What does research say about vocabulary learning and instruction?

By Sherry Kinzel

Most teachers and coaches know that our readers and writers need support in developing their vocabulary, and most of us are wondering what’s the best way to provide that support and does that mean that teachers have to add something else into their instructional day?  If we take a look at the research in the area of vocabulary, it will offer some suggestions and possibly confirm the practices we are already using regularly. Too good to be true?  Not really!

As you might have expected, research does indicate the need for students to be actively involved in vocabulary learning.  It also suggests that one of the important outcomes of vocabulary learning is a positive attitude toward learning new words.  Think about the ways your learners are actively involved in learning vocabulary.  Make a list.  What have you noticed about their attitude toward learning new words and how words work?

Now consider the following.  Research supports three types of vocabulary learning:

  • Immersion in rich oral language and wide reading
  • Word or lexical-specific vocabulary instruction
  • Generative vocabulary instruction

I’d like for us to focus on “immersion in rich oral language” for a moment.  Think specifically about your instructional day.  When are your kids immersed in rich oral language?  I’ll bet the first thing that comes to mind is Interactive Read Aloud.  Because the books we choose to share with the whole class can be above the reading level of our students, encompass a wide variety of genre, and include multiple forms and styles of writing, we have a wonderful opportunity to increase the depth and range of vocabulary for our students.

I am not suggesting that we explicitly teach the meaning of every potentially new word within a text with each Interactive Read Aloud.  I am suggesting that our kids need to experience language that allows them to extend the level of knowing words.  Some words we know on a surface level; maybe we’ve only heard the word.  Other words we know multiple meanings for and can use them flexibly in a variety of contexts.  There are also many words we know somewhere in between the previously described levels. The Interactive Read Aloud allows teachers to raise the word consciousness of their students.

Consider this example.  While reading Pink and Say, a picture book that portrays the struggles of two teenaged soldiers, one a former black slave and the other a white, volunteer Union soldier during the Civil War, a teacher returns to a previously read line of text on a page.   The author, Patricia Polacco, describes the former slave as having “skin the color of mahogany.”  The teacher asks if her students know what mahogany means.  Several responses are shared:  brown, dark brown, isn’t that a piece of furniture?  The teacher is able to clarify multiple meanings for mahogany.  Once the class has constructed the idea that mahogany is a rare, beautiful, rich brown, expensive type of wood, the teacher asks them to consider why Mrs. Polacco would choose the word mahogany to describe the young man.  Light bulbs go off around the room!  One child quickly offers, “Oh!  It’s because Pink is soooo valuable to Say.  He saves his life and takes him to a safe place where he can heal.  He didn’t have to do that.”  The students didn’t just learn about the word mahogany.  They were given time and guidance to think about how words effect the meaning we are constructing as we read (not to mention a powerful example of word choice crafted by the author).  I think this classroom example illustrates how students can be immersed in rich oral language quite naturally through the Interactive Read Aloud, a practice that needs to happen every day.

Next time, I’ll share what research has to say about wide reading and how much independent reading our kids need to engage in to be successful.

Pink and Say

Polacco, P. (1994).  Pink and say.  New York: Philomel.

Templeton, S., Bear, D., Invernizzi, M., & Johnston, F. (2010).  Vocabulary their way. Boston: Pearson.


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