Published Online: February 5, 2013
Published in Print: February 6, 2013, as Studies Find Vocabulary Instruction Is Falling Short
Includes correction(s): May 16, 2013

Students Must Learn More Words, Say Studies

Children who enter kindergarten with a small vocabulary don't get taught enough words—particularly, sophisticated academic words—to close the gap, according to the latest in a series of studies by Michigan early-learning experts.

The findings suggest many districts could be at a disadvantage in meeting the increased requirements for vocabulary learning from the Common Core State Standards, said study co-author Susan B. Neuman, a professor in educational studies specializing in early-literacy development at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

"Vocabulary is the tip of the iceberg: Words reflect concepts and content that students need to know," Ms. Neuman said. "This whole common core will fall on its face if kids are not getting the kind of instruction it will require."

In an ongoing series of studies of early-grades vocabulary instruction, Ms. Neuman and co-author Tanya S. Wright, an assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, analyzed how kindergarten educators choose and teach new words, both in the instruction that teachers give and in basal-reading books.

Ms. Neuman and Ms. Wright found limited vocabulary instruction across the board, but students in poverty—the ones prior research shows enter school knowing 10,000 fewer words than their peers from higher-income families—were the least likely to get instruction in academically challenging words.

The Michigan studies are "immensely valuable in calling attention to the problem, and to the way early-literacy instruction fails to overcome the verbal gaps between demographic groups," said E.D. Hirsch Jr., the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation and a professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia.

Which Words Matter?

Some experts recommend that educators ask themselves a series of questions on how to prioritize vocabulary words in a story they are teaching their students. For example, the class will read a story next week including the words “platypus,” “principle,” and “baby.”

Mr. Hirsch has written extensively about the essential role of background knowledge, including the words and concepts common to "culturally literate" Americans, in children's education. In an essay published in the Winter 2013 issue of City Journal, Mr. Hirsch argues that expanding students' vocabulary is "the key to upward mobility," for example, because college-entrance exams such as the ACT and the SAT and military exams such as the Armed Forces Qualification Test demand such knowledge.

Vocabulary is a deceptively simple literacy skill that researchers and educators agree is critical to students' academic success, but which has proved frustratingly difficult to address.

By age 3, when many children enter early preschool, youngsters from well-to-do families have a working vocabulary of 1,116 words, compared to 749 words for children in working-class families and 525 words for children on welfare, according to a seminal 2003 longitudinal study by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, authors of the 1995 book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American ChildrenRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader.

The consensus among researchers and educators has been that students must close such vocabulary gaps to succeed academically and deal with rigorous content.

"It's been one of the most resistant-to-change skills in early literacy," Ms. Neuman said. "Generally, children come into school with vocabulary at one point and leave with vocabulary at the same point."

Unlike other early-literacy skills, such as phonics, vocabulary doesn't seem to have a "ceiling" for mastery, said Timothy Shanahan, the director of the Center for Literacy, the chairman of the curriculum and instruction department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and one of the reviewers of the common core's literacy standards.

That's because people continue to grapple with unfamiliar words throughout their lives, in school, college, and even adulthood.

'Teachable Moments'

In the first of the Michigan researchers' studies, presented in brief form in the fall 2012 Reading Research Quarterly but not yet released, Ms. Wright and her colleagues analyzed observations of 660 hours of 55 kindergarten teachers' classroom instruction in districts of differing poverty levels in the 2009-10 school year.

The researchers found few formal, structured lessons on vocabulary during that time. Instead, most teachers defined words during "teachable moments" that came up as they read stories to students or held discussions.

That informal style led to major discrepancies in both the number and difficulty of vocabulary words, with some teachers discussing only two words a day and others as many as 20.

Moreover, because most words were chosen from the stories, they had little connection to other words being taught at the same time and were rarely words that students would need to understand instructions or academic content in later grades. Prior studies have shown that students learn words better when they are grouped with related words.

Rebecca Silverman, an assistant professor in special education at the University of Maryland College Park, agreed that the same problem permeates vocabulary instruction across all the gradesRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader.

"I think that happens a lot, because sometimes in these basal readers, they pick words that seem sophisticated [to be highlighted in vocabulary lessons], but they don't connect words," Ms. Silverman said.

"So, a student hears the word 'transportation' in a book about trains," said Ms. Silverman, who was not involved with the Michigan studies. "If the teacher doesn't explain it in a general context, the student might not get the full sense of the word, and might think it's just related to trains."

In schools with fewer than one in four students in poverty, Michigan State's Ms. Wright found teachers explained the meanings of nine words per day, compared with only six words a day in schools with a majority of students in poverty. Similarly, teachers in wealthier schools discussed the meaning of five challenging words per day, compared with only three challenging words per day in higher-poverty schools.

Prior studies suggest a student needs to hear a new word 28 times on average to remember it. The more sophisticated the word, the more important it is for students to have opportunities to recall the word, use it, and understand how it relates to other, similar words, Ms. Wright and Ms. Neuman said.

In the first study, Ms. Wright found kindergarten teachers discussed vocabulary on average eight times a day, and rarely went back to recall and expand on words they had already defined.

"In other words, we're not teaching very many words, and we're not teaching in a way that children will retain the words," Ms. Neuman said. "Essentially, I'm teaching these words, hoping like hell they've learned it, and never checking whether the children have learned it."

Boosting Basals

In the second study, "Vocabulary Instruction in Commonly Used Kindergarten Core Reading Curricula," Ms. Neuman and Ms. Wright analyzed 12 weeks' worth of curricular materials from the four most commonly used basal-reading programs in the nation: Houghton Mifflin Reading, Pearson Education's Scott Foresman Reading Street, Harcourt Trophies, and Macmillian/McGraw-Hill's Treasures. Combined, those programs were used in 52.3 percent of the elementary school market in 2009-10, though the study focused specifically on the kindergarten reader.

The researchers grouped the vocabulary words highlighted in those books based on three measures of difficulty used by early-literacy researchers.

One such measure, the Dale-Chall list, includes 7,875 words commonly known by 4th graders, considering unlisted words more "sophisticated."

The "Words Worth Teaching" list differentiates words that most children know by 2nd grade; those that 40 percent to 80 percent of children know by the end of 2nd grade; those that 40 percent to 80 percent of children know by the end of 6th grade; and "difficult" words known by fewer than 40 percent of rising 6th graders.

Finally, the researchers grouped words based on a three-tier system developed by Isabel L. Beck, a professor emerita of education at the University of Pittsburgh. Tier I, or basic, words can be learned without instruction; Tier II words are academic words used over many subject areas; and Tier III are "difficult, content-specific" words.

Ms. Neuman and Ms. Wright found that, on average, the reading curricula introduced eight to 10 new words a week, and a majority of those were easy, commonly known words.

"Essentially, what we found was a very haphazard approach to vocabulary instruction," Ms. Neuman said."The 'challenging' vocabulary choices were not based on frequency, not based on the supporting academic words children need to know like 'during' and 'after,' not content-rich words, like 'predict.' Why would you choose to emphasize the word 'platypus'? It makes no sense."

Ways of targeting vocabulary words have been evolving in the past decade, Mr. Shanahan said. Reading materials developed in the early 1990s tend to focus on the phonics of words, so the word "cat" might have been chosen to highlight the "-at" sound, rather than because educators need to teach children what the word means.

Mr. Shanahan said he believes the lack of vocabulary cohesion comes from the attempt to choose more difficult words from upcoming texts.

"It gets very tricky," he said. "The words aren't terribly important; they aren't words you'd really care if the children know or not. If the next story has a platypus in it, that's a hard word; we might as well teach it. ... We've managed to get publishers off 'cat,' but they've swung over to 'platypus.' "

Jeff Byrd, the director of product marketing for reading at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in Boston, said common words are included in kindergarten and 1st grade basal readers because students may not have connected the spoken word to a printed one. Including "easy" words helps students read independently, he said.

Mr. Hirsch said research shows children learn the bulk of their vocabulary implicitly in context, but educators and book publishers still must find a better balance of explaining words day to day and building the vocabularies of students, particularly those who enter with a vocabulary lag.

Mr. Shanahan agreed: "Common core is really pushing you to do two things: Don't neglect vocabulary in the text you are reading, but simultaneously you are responsible for expanding students' vocabulary."

However, Houghton Mifflin's Mr. Byrd said the publisher's 2014 basal-reader series Journeys Common Core, which was revised to meet the new standards, has a much stronger emphasis on explicit vocabulary instruction.

Related Blog

For kindergarten and 1st grade, the curriculum does teach 88 common words each year; children are expected to know the meanings of those words already, and they are noted in order to connect the spoken word to a printed word, to help children read independently.

But the new readers also include six to 10 academic words each week, such as "recall" or "captured," and four to six challenging, content-related words. The challenging words are directly tied to Tier III and Tier II words in Ms. Beck's classification model.

Mr. Byrd did agree that 300 new words per year—the maximum number taught in the basal readers studied—would not be enough to bring poor students, struggling readers, and English-language learners up to average levels.

"We recognize the studies and the concern that there are students who enter with this vocabulary deficit," Mr. Byrd said. "It's really frustrating to see those gaps persist despite the fact that, as content providers, we make our best efforts to help teachers close that gap."

Vol. 32, Issue 20, Pages 1,16-17

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the tiers associated with challenging words.

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