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Assessment Strategies and Reading Profiles

Meaning Skills

Word Meaning (Vocabulary)

Acronyms and Abbreviations

ABE = Adult Basic Education

ARCS = Adult Reading Components Study

CASAS = Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System

DAR = Diagnostic Assessments of Reading

GE = Grade Equivalent

TABE = Tests of Adult Basic Education

NNSE = Non-native Speakers of English

Knowing the meanings of the words used in a text is fundamental to comprehension. The more Word Meanings readers know, the better they will be able to understand text that they can decode.

Word Meaning (Vocabulary) across NRS Levels

Reading material written at the 0-4 GE contains vocabulary and concepts that are familiar—similar to everyday spoken language. Most adult learners have little difficulty with this level of basic vocabulary.

Non-native Speakers of English (NNSE), however, may not know the meanings of some words in 0-4 reading material, especially "close-to-home words" such as skillet, attic, or window pane; the names of common animals; words for domestic activities like knitting, etc. Because they learned English as adults, primarily through ESL classes and in the workplace, they never had the need to acquire this vocabulary. When at home with their families, they often talk about these subjects in their native language.

ABE and ASE learners' Word Meaning (vocabulary) knowledge averages approximately GE 7 for native speakers and GE 6 for Non-native Speakers of English,RR levels of vocabulary that severely impair the comprehension of texts at the GED level and above.

Both native speakers of English as well as NNSE may know a few words that are well above GE 4, based on their adult life experiences with their occupations, health care, hobbies, or immigration and citizenship.

Skilled readers' knowledge of word meanings tends to be wide and varied, and extends beyond the familiar. It includes words and concepts that are acquired through 12 or more years of schooling, school-based reading, and personal and work-based reading that continues into adult life.

Skilled adult readers acquired much of their knowledge of Word Meanings in the context of school-based reading. But most ABE and ASE learners are so far behind in this area that it is unlikely they can catch up simply by encountering these words in context. That is why ABE learners need direct instruction to accelerate the process of learning more Word Meanings and to improve their comprehension of higher level texts.


Generally speaking, ABE learners should be assessed with oral vocabulary tests. That is because many ABE and ASE learners have difficulties with accurate Word Recognition. With a written vocabulary test, the instructor cannot be sure whether a learner missed an item because he or she genuinely didn’t know the meaning of the word, or because he or she was unable to decode the question or answer choices correctly.

Tests of elicited Word Meanings are administered orally, and they can provide the instructor with useful information beyond determining the learner’s level of mastery. In this format, the administrator asks the learner, "What does enthusiastic mean?" The learner’s oral response is written down verbatim and scored as correct or incorrect.

Non-native Speakers of English (NNSE) usually find elicited tests of Word Meaning more difficult. An NNSE might know what an English word means and understand its meaning in context, yet not be able to supply a synonym or explanation. You can encourage NNSEs to demonstrate their understanding of a word they can’t define by asking them to give examples or to use it in a sentence in a way that shows they understand its meaning.

The following are two tests of elicited Word Meanings that have been used with ABE learners:

  • Davidson-Bruce Word Meaning Test available as a free download on this Web site. (This test is still in the process of being validated. Use it only to match your learner to the ASRP Profiles if you do not have a score on a published vocabulary test.)
  • Diagnostic Assessments of Reading (DAR) - a commercially available test used in the ARCSRR and used to create the ASRP profiles on this Web site.

Additional approaches to assessing Word Meaning (Vocabulary)

Multiple choice (oral) - learner selects the word that is identified by the sentence
spoken by the examiner:

  • Adult Basic Learning Examination, Level 1

Multiple choice (written) - learner selects the correct responses to written questions:

  • Adult Basic Learning Examination, Levels 2 & 3
  • Tests of Adult Basic Education, Forms 9/10 (TABE 9/10)

Multiple choice (oral - pictures) - learner selects one of several pictures that best tells about a word spoken by the examiner:

  • Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test - III
  • Woodcock-Johnson III Tests of Achievement

Embedded in comprehension passages - vocabulary words of interest incorporated into reading comprehension passages. Vocabulary questions are part of the total reading comprehension score; the target words are identified in the examiners' manuals:

  • Tests of Adult Basic Education, Form 9/10 (TABE 9/10)
  • Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System (CASAS)

Approaches to instruction

Signal words: words that aid comprehension of all reading material. "These are words that the author uses to tell us how to read. Signal words help us to understand how information is organized and provide clues about what is important. Teach signal words one group at a time. Give your students a few examples from a category and have them add others as they run across them in their reading."RR The signal words are available on this Web site. You can download the list of signal words. (148KB) PDF

Signal words are especially important for NNSE. They tend to be familiar with the basic signal words used in everyday conversation, words such as but, and, and because. But often they have not learned the signal words that occur in higher level texts, words like however, moreover, nevertheless, or despite. Signal words such as these are difficult to define because rather than having a meaning, they function to shape the meaning of a sentence. How can you define the word although out of context? For NNSE the easiest approach is often to have them look these words up in a native language/English language dictionary, and then practice using the English words in sentences.

Tier 2 or Academic Words: Words that can be used in many contexts and/or have more than one meaning, e.g., unique, alternative, campaign, convenient, influence, administration, density, conservative, anticipate, average, liberal. You should teach some of these words directly. You can also pre-teach or discuss these words before doing a reading comprehension passage or oral reading Fluency passage.RR

Words that are related to needs and interests of the learners: A learner working as a nursing assistant may want to be more familiar with a greater number of medical words; a learner studying for an over-the-road trucking license may want to learn words associated with that occupation; and a learner interested in gardening may want to learn words about her or his hobby.

Content area words and concepts: These are the important words and concepts that are part of social studies (monarchy), math (parallel lines), science (photosynthesis), and literature (metaphor). They are especially important for pre-GEd and GED learners. Lists of content area words in the areas of social studies, science, and the humanities can be found in The Reading Teacher’s Book of Lists by Edward (Fry and Kress, 2006).

Structural analysis (word parts): "[U]sing word parts enables the reader to determine the pronunciation and meaning of unknown words. This word identification technique is effective especially if it is used along with phonic analysis and context clues."RR Knowledge of word parts is assessed with teacher-made inventories. Ask learners to divide compound words or to underline the root word or the affix in words with prefixes and/or suffixes. Practice can have the same format as the assessment.

Cognates: Because English contains many words with Latinate roots, NNSEs who are speakers and readers of Romance Languages like Spanish, French, or Portuguese can benefit from instruction in cognates, i.e., words that have similar spellings and similar meanings across two languages. With regard to English and Spanish, some cognates are identical (secular/secular); others are slightly different (scene/escena or security/seguridad). Students can be asked to find patterns such as the fact that many English nouns ending in -ity, end in -dad in Spanish, such as nativity/natividad. Similarly, adverbs ending in -ly in English often end in -mente in Spanish, such as absolutely/absolutamente. Examples of learner-friendly cognate dictionaries can be found on the internet: Remember, for cognate instruction to succeed, the learner has to be able to read both languages, because although cognates are spelled similarly, they are usually pronounced very differently.

Find out more about Word Meaning assessment and instruction:

McShane, S. (2005). Applying research in reading for adults: First steps for teachers. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy. (1.1MB) PDF

Following is the summary from Chapter 6 of Applying Research in Reading for Adults:
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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