Reading & Literacy

AERA: Which Words Do Students Need Most to Succeed?

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 20, 2015 3 min read
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[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post used calculations for the total running number of words analyzed, rather than the number of unique words.]


There’s little argument that vocabulary is critical for a student’s longterm academic achievement, but a new research project finds educators shouldn’t focus on sheer numbers. Researchers from the University of Minnesota, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and MetaMetrics, Inc. are working to identify the words students most need to succeed in school, but are least likely to pick up on their own.

“We know very, very little about what words students do and do not know,” said Michael F. Graves, an emeritus professor for the University of Minnesota Center for Reading Research, at a symposium at the American Educational Research Association meeting here. “It’s not all we need, but it’s a starting point.”

English is a massive language—more than 1 million unique words according to the Global Language Monitor—but only 5,000 common words make up 80 percent of a typical school text, according to Graves. If a teacher selects an uncommon vocabulary word at random in grade 5, it may take a student reading 10 to 200 books to see that word again, Graves has found.

To develop priority words, the researchers narrowed down 20,000 unique words in a set of reading and content-area textbooks to 2,400 related word families.

“We were looking for challenging and consequential words,” said Jeff Elmore of the research firm MetaMetrics, one of the researchers on the project. “Not all of them will present challenges to most readers, not all of them are particularly necessary to learn to be a successful reader. Just because a word is rare, doesn’t make it consequential. I probably wouldn’t spend as much time on ‘Fogelberg’ as I would on ‘transistor.’”

Jill Fitzgerald, a research professor emerita at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, used the priority list to analyze four common curriculum programs in language arts, social studies, science, and mathematics in grades 1 to 5. On average, only about a quarter of vocabulary words students were exposed to in textbooks were “challenging,” but there was a wide range. The program with the slimmest vocabulary in 5th grade introduced 45 unique words each week, versus three times as many for the program with the most words.

“For total word exposure, the program a student uses matters,” Fitzgerald said. “Cumulatively, from grades 1 to 5, students who have a long program are exposed to one and a half to two times as many words as students who get exposed to a short program.”

Vocabularies differed by subject as well as by curriculum program for grades 1 to 5:

  • The total unique words for the science curriculums ranged from just under 8,500 to more than 9,800. Of those, 2,100 to 2,600 were “challenging and consequential” words, depending on the curriculum;
  • Social studies unique vocabularies ranged from just more than 8,500 to more than 12,700, with about 2,100 to 3,700 challenging and consequential words; and
  • Math vocabularies ranged from about 3,500 to 7,400 unique words and consequential words ranging from just under 900 to more than 2,400, depending on the curriculum. That suggests that even math can have high literacy requirements.

William Nagy, a literacy researcher at Seattle Pacific University who was not associated with the project, cautioned that teachers should not assume that all students will pick up “common” words on their own. “You use ‘put up with’ because these are high frequency words and you think it will be easier than ‘tolerate’ but for a Spanish-speaking ELL, tolerate is very close to the Spanish ‘tolerar’ while ‘put up with’ is totally opaque,” he said.

“Kids need to both know the high-frequency words and have powerful tools to deal with a word they are only going to see once,” Nagy said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.