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Vocabulary Development for Striving Readers

Before teachers can fully understand how vocabulary development is connected to reading comprehension, it’s important to first understand the different kinds of vocabulary that students will encounter.

Teachers of all grade levels and disciplines are encouraged to help build their students’ vocabularies. Whether it’s in a world literature class or an Earth science course, teachers should help their students generate robust vocabulary banks. Using a variety of texts across the content areas is an excellent starting point for vocabulary building strategies.

Before teachers can fully understand how vocabulary development is connected to reading comprehension, it’s important to first understand the different kinds of vocabulary that students will encounter.

Tiered Vocabulary

Many researchers have examined the different types of vocabulary words students encounter. In The Bridge of Vocabulary: Evidence-Based Activities for Academic Success, Judy K. Montgomery wrote that students are expected to learn “3,000 words per year by [third] grade,” which is no easy task. To help teachers make this demanding instructional task less challenging, Montgomery broke down vocabulary development into three dominant tiers:

  1. Tier 1: Simple words. Students build a database of commonly used parts of speech, such as action verbs, common nouns, and basic conjunctions.
  2. Tier 2: Words with more than one meaning. These words typically are used with some frequency but could still be more complex, and they are developed after students have built a base of simpler vocabulary terms.
  3. Tier 3: More discipline-specific words. The more students learn specific subjects in school, the more familiar these terms become. For example, students interacting with scientific terms during lessons are more prepared to use that vocabulary in other contexts.

Tiered vocabulary was first noted in Bringing Words to Life.

The Alexander Method

The Alexander Method, created by Francie Alexander, Vice President of Scholastic and lifelong educator, is a system for categorizing the different kinds of vocabulary words that students encounter when they read. This newer method is not as commonly used as tiered vocabulary, but early research indicates it could be a suitable option.

The categories of the method follow an alphabetic order:

Type A Words

“A” stands for Academic Language, which is necessary for all learners as they read. Regardless of the class, students need to learn and use the language of the discipline. As students read and learn more about a subject in school, they actively work toward learning that type of vocabulary.

Type B Words

Basic words comprise a student’s main vocabulary bank. As students learn more high-frequency terms through reading, they’ll adopt them in their own writing. Moreover, students need this solid foundation to work up to more challenging vocabulary words.

Type C Words

These words are Connectors, which early readers need to engage with in order to understand how sentence sequencing works logically. They also set students up to understand the structure of texts much more effectively.

Type D Words

Generally, these words are Difficult. They can seem simple at first, but because they have multiple meanings, these words often confuse early readers. Teachers can navigate these challenging words by using clustering activities.

Type X Words

These words are eXtra, and they are vocabulary terms that are used infrequently but have certain meaning in the context of a specific narrative. Teachers should plainly relay the meanings of these words since their use is usually limited to whatever story they appear in.

The Link Between Vocabulary Development and Early Reading

Teachers have a number of ways to incorporate vocabulary-building exercises in their classrooms, and arguably, reading longer texts is the best way. A significant body of research has worked to analyze this point.

A study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology explored how different kinds of vocabulary development can influence or positively affect reading comprehension ultimately. The study focused on a sample of 60 fourth graders and followed how different kinds of vocabulary development influenced their reading comprehension. It discovered that vocabulary levels can accurately predict reading comprehension progress because students with larger vocabularies were able to demonstrate closer reading processes.

The article Developmental Relations Between Vocabulary Knowledge and Reading Comprehension: A Latent Change Score Modeling Study reached a similar conclusion. It also focused on a study of fourth graders and concluded that vocabulary development and the monitoring of that progress could act as an accurate reflection “of reading comprehension growth.”

Other dedicated research has also highlighted the importance of reading in vocabulary expansion. A bombshell longitudinal study out of the journal Cognitive Development followed the growth of children’s language acquisition and reading comprehension across 15 years. Focusing on the progress of 58 children, researchers were able to create a model that could predict vocabulary development at 19 months that would forecast the student’s reading comprehension by age 12.

Those students who had a larger vocabulary bank earlier in their lives were shown to have a much higher level of reading comprehension later on. This study foregrounds the importance of vocabulary development on student reading, where researchers found “new evidence for the long-term interplay between early language, literacy, and later reading and vocabulary development.”

Furthermore, research out of Early Childhood Research Quarterly found that reading books can be empirically beneficial in vocabulary development. Specifically, teachers can employ six major strategies to help students retain vocabulary words through reading various texts:

  • Reading sections of books more than once.
  • Highlighting and explaining more difficult words encountered in assigned reading.
  • Facilitating class conversation on the vocabulary terms from the book.
  • Calling on students to summarize sections of the text.
  • Implementing props or other supplemental materials to explain vocabulary terms.
  • Taking vocabulary words and framing them in post-reading exercises.

The researchers pointed out that vocabulary development and reading comprehension are linked closely, and that when teachers “optimize vocabulary learning through book reading that require systematic investigation,” they effectively set their students up for elevated reading levels.

Calling on students to read longform texts can push them to learn a wider pool of vocabulary words. Paul Nation is a specialist in language acquisition among adolescents, and his research found “how extensive reading can best be carried out to result in substantial vocabulary learning.” He was quick to note, though, that reading longform materials can have immense benefits in other areas. Still, the activity in and out of the classroom will help students understand and adapt to new vocabularies.

Prioritizing Vocabulary Development in the Classroom

The best way to adopt effective vocabulary development strategies is to learn from professionals who’ve experienced what works and what doesn’t. Lesley University’s fully online M.Ed. in Language and Literacy will prepare you to integrate vocabulary progress exercises to help bolster your students’ reading comprehension levels. Further, we offer teachers the appropriate tools to serve English language learners of all backgrounds. With our program’s unprecedented flexibility and innovative educational resources, we’ll set you up to improve your teaching dramatically.

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