Vocabulary Development: Why Reading is Not Enough

You often hear that children’s vocabulary will improve if they read more. As a result, many teachers and parents place a lot of pressure on students to pick up a book.  However, poor vocabulary can make reading a chore and can turn students off to reading altogether!  Here is a better way to think about it:  A rich vocabulary improves reading.  Research now shows that direct instruction on vocabulary has a greater impact on reading comprehension than comprehension strategies and even phonics programs.

Why Reading Alone is Inadequate for Building Vocabulary?

  1. Students often skip over or misread unknown words, so even if they glean the meaning in the larger context, it is often not associated with the word.
  2. Readers rarely, if ever, stop to look up a word when they don’t understand the word in context. 
  3. Learners will most likely learn a new word when there is repetition.  Therefore, when a new word is mentioned only once in a text, the likelihood of them learning it is very small.
  4. Students that infer the meaning of a word through reading can have a vague or insufficient understanding of the word.  They may have a gist of the meaning, but that is not enough for standardized tests like the SATs. 
How Can You Help Students Develop Vocabulary?
  • Exhibit and nurture a fascination of words.  Continually share your favorite words with your students and talk about the etymology, roots, suffixes, etc.   Here are two great sites that can help you:  Online Etymology Dictionary and Learn that Word.
  • Ask your students to keep a word diary, or collection of words.  Students can select a new word from readings, discussions, books, newspapers, SAT lists etc.  Each morning they should record their word with a definition into a journal.  Ask them to teach it to three people, use it throughout the day in discourse and writing, and record a final thought about the word at the end of the day.  Monitor their word journals often so that students don’t do a weeks worth of words in one sitting.
  • Suggest the use of audio books.  This reduces the cognitive load on students so that they can focus on the meaning of the text instead of the decoding process.  In addition, students will learn the proper pronunciation of words, and they will improve their sight word vocabulary.
  • Encourage and reward your students for asking you to define unfamiliar words.
  • Ask your students to select and share a favorite word of the week with the rest of the class.   This can be done through an online discussion group, as a presentation for the entire class or in small cooperative groups.  Have them explain their personal connection to the word.
  • Use a vocabulary building system such as Wordly Wise
  • Tell your students about Free Rice.  This is a free site that offers an online, game-like activity that helps students build vocabulary. The program gets harder with student success and for each correct answer, the site donates 10 grains of rice to the United Nations World Food Program.
  • Use sites like Vocab Ahead that offers visual and auditory definitions of words or Visuwords that offers a visual thesaurus.  
  • Inform students about Vocabulary.com, a free site that offers a number of fun activities that students can play with their own vocabulary lists.

Dr. Erica Warren is the author, illustrator and publisher of multisensory educational materials at Good Sensory Learning and Dyslexia Materials.  She is also the director of Learning to Learn, in Ossining, NY.  To learn more about her products and services, you can go to www.goodsensorylearning.comwww.dyslexiamaterials.com & www.learningtolearn.biz  
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