The Six Essential Skills
Vocabulary Knowledge

Maya can 'follow the Monster Sounds to say the words' using phonemic awareness, but she needs to know what the words  mean as well ! The meaning of words matter, even in Step 1, when we haven't introduced the 'pictures' of the speech sounds yet (graphemes)

The National Reading Panel of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD, 2000) identified vocabulary instruction as an essential skill that students need to improve reading performance. In fact, there is strong evidence to support providing vocabulary instruction not only to improve students’ reading comprehension and writing quality, but also their listening vocabulary and their speaking vocabulary (Joshi, 2006; Kame’enui & Baumann, 2012). Vocabulary knowledge, including both oral and written vocabulary, is critically important for a child’s success in school (Kamil et al., 2008).

Vocabulary learning research with students with learning disabilities over the last 25 years has repeatedly reported that teachers should provide students with (1) explicit vocabulary instruction, (2) repeated exposures to new words, (3) sufficient opportunities to use words in activities such as discussion and writing, and (4) strategies to help determine word meanings independently (Farstrup & Samuels, 2008; O’Conner, 2007).Further, research also supports pre-teaching the meanings of words that are critical for developing background knowledge and necessary to comprehend the main concepts of the text students will be reading. This is true for all school-age students, as well as across all content areas.

What is vocabulary development?

Vocabulary development is a process of acquiring new words to use in daily life, and more specifically, the basis for learning any language. Vocabulary development focuses on helping students learn the meaning of new words and concepts in various contexts and across all academic content areas. Teaching students to develop vocabulary means providing explicit instruction on important words from text and teaching students strategies to help them learn word meanings independently. It is critical for both oral and written vocabulary development to increase as students get older to enable them to comprehend increasingly more complex grade level text (Kamil et al., 2008; Loftus & Coyne, 2013).


Vocabulary Knowledge

Nation itemized eight different types of knowledge that are required to know a word, but later amended it, adding a ninth aspect 'word parts'. He explained the nine aspects of vocabulary knowledge as follows:
1. Knowledge of the spoken form of a word
2. Knowledge of the written form of a word
3. Knowledge of the parts in a word which have meaning
4. Knowledge of the link between a particular form and a meaning
5. Knowledge of the concepts a word may possess and the items it can refer to
6. Knowledge of the vocabulary that is associated with a word
7. Knowledge of a word's grammatical functions
8. Knowledge of a word's collocations
9. Knowledge of a word's register and frequency

Nation ISP. Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2001

The National Reading Panel (NICHD, 2000) identified vocabulary as one of five major components of reading. Its importance to overall school success and more specifically to reading comprehension is widely documented (Baker, Simmons, & Kame’enui, 1998; Anderson & Nagy, 1991).

The National Reading Panel (NRP) stated that vocabulary plays an important role both in learning to read and in comprehending text: readers cannot understand text without knowing what most of the words mean. “Teaching vocabulary will not guarantee success in reading, just as learning to read words will not guarantee success in reading. However, lacking either adequate word identification skills or adequate vocabulary will ensure failure” (Biemiller, 2005).


Vocabulary is generically defined as the knowledge of words and word meanings. More specifically, we use vocabulary to refer to the kind of words that students must know to read increasingly demanding text with comprehension (Kamil & Hiebert, 2005). It is something that expands and deepens over time.


The NRP’s synthesis of vocabulary research identified eight findings that provide a scientifically based foundation for the design of rich, multifaceted vocabulary instruction.
The findings are:

• Provide direct instruction of vocabulary words for a specific text. Anderson and Nagy (1991) pointed out “there are precise words children may need to know in order to comprehend particular lessons or subject matter.”

• Repetition and multiple exposures to vocabulary items are important. Stahl (2005) cautioned against “mere repetition or drill of the word,” emphasizing that vocabulary instruction should provide students with opportunities to encounter words repeatedly and in a variety of contexts.

• Vocabulary words should be those that the learner will find useful in many contexts. Instruction of high-frequency words known and used by mature language users can add productively to an individual’s language ability (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). Research suggests that vocabulary learning follows a developmental trajectory (Biemiller, 2001).

• Vocabulary tasks should be restructured as necessary. “Once students know what is expected of them in a vocabulary task, they often learn rapidly” (Kamil, 2004).

• Vocabulary learning is effective when it entails active engagement that goes beyond definitional knowledge. Stahl and Kapinus (2001) stated, “When children ‘know’ a word, they not only know the word’s definition and its logical relationship with other words, they also know how the word functions in different contexts.”

• Computer technology can be used effectively to help teach vocabulary. Encouragement exists but relatively few specific instructional applications can be gleaned from the research (NICHD, 2000).

• Vocabulary can be acquired through incidental learning. Reading volume is very important in terms of long-term vocabulary development (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998). In later work, Cunningham (2005) further recommended structured read-alouds, discussion sessions and independent reading experiences at school and home to encourage vocabulary growth in students.

• Dependence on a single vocabulary instruction method will not result in optimal learning (NICHD, 2000).


Stahl (2005) stated, “Vocabulary knowledge is knowledge; the knowledge of a word not only implies a definition, but also implies how that word fits into the world.” Consequently, researchers and practitioners alike seek to identify, clarify, and understand what it means for students “to know what a word means.” The sheer complexity of vocabulary acquisition, as evidenced by reviewing critical components such as receptive vocabulary versus productive vocabulary, oral vocabulary versus print vocabulary, and breadth of vocabulary versus depth of vocabulary (Kamil & Hiebert, 2005) raise questions worthy of further research. Other factors such as variations in students’ vocabulary size (Anderson & Freebody, 1981; Nagy, 2005), levels of word knowledge (Dale, 1965; Graves & Watts-Taffe, 2002), as well as which words are taught (Beck et al., 2002; Biemiller, 2005) and how word knowledge is measured (Biemiller, 2005) must all be considered in shaping our understanding of vocabulary acquisition. The studies examined in the NRP Report (NICHD, 2000) suggested that vocabulary instruction does lead to gains in comprehension, but methods must be appropriate to the reader’s age and ability. The importance of vocabulary to success in reading is well known, but there continues to be little research that conclusively identifies the best methods or combinations of methods of vocabulary instruction. This publication reviews the most recent research on vocabulary acquisition and instructional practices since the release of the National Reading Panel’s report.


  • Steps to Reading - Part of the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach

© 2020 Steps to Reading Program - Teaching Reading and Spelling in the Early Years - Part of the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach from Miss Emma, The Reading Whisperer 

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