Vocabulary Instruction. (Literacy Links)

Article excerpt

* The English language has approximately 5 million words.

* The average child enters school knowing approximately 5,000 to 6,000 words.

* Children learn 2,500 - 3,000 new words per year.

* Over 12 years of school, children learn another 36,000 words.

* It takes 10 exposures to a word to learn it.

* There are 110,00 words in printed school materials.

* Vocabulary is the most important influence on reading comprehension.

These are just some of the amazing facts about vocabulary development and its critical role in learning. Decades of research have resulted in significant implications about best ways to support students' vocabulary development. Yet very little has changed in classroom instruction. Children study lists of words each week and rely on dictionaries to determine their meaning. This column identifies the place of vocabulary instruction in literacy education, describes dimensions of word knowledge, discusses research-based principles and practices of instruction, and offers ways for teacher-librarians to support students' vocabulary.

The Place of Vocabulary Instruction in Literacy Education

Literacy researchers distinguish between instruction in phonics and vocabulary as both aim at helping students deal with text at the word level. Teaching phonics focuses on helping children decode familiar words, or words that are in their listening vocabulary. Vocabulary instruction helps children learn the meaning of new words, or words that are not part of their listening vocabulary. Researches identify two major dimensions of vocabulary instruction: a) learning and remembering words or word knowledge; and b) learning how to learn words or strategies for figuring out words. Given the number of words in our language, and its natural and now explosive expansion, children need tools to make sense of the many unfamiliar words they will encounter throughout school.

Dimensions of Word Knowledge

When is a word learned? In the past, the measure of word knowledge was being able to define the word. However, knowing the meaning of a word is not an either-or matter, but a matter of degree. Children learn meanings of words first partially then progress to more refined understandings. Donald Graves (1987) outlined six stages of word knowledge that include learning to read a known word, learning new meanings of known words, learning new words that represent known concepts, learning new words that represent new concepts, clarifying and enriching meanings of known words, and moving words from receptive (listening and reading) to expressive (speaking and writing) vocabulary.

Words vary in their difficulty to learn because of what they represent or because many have multiple or shades of meanings. Concrete and function words are easier to learn than words representing abstract concepts. Seeing the morning light is different from feeling light-hearted. Learning new words is also dependent on previous and existing word knowledge -- e.g., learning "cool" depends on knowing "cold," "hot" and "warm." Finally, one has to consider contextual differences when students encounter a new word. Hearing a new word in oral language brings the advantage of context -- one can use tone, speaker gestures, the speaker's rephrasing and even ask questions about the meaning. In contrast, written language is decontextualized. Writers select words for their precision and accuracy -- i.e., less common words than those used in oral language. In sum, the incremental process of word learning, the varying nature of words and the context of usage make determining when a word is learned a complex task. As Nagy & Scott (2000) recently stated, "A person who knows a word can recognize it, and use it, in novel contexts, and uses knowledge of the word, in combination with other types of knowledge, to construct meaning for a text" (p. 273). Knowing a word means knowing how to do things with it, not write its definition! …