The Research Before the Action – Part 2


This blog follows on from the previous two posts, Vote 1 for Vocabulary Action!, which outlined the learning from our Action for Vocabulary Development Professional Learning Day and The Research Before the Action – Part 1, which was comprised of reviews from the first seven readings given to us by Paul Dufficy.  Paul is leading us through this Action for Vocabulary Development with Cindy Valdez-Adams, the Refugee Support Leader from Fairfield district.  

Action for Vocabulary Development pic

Each review will begin with a hyperlink to the readings which will be followed by a ‘brief’ summary. At the end of each summary I will reflect on the reading’s application for us (the classroom teacher with whom I am working, Lina Taweil and me) and its relevance our situation, teaching a Stage 2/3 class with diverse backgrounds and abilities.

Teachers’ Instruction and Students’ Vocabulary and Comprehension: An Exploratory Study With English Monolingual and Spanish–English Bilingual Students in Grades 3–5 R – R D Silverman 

A B S T R A C T : The primary aim of this study was to explore the relationship between teachers’ instruction and students’ vocabulary and comprehension in grades 3–5. The secondary aim of this study was to investigate whether this relationship differed for English monolingual and Spanish–English bilingual students.

This study is incredibly detailed and dense so I will not attempt to summarise it. Hopefully I can pull out some relevant quotes as most of the study explains the rationale and the methods the writers used to carry out their research. 

  • educators need to understand whether and how the relationship between instruction and vocabulary and comprehension differs for students from diverse

    language backgrounds. p.31

  • many students falter in reading in upper elementary school as they encounter more challenging texts and complex content than ever before …  Additionally, students who speak a language other than English at home are at particular risk for experiencing difficulty in the upper elementary grades p.32

  • Regarding vocabulary, Blachowicz ( 1987 ), in her study of fourth-grade classrooms, found that approximately 15% of instructional time in reading groups was spent on vocabulary. The most prominent instructional practices were “determining the meanings of words in context” (p. 134) and “examining words as discrete items, either pronouncing them or dealing with definitions or synonyms” (p. 135). Much less time was spent on “relating the words to other words” and “generalized strategies for figuring out words” (p. 135). p.34 

  • much of the research in this genre (the role of discourse in classroom instruction) suggests that typical instruction can often be characterized by an Initiate-Response-Evaluate structure, in which teachers initiate closed-ended questions, students respond to these questions, and teachers evaluate students’ responses (e.g., Cazden, 1998 ; Nystrand, 2006 ; Sinclair & Coulthard, 1975 ). There is little research, however, on classroom discourse in natural classroom settings that has delved into the specific vocabulary- and comprehension-related practices (e.g., defining and contextualizing words, focusing on comprehension strategies and text structure) that are inherent in teacher talk and how these practices are related to student outcomes.p.34

  • Research on vocabulary often includes measures of receptive vocabulary and vocabulary breadth (i.e., at least surface-level knowledge of a wide range of words). However, vocabulary knowledge is multidimensional and includes other facets that are often not measured in research (Nagy & Scott, 2000 ; Pearson et al., 2007 ). For example, measures of expressive vocabulary and vocabulary depth (i.e., knowledge of relationships among words and morphological variations of words as well as knowledge of how words are used across various syntactical constructions) may be particularly important for comprehension (see, e.g., Proctor, Silverman, Harring, & Montecillo, 2012 ). p. 39

  • Of the comprehension instruction we observed, attention to literal comprehension was seen most often. The next most prominent types of instruction observed were attention to inferential comprehension and comprehension strategies. Attention to text elements also was seen relatively often, but there was little attention to decoding/fluency in the observations that we conducted. In general, comprehension instruction was seen more frequently than was vocabulary instruction. p.42

  • The results indicated that instruction devoted to definitions, word relations, and morphosyntax had a positive relationship with change in vocabulary, whereas instruction that included application across contexts and a focus on literal comprehension had a negative relationship with change in vocabulary. p.47

  • The findings also showed that attention to inferential comprehension was related to positive change in comprehension and that comprehension strategies instruction

    was related to positive change in comprehension for bilinguals but not monolinguals. The results showed no association between instruction that targeted context clues, text elements, or decoding/fluency and vocabulary or comprehension. p.47


This study acknowledged its limitations in the number of times it observed the teachers and making generalisations from this. Where it saw teachers fall short in their meeting of teaching goals was when the tasks the teachers designed were not really fit for purpose. When Lina Taweil and I are designing tasks we need to take into consideration the vocabulary being used to complete the tasks and to make sure we specifically cater for our bilingual learners and use their first language to help them learn English. 

Speeding Up Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition of Minority Children – Rene Appel and Anne Vermeer 

The importance of lexical skills in language development and school achievement is widely recognised. Migrant children in the Netherlands lag far behind their Dutch classmates with respect to vocabulary in Dutch. To speed up the acquisition of vocabulary by migrant children in the first four grades of primary school an experimental programme was designed. … The outcomes suggest that it is possible to increase the rate at which minority children acquire second language vocabulary. In each grade, the children in the experimental  group outperformed those in the comparison group. By the end of the 4th grade, the experimental group children were one or two years ahead of their comparison group age peers in Dutch vocabulary, and they were able to maintain their position in 7th grade. However, they did not attain the level of their Dutch classmates, and were in fact lagging one year behind. p.159


The migrant population has grown rapidly in the last 25 years due to an influx of people from Dutch colonies, in particular Surinam and migrant workers mainly from Turkey and Morocco. More teachers were appointed to cope with this influx of non-Dutch speaking students but no real program was developed and the extra teachers were used to reduce class sizes in the hope that this would help. 

Migrant children lag far behind their Dutch counterparts not only in the number of Dutch words they know but in their depth of knowledge of these words. They generally don’t know the different ways one word can be used (polysemy) or the general terms like limb for  an arm or leg. 

Corson (1995) assumes that ‘(…) educational failure or success depends to a very large extent on people having the words, wanting to use them, and being able to use them’ (p.14). Children from lower socioeconomic classes and children from minority groups (i.e., children for whom the main language of education is a second language) experience what Corson calls a lexical bar, which reduces their educational possibilities considerably. p.162

Teaching vocabulary explicitly is not generally a goal in the Dutch curriculum. When second language students heard a word and it was explained in passing, they found that most of these students did not even recognise the word an hour later. 

For the study, the authors developed a program for the first four years of school where the target second language students would be taught in both withdrawal groups and in the classroom. The language study was not formal but was designed for acquisition of the target language through communicative tasks in meaningful contexts. The chosen words came from both the Dutch curriculum and children’s picture books. 

To evaluate the program the authors asked the following questions: 

  1. Did the Dutch vocabulary of migrant children who followed the experimental programme during their first four years in primary school increase more than the vocabulary of migrant children who did not follow that programme?

  2. Did the experimental programme have a broader effect on reading skills?
  3. Were there any long term effects on vocabulary and reading abilities three years after completion of the programme?

  4. Is it possible, by means of the experimental programme, to increase the migrant children’s Dutch vocabulary by more than 1000 words a year, and do they reach the level of their Dutch classmates after four years? p.163


Design of the Study

1. Method – The program’s effectiveness was evaluated yearly for the first four years of school with pre-tests and post-tests using curriculum dependent and independent tests for the students involved, and then again in grades 5 and 7. There were six experimental schools and seven comparison schools as well as a second experimental cohort who entered school a year later and another cohort from the same school who entered school a year earlier.  The tests included reading tests and standardised curriculum independent vocabulary tests. 

2. Schools and subjects – The schools were from Amsterdam (2), Rotterdam (1), Tilburg – an industrial town in the south (4). The students had to be from homes where Dutch was not spoken at all. This eliminated many of the families from Dutch colonies, so most of the students were of a Turkish or Moroccan background. The control schools were in Amsterdam (4) and Tilburg (4). 

Teachers involved annually filled out a questionnaire on things like, the amount of time they spent on the program, their level of satisfaction and the participation of the children. One of the experimental schools did not followed the prescribed curriculum and so they dropped out of the program after one year. Not all students completed the program due to school transfers and remigration. 

3. Instruments and testing procedure – Curriculum dependent and independent tests were used each year. With the change of curriculum content each year the curriculum dependent needed to be reformulated. Research assistants performed the testing each year, (pre and post tests). The tests involved; matching words to pictures, finishing sentences with appropriate nouns, verbs or qualifiers. The standardised tests were cloze passages with three multiple choice options. There were also reading tests. 


1.The questionnaire – Teachers were not always happy with the program and did not give it the time required especially in the higher grades because they had trouble fitting it in with other curriculum demands. In the younger grades they found it too teacher-directed and formal. 

2.Curriculum-dependent tests – The number of words acquired was not as high as expected but this could be due to the fact that the experimental schools did not completely follow the program. Overall though, the students who took part in the experimental program acquired more words than the students in the control schools. 

3.Curriculum-independent tests – These showed similar results to the curriculum dependent tests. Reading scores also improved with  increased vocabulary and the students in  the experimental schools maintained their reading achievements in the tests in years 5 and 7. 

Growth in vocabulary

The students in the experimental groups made more progress in skills than the control groups. They gained one or two years on their age peers for scores for lexical knowledge of Dutch words, compared with their peers of similar ethnic background who did not participate. At the end of 4th grade they lagged about a year behind their Dutch speaking cohort in their scores. Even so, their greater vocabulary was thought to facilitate their learning of new words in higher grades, because of better comprehension of texts used for school. Three years after the experiment the receptive vocabulary of the experimental groups was thought to have grown by about 5000 words as opposed to 3000 for the control groups. They did not reach the level of their peers from Dutch families but the gap between them was not as large as it would have been if there had been no intervention. 


The recommendations as a result of this study to improve school achievement for language learners are that:

  • The vocabulary curriculum has to offer at least 1000 new words per year in reading and learning materials.
  • The second language learners need to have explicit vocabulary instruction in small groups at least four days a week either in or outside the classroom for evaluating and monitoring purposes. 
  • The program should continue through all grades of Primary School (This is 8 years in the Netherlands)


If programs for teaching vocabulary are added to our literacy programs they need to be done by teachers with the teachers. Putting a program upon teachers that they are not convinced will not be implemented as well as it could be. It was interesting that even though the vocabulary intervention was not done as thoroughly as the researchers planned for it to be  the results were still positive for those students involved. 

Chapter 8  Teaching Academic Vocabulary K-8 : Effective Practices Across the Curriculum – Blachowicz, Camille, et al.

Resources for Developing Academic Vocabulary 

Choosing Words for Content-Area Instruction – Which are the most important content based words to learn? Tier 1- most basic words not generally needed for instruction for English speaking students, tier 2- new labels for established concepts, tier 3 – unfamiliar words for specific concepts? They are often the highlighted, boldfaced or italicised words. They could also be those words that occur most frequently in these texts or those that appear in diagrams, figures and labelling. Students can use these methods to find their own words for explicit study. Teachers across grades can also compile lists from texts and the curriculum and then match it to the curriculum sequence. 

Deciding How Many Words to Teach 

Flood – Flood the classroom with words related to the topic being studied. They can perform sorting activities and semantic maps to build related nets of words. These words are in the background and will not necessarily be explicitly dealt with. 

Fast – Use fast instruction for words where an easy definition or analogy will help build on students’ prior knowledge of words. Let the students see the word, practise pronunciation and learn a kid-friendly definition. Have visuals to help and follow up with extra practice and use. 

Focus – Often for teaching Tier 3 words where concepts need to be taught alongside the word. Words can often be worked out using semantics. Limit the numbers of these.

Good Reference Resources for K-8 Students

a. Learner Dictionaries – reference tools with definitions written in clear and “student- friendly” ways—that is, with language that can be easily understood and with salient examples.p.149

b. School Dictionaries – those dictionaries published with the school market and needs in mind .

c. Content- Area References – e.g. Maths and Science dictionaries for schools

d. Online Dictionaries – For many students and teachers, online dictionaries are the references of choice. ( is the “granddaddy” of electronic resources.

Other electronic tools include the following: Word Central Merriam- Webster (—Dictionary, thesaurus, and rhyming dictionary plus games for educators; now reprogrammed for superior word power and language fun.

English Pronouncing Dictionary with Instant Sound (— Here is a neat dictionary that says the word for your students! They will really like this. Well-read persons know hundreds, even thousands, of words that they’ve never heard anyone pronounce. Search through the 82,576 sound files and listen while somebody pronounces your chosen mystery words.

Merriam- Webster Visual Dictionary (http://visual.merriam-— This visual dictionary will help your students translate words into pictures. You can browse by broad themes (Animal Kingdom, Food and Kitchen, Arts and Architecture, Science, Sports and Games, etc.). The search engine takes some getting used to: Enter your word, wait for the word to display under “Images,” click on it, and hit “Go to.” When the image (or images) is displayed, the theme it’s part of is highlighted on the navigation bar. Sometimes detailed images that are there, (e.g., a pommel horse) won’t show up in a search but can be accessed through the broader category they’re part of (in the case of the pommel horse, gymnastics). p.149

e. Online Encyclopaedias – For content- area vocabulary, encyclopaedias are often the best resources because they provide the extended context required to understand such vocabulary p.149

f. Specialised Dictionaries  and Encyclopaedias – 

Who2 (—Who2 is an encyclopedia of famous people. It includes well- researched profiles of real people, fictional characters, and some figures (like Robin Hood) who may be either. It also includes profiles of celebrities who aren’t people, like Ham the Chimp and Hal 9000.

Encyclopaedia of Greek and Roman Mythology (Roman & Roman, 2010).—This is a comprehensive and sophisticated compendium of Greek and Roman mythology, so much of which underlies English vocabulary. For younger students, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths (D’Aulaire, 1962) has been in print for over 50 years, attesting to its quality and interest level.

The Cook’s Thesaurus (—The Cook’s Thesaurus is actually a cooking encyclopaedia that covers thousands of ingredients and kitchen tools. Entries include pictures, descriptions, synonyms, pronunciations, and suggested substitutions. p.150

Other Media Resources and Games for Students

a. Television Programs – Word Girl’ and ‘Word World’ are two animated programs that focus on vocabulary building for younger students. Word Girl ( Word World  (

b. Games for Vocabulary Development – Online and commercial word games can be adapted to the classroom and the words being focused upon. There are many like Scrabble, Taboo, Boggle, Hangman, Scategories, Upword. 


Can be summative or formative. Classroom based pretests and post tests need to be administered to find out what the students do not know, what needs to be taught and how well they learnt what was taught. 

In one instance a chart was drawn up to show the teachers and students how much vocabulary was taught over the year. This helped to encourage the students to learn their new words and showed the teachers which words needed to most attention.

Leadership for Academic Vocabulary Development 

a. At the district level – The director needs their Principals to recognise the need for academic vocabulary learning in their schools and to be on board with implementing a program which supports their teachers and students. The most powerful instances I’ve witnessed are when principals and teachers meet on a regular basis for professional discourse around questions such as these: What are our students’ needs? What do we need to do in order to meet these needs? How will we know when we’ve done this? What is our plan? How will we implement and monitor this plan? These are simple sentences that lead to complex conversations. p.157

b. At the school level – The whole school needs to work together collaboratively and to be on board with implementing academic vocabulary programs to improve overall academic achievement in their schools. The teachers involved need to be provided with the training, the readings, the professional development to have a deep understanding and ownership of the learning programs. Goals need to be set for short term and long term so that vocabulary learning is sustained and programs can continue and be improved. There needs to be constant assessment and reassessment of practices. Some of the questions to consider when developing a plan for improving students’ vocabulary development include the following: Which classroom teachers have expertise in vocabulary development? What have teachers done in each of the domains to facilitate students understanding and use of academic vocabulary? What does good vocabulary instruction look like? What does student work look like when there is an emphasis on vocabulary development? p.158

c. At the classroom level – coaches and consultants – professional development for teachers needs to be manageable so it can be sustained. The learning needs to be scaffolded so that deeper learning for teachers happens over time. In order for the PD to truly “take root” and make an impact on student achievement, it’s important to develop and sustain a school culture where all teachers in the building are encouraged and expected to (1) regularly observe and describe their students’ strengths and needs; (2) discuss and design instruction based upon those needs; and (3) regularly share with colleagues in grade-level teams and across grade levels what they have learned and what they are thinking about for next steps. pp. 158, 159 

d. At the classroom level – teachers – Teachers take a leadership role in their schools to mentor and coach other teachers, form their own study groups to review research and literature, try out new ideas with their students and reflect on their practice and student achievements. 

 Concluding Thoughts 

Leadership is needed to support teachers in their aims of making all students capable, independent learners of new words. There needs to be a collaborative and cooperative approach that can be sustained throughout the entire school over the students’ length of study at their school. 


Lina Taweil and I will need to think carefully about the vocabulary that we prioritise for learning and work out the best ways to have the students work with this vocabulary so that they  can work with it and use it. We also need to work out how to persuade the others teachers in our school about the importance of this learning so that we can develop a sustainable whole school approach. 

Word Meanings Matter: Cultivating English Vocabulary Knowledge in Fifth-Grade Spanish-Speaking Language Minority Learners – Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez 

This study is similar to others already looked at except that it emphasises using writing as a way of seeing how well the students can understand and use the vocabulary that has been explicitly taught to them. It comes to similar conclusions and so for this reason I will copy interesting points and comment on anything that is new or different from previous readings. I will not be summarising the article in full. 

This pilot study investigated the effects of a 20-week quasiexperimental vocabulary intervention aimed at improving Spanish-speaking language minority students’ English vocabulary and writing outcomes. Participants were two matched samples of fifth graders (N 5 49) in a predominantly Latino, low-income urban school. Pre- and posttest analyses revealed that the treatment group gained knowledge of a larger number of target words than did the contrast group and that the treatment group students were generally better at determining their own word knowledge. Further, individual growth modeling revealed the treatment students’ overall writing quality improved over the course of the 20-week intervention, even though writing instruction was not part of the intervention, and improvements in students’ writing quality were larger during the last 10 weeks of the intervention. The need for purposeful activities that provide students with authentic contexts to learn and productively use newly taught words is discussed. p.669

  • Thus research and practice have focused more on word reading skills than vocabulary and comprehension skills. However, converging evidence finds that LM learners tend to develop relatively strong word reading skills, but often without the necessary language skills to support comprehension. p.670 (We have found this as well with our language minority students. They can decode and ‘read’, barking at print but they do not understand what they are reading.) 

  • Considering the early vocabulary knowledge disadvantage that many LM learners face, a sole reliance on incidental vocabulary learning for this group of learners is both impractical and negligent. p.671 

  • The scope of vocabulary intervention work with LM learners is sparse, most notably beyond the primary grades, but findings to date point to the promising role of vocabulary instruction to improve LM learners’ vocabulary knowledge. Further, the strong and significant correlation between vocabulary and reading comprehension among LM learners (Droop & Verhoeven, 2003; Hoover & Gough, 1990; Hutchinson et al., 2003; Proctor et al., 2005, 2006; Verhoeven, 1990, 2000) suggests that LM learners can benefit from targeted vocabulary instruction. Further, even though vocabulary might be expected to also impact writing, which plays an increasingly prominent role in evaluating students’ academic performance after the primary grades, a key limitation in the field is that none of the vocabulary intervention studies conducted to date have examined writing outcomes. p 672 (This was an interesting point about writing, because most of the studies have measured the impact of explicit academic vocabulary instruction on reading comprehension. It is true that a students’ writing is the main way students’ academic knowledge is evaluated in the higher grades.) 

  • Because receptive vocabulary knowledge generally precedes productive vocabulary knowledge (Laufer, 1998; Meara, 1996; Nation, 1990; Pearson, Hiebert, & Kamil, 2007), it can be expected that students, and in particular LM learners, will require ample opportunities to actively use newly taught vocabulary in oral language before they are able to use the new words in their writing. To date, very few studies have examined students’ use of newly taught vocabulary in writing. p.673 

  • Considering the more limited vocabulary levels of many LM learners, vocabulary instruction for LM learners must; 1) target students’ language skills not only more intensively, but also more broadly. 2) give these language minority students more opportunities, both incidental and structured, to hear and use academic language than native English speakers. 3) specifically target the development of word consciousness and of word learning strategies to help LM learners catch up with monolingual English speakers. 4)  be presented in meaningful, engaging contexts that are not only relevant to students’ interests (e.g., Carlo et al., 2004) but that also serve to bolster their overall background knowledge. 5) ensure that students are provided with opportunities to actively use newly taught vocabulary, both orally and in writing. p.675

  • The goal of WG (word generation) is to increase students’ academic vocabulary, in an effort to improve literacy outcomes. The following components are emphasized: (1) building vocabulary knowledge through repeated exposure to frequently occurring academic words in various contexts, (2) cultivating general word and world  knowledge, as well as word study strategies, and (3) engaging students in weekly persuasive writing.

  • Another central component of every WG lesson to build students’ academic vocabulary is classroom talk. Aside from improving students’ vocabulary knowledge, the promotion of classroom discussion and talk also aims to support the development of students’ reasoning and their ability to express their reasoning. Thus the following are key features of the WG intervention: revoicing by the teacher (i.e., repeating a student’s utterance with the purpose of checking back with them for clearer interpretation of their statement or position), student repetition (i.e., having other students repeat or paraphrase another student’s position in order to check on their interpretation of the statement), asking students to debate (i.e., giving students opportunities to agree and disagree and having them state and make clear their reasoning), and partner talk (i.e., giving students who are less inclined to join whole group discussions the opportunity to talk with a partner to ensure that all students are on the same page). p.678

  • Finally, the end-of-week writing activity  is essential to WG, because the goal is to make writing an integral part of the vocabulary program, such that students have the opportunity to compose a short piece based on the controversial topic they have discussed all week. This provides yet another means of allowing students to express their thoughts and opinions. For LM learners, in particular, writing serves as a nonthreatening way to express their views. Additionally, the incorporation of a weekly writing component aims to provide students the opportunity to explore the use of newly taught vocabulary in their writing, which is critical to cultivate deeper learning of the words. p.679

  • Because vocabulary knowledge is cumulative, greater instructional attention to vocabulary is needed starting in and continuing well beyond the primary grades. 

  • This pilot study suggests that sustained vocabulary instruction, not short-term interventions, are needed and that purposeful activities that provide students with authentic contexts to learn and productively use newly taught words are integral components of effective vocabulary instruction.  pp 690,691 

Reflection: Application of learnt academic vocabulary knowledge needs to be practised through speaking and writing in order to be ‘owned’ and used by the students.  In fact, use of newly taught words in writing suggests that the words are at least partially in students’ lexicons. Further, it was encouraging to find that students used target words from previous weeks in their essays. Not surprisingly, a greater number of past target words were used during the final 10 weeks of the intervention. A key implication—highlighting the fact that students need opportunities to use newly taught words—is that it will take time for students to internalize the newly taught words before they are willing or able to productively use them in writing. p.688 

Extending Children’s Vocabulary and Comprehension through Oral and Visual Literacy -Victoria Cochrane

Questions:  What impact does a child’s existing vocabulary have on their comprehension of text without pictures? How do pictures help children to construct meaning?

The activity – Students worked in pairs. They were given a piece of text from Jeannie Baker’s Hidden Forest, before they had read the book, before working with the vocabulary and seeing the illustrations. They were asked to draw a picture of what they thought the text was representing. The story was then read twice with the students comparing what they had drawn with the text. Finally they were given the opportunity to redraw their pictures using the book as a reference. 

The original purpose of the lesson was to act as a visual literacy lesson, but Victoria Cochrane noticed that it was also valuable for comprehension using oral language. From it she could see how the children, as readers make meaning using all their pre-existing knowledge of words, sounds and concepts.  


Visual Literacy – ‘the ability to construct meaning from visual images’ (Giorgis, Johnson, Bonomo, Colbort et al., 1999, in Bamford, 2003, p. 146).

Words, sentences and paragraphs are not our only tools for  literacy. We also have speaking, drawing or gestures. Because oral language is needed for literacy and learning, a deficit in spoken or receptive language will affect a child’s academic growth across all learning areas. 

Text is not just written it can be anything with which we make meaning. Books, websites, videos, even smiles and gestures can be thought of as texts. p.23

How children make meaning

The activity described was used by the writer as a tool for teaching reading comprehension. They made meaning by:

  1. Generalising about what they didn’t know from what they already knew. 
  2. Using their prior knowledge and experience.
  3. Using their repertoire of language/ vocabulary.
  4. Examining the illustrations for clues as to what is happening. 

Without any of the points above no meaning was made at all. This could give us clues as to why our students struggle to make meaning from text. 

What can we learn from this activity? Don’t make too many assumptions! 

We cannot assume that

  • our students have the background knowledge, experiences or language that we expect of a certain age. 
  • they understand everything we are talking about. 
  • they are able to visualise what is being spoken about.
  • they know the vocabulary being used and use word associations to comprehend. 
  • students can make the connections independently between the text and their background knowledge.

Emergent and visual learners rely on visual information to make meaning

We can’t assume that students can make meaning from words, spoken or written alone. When introducing new concepts our students need visuals like pictures and diagrams to help them to make meaning and help give the context. 

How can this activity be used in the classroom?

Choose your texts carefully. Even the simplest of contexts and words may not be familiar to our students which makes independent work very difficult. Texts need to be detailed in their description to allow for visualisation but without too much text. The topics need to be interesting to the students but not too far removed to be unfamiliar. Jeannie Baker’s books match these criteria.  


We need to know our students in order to extend their prior knowledge of the world and language, using visualisation to help them to make meaning from print. Lessons need to be structured so that the language in the classroom empowers our students to learn. We cannot make assumptions about their understandings. 


When we design the vocabulary lessons around the Science Unit for Lina Taweil’s Stage 2/3 class we need to take into consideration the diverse abilities of her students. Some are newly arrived in Australia this year with no English, others are Australian born students who are struggling readers and others are NESB with limited vocabulary. For this reason we must use visuals for any learning. We can use videos, rich multimodal texts and actual hands-on learning for the experiments that we are conducting. We can’t make any assumptions about their prior knowledge of content or vocabulary. 

Chapter 2 Vocabulary Assessment to Support Instruction : Building Rich Word-Learning Experiences – McKeown, Margaret G., et al. 

A New Perspective for Thinking About Vocabulary 

Vocabulary definition – (Merriam-Webster, 2004) 

  • a list or collection of words or of words and phrases usually alphabetically arranged and explained or defined.  
  • a sum or stock of words employed by a language, group, individual, or work or in a field of knowledge.

In this chapter, we offer a new perspective on vocabulary that highlights the extent to which effective vocabulary knowledge comprises knowledge of language patterns, structures, and properties that go across words. We discuss: three generative patterns, morphology, syntax, and semantics; the influence of context on word learning; systematic properties of words and of multiword phrases; and the importance of metacognitive aspects of vocabulary knowledge. We conclude by examining the role of dictionaries in vocabulary learning, showing why, given the patterns and properties of words covered in the rest of the chapter, dictionaries are inadequate for the task. p.9

The Word-Learning Burden

The size of vocabulary has an impact on how much a person can learn. To be ready for University a modest estimate of vocabulary required is between 14 – 20,000 root words. As children move through school their vocabulary grows. At first their vocabulary bank is deposited into by oral language and starts at about 3 000 in the first year of school, climbing to about 7 500 root words in the fifth year. (This does not include all the morphological extensions of these words) 

In the fourth year of school students begin to learn words through reading text which is different from the vocabulary used in everyday speech both in quality and amount.  Words that characterize written language tend to be abstract, without concrete referents in the physical world. Thus learning them relies on language itself rather than familiar surroundings. The total number of words is significantly larger, but most words are much, much rarer (Leech & Rayson, 2014). p. 10 If a word is encountered every million words read, then it may only be encountered once or twice over ten years. 

Complexities of Word Learning

Even though we learn many words its not the number that makes learning difficult but the complexity of our language. The pronunciation is not consistent and can depend on context and the spelling is not always phonetic. Added to this there is the problem of morphemes (changing prefixes and suffixes), polysemy (same word with related meanings but used in different ways), homonyms (same word with totally unrelated meanings) and combining words to make new words. Sometimes we use words but cannot explicitly explain their meanings and sometimes we can explain what a word means but not how to use it. We learn words through the structure of English as it would be too hard to learn every word individually. 

Structural Regularities of Language 

One’s knowledge about vocabulary through the structural regularities and predictable patterns is called their lexicon.

Thus people do not learn words in isolation; they learn them in the context of larger linguistic patterns. These include:

Morphological patterns (word families) —how words are formed from their constituent parts.

Syntactic patterns (grammatical constructions) —how words are fitted into a sentence (Goldberg, 1995a, 1995b).

Semantic patterns (polysemy) —how word meanings are extended to further describe situations and senses. (p. 12)

Some students come to school making sense of these language patterns whereas others start out with smaller English vocabularies, less tacit knowledge of academic language, and less metacognitive knowledge that could help them leverage what they already know. If we want to help these students, we must be sensitive to the structure of vocabulary knowledge and provide instruction that helps students understand this structure. p.12 

Tacit Knowledge of Generative Patterns

Generative patterns help us to work out ambiguities. We look at the context, the surrounding words and use our background knowledge to work out which meaning a word has in a particular setting.  

1. Morphological Patterns (Word Families) 

The ability to use morphology to recognise new words is helpful when learning academic language. We can take a root word e.g. ready to make readying, readied, unready, readiness and to work out from the knowledge of the root word ready, and the surrounding words in the sentencewhat newly made words mean.  The suffixes and prefixes can then be recognised and this learning transferred to other new words.

2. Syntactic Patterns

The regular patterns of the way words are combined helps us to interpret word meaning. Even in the instance of nonsense words like Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

We know from morphology and syntax that slithy, mimsy,  and mome  are adjectives— and we know that brillig  describes an environmental condition such as time of day (Lewis’s intended meaning), that toves  are living, moving creatures, and that a wabe  is a place, and so on. p.15

Another pattern for word combination is multi word patterns. These include; compound nouns – softball, matchstick, redhead; phrasal verbs – break up, call back, look out:  and idioms – slip your mind, kick the bucket, hit the road. Apparently these multi word patterns comprise of about 25% of the English vocabulary. 

3. Semantic Patterns  (Polysemy)

Polysemy— multiple but related meanings of the same word— exhibits regular patterns by which we extend word meanings, such as door meaning either a physical door or a doorway. These kinds of patterns fall into three major categories:

1. Metonymy,  which is using the name of an object or concept to refer to a related object, such as referring to a businessperson as a suit .

2. Metaphor,  in which concepts from one domain are applied to a different domain by analogy, such as consume,  having a literal meaning of “use up,” being applied more abstractly, such as to something that consumes attention. Such systems of conceptual metaphor play a key role in language (Gibbs, 2006; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). For instance, words relevant to war  have extended senses that apply to the domain of argumentation: he attacked their position; she demolished the argument; the criticism was right on target; they shot down everything I said .

3. Specialization (or generalization),  where a word is applied more narrowly or more loosely than before. For instance, the word alien  (meaning foreign or strange) has specialized meanings in which it means a noncitizen (i.e., foreigners and resident aliens), or in which it can mean a being from another planet. (pp. 16,17) 

General Discussion of Generative Patterns

1. Interaction between different forms of generative knowledge 

  • Research suggests that teaching how these patterns interact rather than teaching them in isolation is more productive. Bowers, Kirby, and Deacon

    (2010) found that teaching about morphology is more effective when embedded in broader literacy instruction. p.18

  • Patterns for morphology and polysemy occur for multiword expressions as well as individual words. 

    Prefixes and suffixes can display homonymy or polysemy. In-  can be used in the sense “not” (inappropriate ) or “in” (inside, inpatient ). De-  can be used to mean “remove” (debone ) or “reduce” (devalue ). The suffix -er  can be used to refer to a person who performs an action (teach/teacher ) or to a thing used to carry the action out (toast/toaster ).p.18 

    We see the same types of polysemy with multiword expressions that we do with individual words. For instance:

    Milky Way : either a type of candy bar, or the galaxy we live in (homonymy— very different).

    Garbage collector : either a person who picks up the trash, or a computer program that recycles memory that is no longer being used (metaphor).

    New York : either a location or a political entity (systematic polysemy). (p. 18)

  • If teachers and students discuss these patterns its hoped that the students’ metalinguistic awareness will increase and that they will develop strategies for learning words and their reading comprehension will therefore improve. 

2. Tacit Generative Patterns and Incidental Word Learning 

Swanborn and de Glopper’s (1999) meta- analysis of incidental word- learning studies indicates that, for most students, acquisition of new vocabulary is incremental and partial, with proficient students typically learning enough to pass a test on approximately 15% of the new words they encounter during reading. (p. 19) Evidence suggests that these students are able to do this because they have developed a strong linguistic knowledge that helps them to work out the meanings of the words they read. 

The Importance of Context in Instruction and Assessment 

Even though its recognised that when we learn vocabulary naturally its not done in isolation, we persist in teaching lists of words without any context. We are meant to work out how context and words work together on our own, without any assistance. Even better than learning a word in context is to meet it multiple times in different contexts to learn how to use context for deciphering word meaning. Adding definitions while doing so adds greater meaning. Learners who love reading for pleasure are often coming across unknown words and using context to decipher them by themselves, but those who are not as motivated need their teachers to provide these opportunities. No one has measured the impact of learning to on the ability to learn new words on the ability to understand what is being read. 

Specific Knowledge of Words and Phrases

How do we know when someone has fully mastered the understanding of a word? We can imply that they know if they can: 

  • pronounce it correctly with the appropriate emphasis on the syllables and knowing what it rhymes with. 
  • spell it.
  • describe how many meanings it has and if more than one, if and how they relate to one another. 
  • for each meaning – 

    -Its syntactic category or part of speech (e.g., noun or verb).

    -Its syntactic subcategories, such as the distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs (i.e., verbs with or without a direct object) or between count and mass nouns (droplets vs. water).

    -Its component morphemes (thus disintegration contains the root integr-, the prefix dis-, the [compound] suffix -ation).

    -How it is related to other words from the same word family (as disintegration is related to integral, integrate, and disintegrate).

    -Any idiom, collocation (e.g., strong tea but not powerful tea), or multiword expression (e.g., hot dog but not warm dog) in which it commonly appears.

    -Its register— for instance, adolescent is more academic than teenager, and insect is more academic than bug.

    -Its connotations— for instance, steadfast has a positive connotation. Stubborn is negative, but not as negative as pigheaded.

    -The major semantic category to which it belongs (e.g., a convertible is a car, from which we can infer other category memberships such as a convertible is a vehicle; a convertible is a physical object).

    -Other semantic relationships between words (e.g., a car has a motor; people drive or ride in a car; most cars have four wheels). This includes a variety of relationships such as antonyms: hot is the opposite of cold.

    -Selectional preferences (e.g., the object of the verb to drink should denote something liquid).

    -Other semantic constraints (e.g., corpse is used with people, and carcass with animals). (p. 21)

    (If this is the case then we have our work cut out for us to teach words well)

Metalinguistic and Metacognitive Awareness of Words and their Properties

Metalinguistic knowledge –refers specifically to understandings about language, such as awareness of how words work in English and the ability to reflect on and manipulate that awareness.

Metacognitive knowledge embodies the use of general cognitive processes involving strategic and procedural knowledge. (Nagy, 2007; Nagy & Scott, 2000). p 22 e.g if a word is appropriate in a certain context. 

When meeting unknown words a reader must use all their knowledge and the clues to work out what the meaning could possibly be. The more knowledge at the disposal of the reader the easier the task and the more accurate the result. 

The Role of Dictionaries in Vocabulary Learning 

Dictionaries are the standard vocabulary resource used by teachers, students, professionals, and the general public. They are deeply embedded in our culture, but their successful use requires very high levels of metalinguistic awareness. In fact, dictionaries were not created to teach word meanings. Dictionaries were created to catalog the words in the language for the purpose of reference but not instruction per se (Landau, 1984). p. 24

Miller and Gildea (1985) examined how students used dictionary definitions and observed that students typically ignored grammatical information, looked at the wrong meaning of a word (or even a different definition entirely), and tended to extract only part of the information in a definition while ignoring other components that were necessary for correct comprehension and production. p.27 

In order to use a dictionary the user needs the necessary metalinguistic knowledge to decipher which meaning and description is appropriate for their purpose. Using a dictionary effectively is far more challenging than learning words in rich contexts where the learner can build incrementally on their metacognitive and metalinguistic knowledge.  

Final Thoughts

The default “commonsense” understandings of vocabulary that most people bring with them to teaching may fail to address the importance of tacit understandings and systemic regularities, and may underestimate the work needed to develop metalinguistic awareness and support the use of metacognitive strategies in word learning. p.28 


This chapter has certainly shown that there is more to ‘knowing’ a word than we think and that dictionaries are not the ideal ‘go to’ tool for learning new words. As we teach new words to our students we will need to ‘grow’ our metalinguistic and metacognitive knowledge of our target vocabulary in order to teach these skills to our students. 

Vocabulary – Annette Bayetto

What is vocabulary and why is it important?

Vocabulary knowledge is fundamental to being an independent and successful reader and writer and is comprised of the words that are understood when heard or read. p.1 

Annette talks about the links between early vocabulary development and later academic success and then goes on to explain the three tiers of words that students should come to know. Tier 1 being the basic words of everyday conversation, for most students though EAL/D students will need to be taught them. Tier 2 words are those used to embellish or emphasise (for example, adjectives and adverbs). These words are able to be used in a range of contexts and may have multiple meanings. Tier 2 words are important for listening and reading comprehension. p.1 Tier 3 words are those specific words used in subjects like Maths, Science and History. They are not everyday words. 


Links with comprehension

Vocabulary knowledge predicts comprehension ability which is of huge importance as students move through the grades and reading becomes more technical, lexically dense and learning through reading is necessary. A broad vocabulary allows students to have language with which to think, discuss and process ideas from readings. It is those who have a wider richer vocabulary who read more and who gain an even greater vocabulary. Our English language learners are also at a disadvantage to understand what they are reading when they may only know one meaning of a word that actually has a different meaning for different contexts.  

Factors that influence vocabulary development

1. Having opportunities, apart from everyday interactions, to use language to discuss experiences, emotions, visuals and text with a range of people. 

2.Hearing texts being read aloud with time spent clarifying meanings of words that may not be fully understood. 

3.Many opportunities for reading practice of both fiction and non-fiction texts. 

4.Building general knowledge about the world to extend understandings and vocabulary.

5.Understanding a word’s multiple meanings in different situations, contexts or when said with different intonations. e.g sarcasm

6.Reading the same word in multiple texts to gain a full understanding of its use and meaning. 

7.Teachers who are enthusiastic about words and play with words and language. 

8.Allocating specific instruction time to vocabulary (10 minutes a day)

9.Systematic and explicit instruction of vocabulary to ensure take-up of new words.

10.Making connections between words by teaching semantic clusters and word families. 

11.How to use support when meanings of words are not known e.g. glossaries 

12.Scaffolding interactions to use focus vocabulary words so students become used to using them and can add them to the bank of words they really know. 

13.Giving explicit instruction about suffixes and prefixes and how they change the tense or meaning of a word. 

14.Giving students strategies for how to learn new words by themselves so they can continue acquiring new vocabulary independently.

How and when do students really ‘know’ a word?

To really understand a word, students should be able to independently explain its meaning/s, give examples of non-meanings (this is often interesting to do using humour), talk about connections with other words or, as is possible, to work it out using context, and to confidently use it orally across learning areas. p.2

What words and how many words to teach?

The problem is that most of the levelled ‘readers’ used to teach reading and words chosen for phonic approaches to teaching words are not the Tier 2 words needed for academic reading. Also, it is not possible to anticipate and directly teach every word a child will come across in their reading. Marzano has a collection of words, but words can be found in rich texts read aloud to the class. 5-7 words is the recommended number. These need to be engaged with in meaningful learning activities over each week and beyond, for the students to remember them and know when and where they can be used. 

Instructional approaches

1. Marzano (2010, p.23) Six Step Learning ProcessAssociative learning experiences        a) Description, example & explanation of new term given by teacher b) Students restate explanation in their own words c) students represent the term in a non-linguistic way    d) Students engage in activities that add to their knowledge of the new term. e) Students are asked to discuss the terms with each other over a time f)  Students play games using the words. 

2. Vocabulary notebooks – a place for students to keep their own new vocabulary and those taught in class. Time could be given each day for students to teach a new word from their notebook to another student. 

3. Focus words for the week –  From the books being chosen for reading aloud take 5-7 useful Tier 2 words for instruction that can be explained using student-friendly language. p.3

4. Word parts – Each week put up a root word e.g. graph (photograph, seismograph, graphic) that can be built upon. Anyone in the school community or class can add to it. 

5.  Word sorts – Students are given a cluster of words on cards. They have to sort them into groups, justify their choices. Students then choose words to use in writing or to speak about. 

6. Word of the day – A word is chosen for each day. Students note when spoken by teacher. If teacher forgets to use it students can remind teacher or give teacher a definition or suggest a way it may be used. 

7. Graffiti wall – a word is written in the middle and students add to the ‘wall’ with homonyms, the word with affixes or prefixes, different tenses of the word, antonyms, synonyms etc. 

8. Teachers model –  ‘think alouds’, looking at glossaries, using context clues, looking at words and paragraphs around, thinking about the context … 

9. Games – Make games using words based on commercial games and games on television. 

10. Shades and strengths of meaning – Use paint sample cards to show relative strength of words Vocabulary paint chips.  Semantic gradients..

11. Word Map – Semantic mapping – see Paul Dufficy- Cloze Encounters 

12.Concept clusters – Give students a collection of words and see if they can find or say a word that that encompasses them all – e.g. polygon – square, rectangle triangle (can do reverse) 

13. Word Thoughts – To confirm students’ understandings of wordsthey predict how certain words chosen from a text may be used, based on front cover information and/or illustrations, before reading. 

14.  Generative Lists – In pairs, students over a few days build up lists of words with a minimum number of ? that have the same letter in them  in the same place in the word e.g.  r as third letter – farm, germ, permanent, burrow … Students must be able to use tham and explain their meanings. 

15. Stem sentences –  Students are given the beginnings of sentences that contain focus words that they must complete in a way that shows they understand what the word means. 

16. Possible Sentences –  Write sentences using focus words. The sentences may or may not make sense using these words. Students have to say if they are the correct use of the words. If not they have to make up sentences that show the words’ correct usage. 

17. Have you ever?  Ask students to respond to questions using focus words using their own experiences e.g. When was a time you felt gloomy/ fortunate/ ecstatic? 

18. Making Choices – e.g Say the word grateful if any of these statements would make you feel grateful. a) Your friend makes you a cake b) Your friend forgets your birthday 

19. Card compositions – Write focus words on separate cards. Two cards are chosen to be used in sentences. A further challenge could be relating the words to a certain text. 

20. Visuword Online Graphical Dictionary. – gives words that are in any way connected to the word nominated. 


This article summed up many of the findings of the other readings. It has a wealth of practical ideas for ways to engage students in using and owning the focus vocabulary being taught. 

That’s all folks!

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