Vocabulary Basics

Knowing the meanings of words on the page is essential for reading comprehension. While few would deny this fact, the role that vocabulary plays in reading is often ignored or overlooked in reading education. A strong vocabulary is one of the pillars of reading comprehension.

What Exactly is Vocabulary?

In its simplest terms vocabulary is words. Your vocabulary is the words you know and can use. While children often have extensive oral vocabularies (words they use in speech) translating these to print often poses challenges. Vocabulary, as it applies to reading, is not only a person’s knowledge of words, but also his ability to recognize these words in print. Learning new vocabulary involves connecting the oral and print versions of the words and integrating them into our vocabulary “knowledge base”.

Vocabulary is multifaceted and complex. Each new word a person learns has denotation(s) and connotation(s). A word’s denotation is its literal definition. For example the denotation of “frugal” is economic in use or spending. Connotations, on the other hand, are the implied meanings of words. Consider the connotations of the word “frugal”. Calling someone “frugal” is usually a compliment meaning that the person is careful and conservative in her spending. If you were to change the word “frugal” to “cheap” the connotation would be different. While “frugal” and “cheap” have essentially the same dictionary definitions, their connotations are very different.

Relationship Between Comprehension and Vocabulary

Vocabulary is inextricably linked to comprehension. Simply put: you cannot comprehend a text if you do not understand the words being used in it! Vocabulary knowledge is the greatest single predictor of a reader’s ability to comprehend a text. When a reader comes to a text with knowledge of its vocabulary or is able to use strategies to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words while reading he is very likely to be able to understand what the piece is saying. This is why vocabulary is often used to determine the difficulty of a text. The proportion of challenging words in a piece of writing is the standard measure for determining a text’s difficulty.

Methods for Acquiring New Vocabulary

There are four standard ways that we learn new vocabulary words: through explicit or implicit instruction, multimedia and through association. Explicit instruction of vocabulary is the pre-teaching of words or root analysis strategies prior to a reading experience. Implicit instruction, on the other hand, occurs naturally and spontaneously during reading. When a reader comes to an unfamiliar word she is taught the word or discovers the meaning using independent strategies such as context clue identification and analysis. Multimedia learning occurs when the reader uses a non-print source to discover the meanings of unfamiliar words. Pictures, hypertext and American Sign Language are common methods for teaching and learning vocabulary through multimedia. Finally, learning through association happens when a reader is able to connect a new word to prior knowledge. This connection allows her to add the new word to her reading vocabulary.

Any or all of these methods can be used alone or in combination for any reading task. Ultimately, readers should be able to apply vocabulary learning methods flexibly and independently.

Impact of Vocabulary on Reading Ability

It is not surprising that vocabulary knowledge increases reading comprehension. This is especially true when new words are taught prior to the reading experience and the reader has multiple exposures to the words.

Vocabulary knowledge is not only essential for reading comprehension it is also critical for academic success. Because reading is an important component of every instructional program, regardless of the content focus, vocabulary knowledge plays an important role in a child’s academic performance. Each content area has its own set of vocabulary that is essential for understanding its concepts and ideas. Vocabulary knowledge is thus a predictor of a child’s general academic success. Furthermore researchers have found that students coming into 4th grade with significant vocabulary deficits not only have difficulty with reading comprehension, they also are unlikely to catch up with their similar aged peers.