A focus on vocabulary

Learning is fundamentally and profoundly dependent on vocabulary knowledge, however it is not until children are reading texts that involve age-appropriate vocabulary that vocabulary becomes a significant predictor of reading comprehension.

Decoding, fluency, and comprehension all draw upon students’ known vocabulary. Text participation requires the reader to know the meaning of individual words and how their meaning is influenced by the words around them. Text participation becomes increasingly important as texts become more complex. As with reading, writing becomes more dependent upon vocabulary knowledge as writing becomes more complex and topic specific.

Listening and Speaking – competence is in advance of reading and writing competence. Children can understand much more sophisticated content presented in oral language than they can read independently. As children are developing their reading and writing competence, we need to take advantage of their listening and speaking competencies to enhance their vocabulary development.

Learners need . . . “access to the meanings of words that are used by adults (particularly teachers) and other students, as well as those used in books and multimedia, if they are to participate in their community contexts and learn effectively.”

Daffern, T., & Mackenzie, N. M. (2015) Building strong writers: Creating a balance between the authorial and secretarial elements of writing, Literacy Learning: the Middle Years, Volume 23(1).

Typically, by two years of age children will have a vocabulary of approximately 50 words and by the age of three years children demonstrate an ability to comprehend and assimilate a new word after hearing it only once or twice (Hoffnung et al., 2013). This vocabulary grows to approximately 14,000 words that they can use (expressive language) by the age of six (Hoffnung et al., 2013, p. 269) with the average school student capable of learning between 5 and 10 words per day (a total of between 2,000 and 4,000 during primary and high school).

Hoffnung, M., Hoffnung, R. J., Seiffert, K. L., Burton Smith, R., Hine, A., Ward, L., . . . Swabey, K. (2013). Lifespan Development: A topical approach. Milton, Qld: Wiley.

The power of the teacher

The vocabulary modelled by the teacher will have great impact on students’ vocabularies. However, building students’ vocabularies requires more than just modelling. A teacher must be interested in words. They must be aware of the words they are using and the words that students are being exposed to through texts and multimedia resources. They must actively seek opportunities to discuss words and encourage students to do the same.

Lane, H. B., & Allen, S. A. (2010). The vocabulary-rich classroom: Modeling sophisticated word use to promote word consciousness and vocabulary growth. The Reading Teacher, 63(5), 362-370. doi:10.1598/rt.63.5.2

Word consciousness may also be promoted through the use of puns, jokes, cross word puzzles, anagrams and word games. Explicit instruction and modelling will be important as will opportunities for definitional vocabulary work, which will require students to explore different aspects of words. This goes beyond the standard dictionary definitions to include opportunities for students to see how words can change meaning in different contexts.

The power of Read Aloud

In the ‘Reading Today’ journal – ILA March/April 2015 – Pam Allyn identified five methods to instil a life time of good literacy habits in children:

  • Read Aloud;
  • Encourage close reading from the youngest age (using critical thinking questions);
  • Make the literacy journey a celebration;
  • Hand them a pen; and
  • Honour each child’s unique identity.

In the same journal, Steven Layne quotes Patrick Shannon – “The first rule of teaching literacy is to read to your children”. A worthwhile read is Stephen Layne’s “In Defence of Read Aloud” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YH8-R965BcM

It has been argued that much vocabulary acquisition results from literacy and wide reading rather than from direct instruction. However, a great deal of vocabulary acquisition occurs before children are reading books that introduce unfamiliar vocabulary.

Biemiller, (2006) suggests that most children (90 percent plus) can acquire new vocabulary at rates necessary to reach “grade level” or near grade level vocabulary in middle elementary school, if given adequate opportunity to use new words and adequate instruction in word meanings.

Biemiller, A. (2006). Vocabulary development and instruction: A prerequisite for school learning. In D. K. Dickinson & S. B. Neuman (Eds.), Handbook of early literacy research (Vol. 2, pp. 41-51). New York: The Guilford Press.

Vocabulary lessons should be planned and spontaneous. For example, a quick spontaneous five minute vocabulary or word cline lesson may encourage children to be more specific with word choices.

Which words should I teach?

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (2nd ed.). New York: The Guildford Press.

Tier 1:

These are the high frequency everyday words which are commonly used in spoken language and simple texts (e.g., run, happy, baby, dog). Most children have been exposed to these words before starting school, unless they are English Language Learners (EAL) with a background in a different language.

Tier 2:

These words are often referred to as high frequency words for mature language users (e.g., coincidence, introduce). It is knowledge of these Tier 2 words that Beck et al (2002) have argued have a powerful impact on language functioning and therefore should be the focus of classroom instruction.

Tier 3:

These words are low frequency domain specific words (e.g., isotope, herpetology).

In Conclusion:

The teaching of vocabulary is an equity issue and deserving of teachers’ time and energy. There is a “marked difference between the vocabulary knowledge of children from high and low socioeconomic backgrounds has been well documented” (Berne & Blachowicz, 2008).

Berne, J. I., & Blachowicz, C. L. Z. (2008). What reading teachers say about vocabulary instruction: Voices from the classroom. The Reading Teacher, 62(4), 314-323.


Published by nmackenz

My name is Noella Mackenzie and I am an Associate Professor (Adjunct) at Charles Sturt University, Albury-Wodonga Campus in NSW, Australia and a Senior Fellow of the Australian Literacy Educators' of Australia. I also work as an independent education consultant. I am also a daughter, sister, wife, mother and grandmother who loves to read, garden and travel. While my career has always been in education, there have been four distinct phases. The first phase was that of classroom teacher – teaching children from 5-12 years of age in a number of primary schools. The second phase of my career saw me working as a specialist professional development provider working with teachers in early intervention and special education. The third phase had me working as an academic at Charles Sturt University. That role involved me teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students, researching and continuing my work with teachers and parents of young children. The fourth phase sees me working as an independent education consultant, supporting school systems and schools with professional learning input for teachers. I am passionate about teaching and in particular early literacy development. I am proudly the product of public education. I grew up on a farm and went to the local primary and high schools where I was fortunate to have some fabulous teachers. My Diploma of Education (Early Childhood) was earned at the Riverina College of Advanced Education in Wagga Wagga NSW. My Bachelor of Education, Master of Education and Doctor of Education qualifications were all earned at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, Vic and were spread out over a number of years as I studied part time and worked full time. I completed my doctorate in 2004 and started work at CSU in the same year.

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