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Vocabulary Instruction for Reading Comprehension

From webbing to semantic feature analysis, this article describes strategies for teaching vocabulary that replace memorizing definitions with building concepts.

The teacher's dilemma

Should the teacher teach vocabulary directly or incidentally? That is, should words be targeted for the learners or should they develop naturally through reading and the learner's desire to clarify concepts?

Evidence falls in both directions. Certainly vocabulary knowledge can be acquired through reading and discussions about certain contexts (Nagy et al, 1985). But it appears that direct instruction is more effective than incidental learning for the acquisition of a particular vocabulary, and also more efficient (McKeown and Beck, 1988).

Instructional techniques

It is generally accepted that students learn vocabulary more effectively when they are directly involved in constructing meaning rather than in memorizing definitions or synonyms.

Thus, techniques such as webbing that involve students' own perspectives in creating interactions that gradually clarify targeted vocabulary may be a way to combine direct teaching and incidental learning in one exercise.

Teachers can use students' personal experiences to develop vocabulary in the classroom. Through informal activities such as semantic association students brainstorm a list of words associated with a familiar word, pooling their knowledge of pertinent vocabulary as they discuss the less familiar words on the list.

Semantic mapping goes a step further, grouping the words on the list into categories and arranging them on the visual "map" so that relationships among the words become clearer.

In semantic feature analysis, words are grouped according to certain features, usually with the aid of a chart that graphically depicts similarities and differences among features of different words.

Finally, analogies are a useful way of encouraging thoughtful discussion about relationships among meanings of words.

Teaching vocabulary

Teaching vocabulary as a prereading step is an instructional intervention that should be considered when readers lack the prior or background knowledge to read in a content area.

Another technique to help students see a word in a broader context is to have them answer the following questions:

  • What is it?
  • What is it like?
  • What are some examples?

Schwartz and Raphael (1985) believe that this list of three questions helps students see relationships between familiar and less familiar terms and also brings the meaning of an unknown term into focus by requiring analogies and examples.


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Baker, Scott K., et al (1995). "Vocabulary Acquisition: Curricular and Instructional Implications for Diverse Learners." Technical Report No. 14. Eugene, OR: National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators. [ED 386 861]

Barton, J., and R. Calfee (1989). "Theory Becomes Practice: One Program." in Diane Lapp et al (Eds.), Content Area Reading and Learning: Instructional Strategies. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. [ED 304 673]

Bear, Donald R., et al (1996). Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction. New York: Merrill. [ED 386 685]

Christen, William L., and Thomas J. Murphy (1991). "Increasing Comprehension by Activating Prior Knowledge." ERIC Digest. Bloomington, IN: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication. [ED 328 885]

Cooter, Robert B., Jr. (1991). "Storytelling in the Language Arts Classroom." Reading Research and Instruction, 30(2), 71-76. [EJ 424 278]

Hodapp, Joan B., and Albert F. Hodapp (1996). "Vocabulary Packs and Cued Spelling: Intervention Strategies." Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the National Association of School Psychologists (Atlanta). [ED 396 271]

Kueker, Joan (1990). "Prereading Activities: A Key to Comprehension." Paper presented at the International Conference on Learning Disabilities (Austin, TX). [ED 360 785]

McKeown, Margaret G., and Isabel L. Beck (1988). "Learning Vocabulary: Different Ways for Different Goals," Remedial and Special Education (RASE), 9(1), 42-46. [EJ 367 432]

Moore, David W., et al (1989). Prereading Activities for Content Area Reading and Learning. Newark, DE: International Reading Association. [ED 300 786]

Nagy, William E., et al (1985). "Learning Word Meanings from Context: How Broadly Generalizable?" Technical Report No. 347. Urbana,IL: Center for the Study of Reading. [ED 264 546]

Nagy, William (1988). Teaching Vocabulary to Improve Reading Comprehension. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English; Newark, DE: International Reading Association. [ED 298 471]

Nelson-Herber, Joan (1986). "Expanding and Refining Vocabulary in Content Areas." Journal of Reading, 29, 626-33.

Ruddiman, Joan, et al (1993). "Open to Suggestion." Journal of Reading, 36(5), 400-09. [EJ 459 161]

Schwartz, Robert M., and Taffy Raphael (1985). "Concept of Definition: A Key to Improving Students' Vocabulary." Reading Teacher, 39(2), 198-205. [EJ 325 191]

Szymborski, Julie Ann (1995). Vocabulary Development: Context Clues versus Word Definitions. M.A. Project, Kean College of New Jersey. [ED 380 757]

Wilkinson, Molly (1994). "Using Student Stories to Build Vocabulary in Cooperative Learning Groups." Clearing House, 67(4), 221-23. [EJ 486 167]



Click the "Endnotes" link above to hide these endnotes.

Excerpted from: Smith, C. B. (1997). Vocabulary Instruction and Reading Comprehension. ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading English and Communication.

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