Since the start of the pandemic, many teachers have noticed that lots of students are having a tough time understanding what they read. According to its latest Reading Assessment Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress has found that reading proficiency scores among fourth- and eighth-grade students have fallen to their lowest levels in decades for almost all demographics and ability levels.

To tackle this proficiency problem, schools all over the country are adopting different teaching strategies based on the science of reading. One of these methods is direct vocabulary instruction, a systematic and deliberate approach to teaching students new words. In today’s post, let's take a closer look at the link between vocabulary and reading and explore effective strategies for teaching vocabulary in the classroom!

Vocabulary's Impact on Reading Comprehension & Fluency

According to the National Reading Panel's 2000 report on the science of reading, vocabulary and reading comprehension are linked. While vocabulary focuses on individual words, comprehension analyzes the text at large. Both skills are needed to fully understand a text. Per the report, "Precisely separating the two processes is difficult, if not impossible."

When students come across unfamiliar words in a text, their ability to understand what’s being read depends on their vocabulary knowledge. If students don't know many words, understanding texts becomes difficult. This might make reading feel annoying, so students end up reading less. Consequently, their overall reading comprehension skills diminish, making it harder for them to approach more complex texts with confidence.

On the other hand, having strong vocabulary skills makes figuring out a text’s meaning much easier. Competent students can easily draw connections between words, concepts, and ideas in the text, helping them follow the flow of the narrative, argument, or informational piece.

Fluency—the ability to read smoothly and accurately—is another key part of reading proficiency. With well-developed vocabulary skills, students can read with greater speed and automaticity, leading to a more enjoyable reading experience. They don't need to pause and think about the meaning of every single word they see. In cases where words aren’t instantly recognized, students can use the surrounding text and their own understanding of word parts, affixes, and word roots to infer definitions

Vocabulary Instruction Strategies for Success

Instead of just picking up words naturally from reading and everyday life, direct vocabulary instruction takes a planned approach to focus on specific words students need to understand and use. That said, there's no one-size-fits-all way to teach vocabulary directly. Using different techniques and strategies boosts the chances of students remembering and using the words confidently in real-life situations.

Here are some ideas:

  • Students should be exposed to new words multiple times in various contexts through reading, writing, listening, and speaking. This helps them remember the meanings and how to use the words.
  • Like we talked about above, knowing word roots can help students figure out unfamiliar words. With an understanding of roots and affixes, including prefixes and suffixes, students can break down and define new words they encounter.
  • Spaced out practice, where students review words regularly over time, is better for learning and remembering than cramming all at once. This systematic reinforcement helps students remember and retain new words.
  • Technology can be a helpful tool for vocabulary instruction. Educational apps, interactive websites, and digital resources make learning vocabulary more engaging and meaningful for students.
  • Games and activities like word puzzles, charades, and flashcards are fun ways for students to learn and practice new words without the pressure of tests or grades.

Vocabulary study can extend beyond the English language arts classroom, too. Other subjects like mathematics, social studies, and science are filled with new words students need to learn. Teachers should consider collaborating across disciplines and share word learning strategies to help students pick up new words across different academic domains.

As educators, understanding the role of vocabulary in the science of reading is necessary for supporting students' reading comprehension and overall academic success. By applying research-backed strategies and creating vocabulary-rich environments, we can equip students with the skills they need to become proficient readers, critical thinkers, and lifelong learners.

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