background knowledge when working with ESOL students. Although many adults whose first language is not English have lived in this country for years, others are relative newcomers. Those who spent most of their lives in another culture may not be familiar with or have knowledge of aspects of American culture. That means even "common knowledge" must not be assumed. Be sure to check in with learners frequently to be sure they understand and find ways to fill in this kind of background knowledge promptly and sensitively.

What Does Vocabulary Instruction Look Like?

The activity on page 67 builds vocabulary within the context of history. Teaching vocabulary within a context allows learners to acquire a body of related words and make strong associations among them. As they continue to read in a subject area they will probably have numerous encounters with the new words, increasing the likelihood that they will remember them and acquire a deep understanding of their meanings.

Taking this approach might mean working in GED preparation textbooks on science or social studies and building on some of the workbook topics by reading articles and other print materials. If interest is high, you might devote some time to a unit of study or a special class project. Since adults will need to read in various content areas related to their goals, you have numerous options for study: specific topics in literature, science, or social studies, parent-education or employment-related topics, and many others.

Through content instruction like this, learners acquire subject-matter knowledge and rich understandings of new words and concepts. In addition, conversations about word meanings and the texts in which they are found may improve their comprehension of other materials in the content area.

Sample activity on U.S. immigration history


  1. Identify words that learners might not understand and plan ways to work with them, perhaps by introducing them prior to the reading, or having the learners define the words as they encounter them.
  2. Choose words to pre-teach. Consider those with one or more of the following characteristics:
    • They are likely to be unfamiliar words, but are important for understanding the text.
    • They are not well defined by context.
    • They allow application of word-learning strategies previously taught.
  3. Based on these criteria, pre-teach the following words: migrate, Europe, China, ethnic, transcontinental, and urban.
    • Review the meanings of immigration and immigrant (introduced in another text). Then introduce the word migrate, reading a sentence in which it occurs, noting the similarity to immigration and immigrant, and then asking the learners to suggest the definition. Discuss briefly.
    • Make sure learners know the meaning of Europe. Most immigrants during this period came from Europe, and it is not defined in the article. Use a map or globe to locate Europe.
    • Read the following sentence aloud as learners follow along in their copies of the article.
      "Most newcomers were from southern and eastern Europe, although many people came from China to work on the transcontinental railroad" (Scholastic).
    • Point out the word although and ask for suggestions about what the sentence says about China. (It's not in Europe.) Use a map or globe to locate China.
    • Introduce ethnic with a definition and examples of how the term is used.
    • Discuss transcontinental. Either define it directly and (perhaps) explain about the building of the railroad, or (if you've introduced prefixes) show how the prefix and root tell what the word means. (This option obviously works best if the learners are familiar with the prefix, trans and know the meaning of continent.)
    • Check to see if they know the meaning of urban. If most learners are unfamiliar with it, refer them to the following sentence, and ask them to use the context to guess at the meaning.
      "Most who stayed settled in New York or other cities, in urban neighborhoods, organized by ethnic groups" (Scholastic).
    • Point out the clues (New York, cities, neighborhoods) and discuss the meaning of urban. Be sure to reassure the group that the process of inferring meaning is not always a simple one, and it is not always possible to guess the exact meaning from context.
  4. Have the group read the article silently, making note of any other unfamiliar words.
  5. Have learners work with a partner and discuss the words they don't understand, share possible meanings with each other and the strategies they used to arrive at their conclusions. Have them write down their words and suggested definitions.
  6. Bring the group back together and ask the pairs to share their discussions. Write on the board or chart paper the words and definitions they suggest.
  7. Assign a word (or more than one) to each pair. Their task is to look it up in the dictionary, find the definition that best fits the way the word is used in the article, and write it down to share with the group. You should probably circulate to help with decisions.
  8. Bring the group together again to share and discuss definitions. Write the consensus definitions (using understandable language!) on the board.
  9. Have the learners make word cards to file in a vocabulary box (or add the words to their notebooks). They should include a definition and a sample sentence. If they write more than one definition, they should have a sentence for each.
  10. Follow-up activities for reinforcement could involve writing additional sentences using the words or working in groups to create word or concept "maps" that give the definition, examples and/or characteristics of the object or concept, and a sentence using the word.


  • Increase vocabulary (and content knowledge) on the subject of U.S. immigration history


  • This activity is based on the assumption that the learners have been introduced to some basic word-learning strategies. Specifically, they should be familiar with ways to use context clues to derive word meanings. They should have learned some of the common "signal words" (therefore, however, in contrast, etc.) that provide clues to relationships among ideas and information in texts. Finally, they should have had some practice using a dictionary.


  • This sample includes a variety of activities designed to build understanding of several words used in an article on the subject. The activities are among those used in the studies reviewed by the National Reading Panel (NICHD, 2002, 4-34 & 4-35).


  • This example is based on an internet article on U.S. immigration during the period 1880 - 1914 (Scholastic, n.d.).
  • Materials for vocabulary study should be at a reasonably comfortable level for learners, so they don't have to decode too many words. The vocabulary words may be somewhat familiar or easily decodable words for which learners don't know the meanings, but of course, some will be entirely unfamiliar (not encountered before). You will want to be sure to call attention to any spelling patterns, common prefixes and suffixes, or other special features of these words. You might also pre-teach those you think will be completely unfamiliar.


  • Large or small group, depending on reading levels

Summary: Vocabulary Tips in a Nutshell

  • Pre-teach unfamiliar words in instructional text.
  • Ensure multiple exposures to words by teaching useful, "real-life" words and words learners will encounter in subject-matter texts they are studying.
  • Engage learners in using and working with the words in several ways.
  • Teach word-learning strategies like structural analysis, using context clues, and using a dictionary.
  • Encourage wide reading of level-appropriate materials in varied subject-matter areas.

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