The Science of Reading – Part 2: Vocabulary and Comprehension

[Editor’s note: This is the second part of our five-part series on the best practices of learning to read and learning to read better.]

To read Part 1, “Unlocking Language,” click here.

Phonics, no matter how effective, can’t be taught in a vacuum. Word knowledge (vocabulary) is another essential part of building language expression in emerging readers, and it directly influences the ability to comprehend what you read.

As we saw last time, kids start off learning oral language, as that’s programmed into our genes. That means those who hear more words spoken at home enter school with larger and more diverse vocabularies, giving them more of an advantage when they have to make sense of words they see in print (a child who understands a word in an oral context will be able to recognize the meaning of that word when they initially sound it out phonetically). Research has shown that the continuing deficit in vocabulary knowledge experienced by many students — especially those of low-income or those who are English Language Learners — represents a major obstacle to academic achievement in vital areas such as reading comprehension (August, Carlo, Dressler, & Snow, 2005; Chall, Jacobs, & Baldwin, 1990; Mancilla-Martinez & Lesaux, 2010).[1] Without robust word knowledge, students can’t make sense of what they’re given to read.

Additional data show just how important vocabulary acquisition is to emerging readers. In 2000, the National Reading Panel, tasked with determining the key factors in learning to read, identified vocabulary instruction as one of the five essential components of reading instruction. Studies performed by August, Carlo, Dressler & Snow, 2005; Baumann, 2009; Chall, Jacobs, & Baldwin, 1990; Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997, and Mancilla-Martinez & Lesaux, 2010, demonstrated the critical importance of vocabulary knowledge in mastering reading comprehension. And vocabulary knowledge is emphasized throughout the Common Core State Standards, with the requirement to “Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases” labeled an anchor standard at both the elementary and secondary levels. (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010, pp. 25, 51) [1]

As children advance through their phonics training and learn to recognize whole words at a glance, they move on to more advanced texts, in which they have to learn the meaning of new words that aren’t part of their oral vocabulary. That means vocabulary instruction. But what’s the best method of instructing students in acquiring new words?

Research has provided three important general guidelines to allow teachers to develop effective approaches to vocabulary instruction:

  1. As the average highschooler knows about 40,000 words (Nagy & Herman, 1987), it becomes clear that students have to learn many more words and their meanings than teachers can teach explicitly. Therefore, vocabulary instruction should not only teach individual words, but it should also include the development of word learning strategies and the fostering of word consciousness (Baumann, Ware, & Edwards, 2007; Graves, 2006).[1]
  1. Graves (2009) has indicated that “one size does not fit all” with regard to teaching word meanings, given that words differ in nature. Some are easy to represent, such as nouns, which can accompany visual images of their meanings. Others, though, are densely conceptual (e.g. democracy or illustrious) and require a great deal of knowledge-building to understand. As a result, the goals for a student learning a given word can range anywhere from beginning awareness to mastery.[1]
  1. Research reviews of vocabulary instruction stress the limited effectiveness of any instruction that focuses solely on dictionary definitions. Instead, it supports instruction that “presents words in a variety of contexts, provides multiple exposures, and promotes students’ active processing of new meanings” (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2013; Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986).[1]

These guidelines suggest that while most vocabulary is learned indirectly, teachers must provide direct instruction for some new words. Research, therefore, supports a combination approach.

Students learn the meanings of most words indirectly, through their everyday experiences with both oral and written language:

  • They use words learned by speaking and listening
  • They pay attention to words that adults read to them
  • They read on their own — the more extensively, the more words learned

Some vocabulary, though, should be taught directly. Direct instruction helps students learn difficult words, especially those that represent complex concepts not part of their daily experiences.

Direct instruction includes:

  • Providing students with specific words important to their content learning or the understanding of a particular text
  • Teaching students general word-learning strategies they can apply to a variety of additional words, such as analyzing word parts (roots, prefixes, and suffixes)

Robert Marzano (2004) developed a six-step process for vocabulary. It can be used with students of all ages, varying abilities (including those with learning disabilities), and across all content areas. The first three steps introduce new words, while the next three provide multiple exposures of the word for student review, practice, and long-term retention.

  1. Explain: Explicitly state the definition of the new word using a student-friendly description, explanation, or example.
  1. Restate: Ask students to restate the description, explanation, and/or example you provided in their own words, and have them write the word and definition in their notebooks for further reinforcement.
  1. Show: Use a visual aid. Have students construct a picture, symbol, or graphic representation of the new term, and, if possible, come up with a synonym or antonym to that word.
  1. Discuss: Engage students by having them use the new words in verbal sentences, or ask questions using the new words yourself.
  1. Refine and reflect: Periodically ask students to discuss and refine the entries in their notebooks, and link these words (either as similar to or different from) a new vocabulary word you introduce.
  1. Apply in learning games: There are many games on the internet that involve using vocabulary words to score points. Let the students know that learning words can be fun. This also provides additional reinforcement of the terms you’ve introduced.[2]

Secondary reading specialist Paul Schmidt has also discovered a number of effective vocabulary instruction strategies in his years in front of a classroom. First, if you give students a list of words, you can’t give it to them in a vacuum. You need to relate the vocabulary to specific content you may be covering elsewhere, and ideally you should relate it to students’ direct experience. Anything that gives them a connection with a word acts as a tether, and that makes it more likely they’ll remember and be able to use the word appropriately.

Second, when approaching a piece of literature, you may need to know specific vocabulary to be drawn into it. As an example, he uses “To Kill a Mockingbird.” To fully appreciate the story and characters, it’s helpful to have a historical and regional understanding of where and when it’s set. It’s like you’re giving students the key they can use to unlock the “secret code to the text. The fun of being “in” on a secret code, or being linked to the story with a powerful emotion that makes it hard to put down, can greatly expand the students’ general and word-specific knowledge.

Third, the ability to unlock words by component parts (roots, prefixes, suffixes) allows the students to unlock another kind of code, one that expands their word knowledge by recognizing word parts in the same way phonics lets them recognize word sounds.  As with Marzano’s learning games, there are many fun games and puzzles available on the internet to help you give students the ability to decode words.  “It is empowering,” says Schmidt. “Additionally, I personally believe that if a student has had background in phonemic instruction, they will better understand the concept of word parts as well as sounds in other languages and how they might function as they appear in their own language.”

So, the more you read, the more you know, and the more you understand. But can you read well? That’s a topic we’ll take up next time.

Next week: Part 3A: Developing Fluency



[1] Patrick Manyak, Heather Von Gunten, David Autenrieth, Carolyn Gillis, Julie Mastre-O’Farrell , et al. (nd). In “Four Practical Principles for Enhancing Vocabulary Instruction.” Reading Rockets. Retrieved from

[2] Six step process: Marzano, Robert. In Weiser, Beverly PhD. (September 2012). “Effective Vocabulary Instruction for Kindergarten to 12th Grade Students Experiencing Learning Disabilities.” Southern Methodist University. Retrieved from



We gratefully acknowledge the contribution of Paul Schmidt, ME Secondary Reading Specialist — Education, in the development of this series.

Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to

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