Academic journal article Learning Disability Quarterly

Vocabulary Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities: A Review of the Research

Academic journal article Learning Disability Quarterly

Vocabulary Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities: A Review of the Research

Article excerpt

Abstract. This article reviews research on vocabulary interventions involving students with learning disabilities. The purpose of the review was to summarize the findings of vocabulary intervention research and to present implications for vocabulary instruction. The studies were analyzed based on the following intervention research variables: word selection procedure, materials, instructional design and procedures, duration of the intervention, mastery criterion, measures of vocabulary learning (word knowledge level and reading comprehension), maintenance, and generalization (reading comprehension). Based on the selection criteria, six articles spanning the period from 1978 to the present were identified. Vocabulary interventions were categorized into four areas, computer-assisted instruction (CAI), fluency-building vocabulary practice activities, mnemonic strategy instruction, and concept enhancement instruction. Overall, positive results were found for the interventions on measures of immediate recall, maintenance, and generalization.


With increased reading requirements at the secondary level, students encounter extensive content-area vocabulary that includes specialized meanings that students must understand to comprehend subject-area text. Thus, knowing the meanings, relationships, and contextual interpretations of new vocabulary words enhances comprehension of content-area text (Baumann & Kameenui, 1991). Activities such as wide reading and the use of independent word-learning strategies facilitate the learning of word meanings and an understanding of concepts, which are pervasive in content-area reading. However, secondary students with learning disabilities (LD) in reading typically do not engage sufficiently in either activity, and consequently possess widely disparate vocabulary knowledge compared to their typically achieving peers (Baker, Simmons, & Kameenui, 1995). Yet, vocabulary knowledge "is not an all-or-nothing proposition; it is not the case that one either knows or does not know a word" (Beck & McKeown, 1991, p. 791). Rather, there are different levels of processing word knowledge, including association, comprehension, and generation, depending on the purpose of vocabulary instruction (see Stahl, 1986). The challenge is to identify methods that effectively teach students with LD how to process and comprehend unknown word meanings.

Researchers have sought to identify effective methods for teaching new vocabulary that focus on the word-acquisition level. Traditional independent word-learning strategies have consisted of dictionary usage and context clues.

Dictionary usage involves multiple skills such as using guidewords, decoding, discerning the correct definition, and so forth. Because of the complexities of dictionary use (e.g., multiple definitions, unknown words), struggling students may not benefit from using this strategy exclusively (Nagy & Stahl, 2000). McKeown (1993) found that the nature of definitions (e.g., rewritten or elaborated versus taken directly from the dictionary) affects students' ability to comprehend and apply word meanings. For example, drawing from associative-memory facilitation learning, the keyword strategy, which provides a mnemonic for retention, has been shown to help struggling students learn and remember key content-area vocabulary definitions (Mastropieri, Scruggs, Levin, Gaffney, & McLoone, 1985).

Context clues, another independent word-learning strategy, presents its own challenges. For example, Beck and McKeown (1991) noted that using context to derive word meanings is a challenging process that involves integrating different types of information (e.g., definitions, examples, and synonyms) from text to figure out unknown vocabulary. Moreover, using context clues to comprehend new words may be helpful only across time after multiple encounters with words (Nagy & Stahl, 2000). Overall, results are equivocal for teaching struggling students how to use context to derive meanings of new words (Carnine, Kameenui, & Coyle, 1984; Patberg & Stibbe, 1985). …

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