Science of Reading: Vocabulary - What EdLeaders Should Know

Science of Reading: Vocabulary Graphic


In the first episode of this series on the EdLeader podcast, I spent time introducing the Science of Reading. If you have not listened to that episode, I would like to encourage you to spend a few moments with it as it grounds the series and undergirds the deconstruction of Reading Comprehension that I am attempting. If you are looking for that episode, it is episode 69 on the EdLeader playlist.

Previous episodes in the Science of Reading series have focused on the strands of fluency, background knowledge, sight word recognition, verbal reasoning, literacy knowledge, decoding, language structures, and phonological awareness. With this episode, we finish deconstructing the reading rope.

Today, I am pulling out the strand of vocabulary. 

Before focusing on this episode’s topic, let’s reflect on the foundation for this series. 

The Science of Reading is undergirded by theories of how students learn to read and comprehend text. At the very basic level is the Simple View of Reading Theory which states that there are two elements that combine to result in Reading Comprehension. The Simple View of Reading formula states:

Decoding x Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension

From this grew “Scarborough's Reading Rope” as conceived by Dr. Hollis S. Scarborough. Dr. Scarborough believed that the elements of Word Recognition and the elements of Language Comprehension all weave together into the rope of Reading Comprehension. Just like a true rope, the more strands present and the stronger each strand is, the stronger the rope is.

The strands of Word Recognition include Decoding, Phonological Awareness, and Sight Word Recognition.

The strands of Language Comprehension include background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge.

In this podcast series, my goal is to pull apart the individual strands of reading comprehension and build our shared understanding of what EdLeaders need to know about learning to read.

So metaphorically, we grab Scarborough’s reading rope and separate the strands of Word Recognition and Language Comprehension. Within the Language Comprehension strands, we find the strand that is the topic for today’s episode, Vocabulary.

It is not lost on me that when we hear the names of some of the Reading Rope strands we may think that we know exactly what the strand entails. Today’s strand, “vocabulary” is just like that. I am sure that just about every student who has ever attended school or sought to learn from a teacher has had to learn vocabulary. For me, this brings up memories of flashcards made with index cards and markers and endless hours sitting on my bed quizzing myself on the meanings written on the back of each card. How about you? Do you recall staring at the ceiling while grasping a flashcard desperately trying to pull the elusive memory from the air?

Hannah Dieter and Tanisha Washington writing on the Great Minds blog said, “In Scarborough’s Reading Rope, the Vocabulary strand refers to the quantity and quality of a student’s known words. To comprehend challenging texts, students need a wealth of vocabulary knowledge.”

It makes sense to me that when students know more words, they can comprehend more.

In the previous episode on “Background Knowledge,” I said, “Children with less background knowledge were not able to comprehend the text at the same levels as students with more background knowledge.” This is equally true of vocabulary. Children with less vocabulary knowledge, i.e. those who knew fewer words, were not able to comprehend the text at the same levels as students with more vocabulary knowledge or those who simply knew more words.

I really like the way that the Braintrust Tutors website explains the importance of vocabulary as a strand in Scarborough’s Reading Rope. They eloquently state, “Vocabulary is an undervalued asset. The richer a person’s vocabulary, the richer his or her thinking. We will only be able to communicate what our vocabulary allows. Therefore, if our vocabulary is limited, our communication will be limited as well.” 

Gaps in knowledge, whether referred to as achievement gaps or opportunity gaps tend to continue throughout a student’s educational journey. This does not have to be the case for vocabulary.  Dr. E. D. Hirsch Jr., a professor emeritus of humanities at the University of Virginia, states that “vocabulary is a plant of slow growth.” When educators intentionally support the growth of vocabulary knowledge through the use of a high-quality curriculum, they are planting seeds that can close the gap between students. 

Professors Cunningham and Stanovich have shared three research-based ways teachers can increase students’ vocabulary knowledge:

  1. Use conceptually coherent text sets. A conceptually coherent text set is a group of texts that are sequenced to build students’ understanding of the deeply related knowledge and concepts within the texts. 

  2. Focus on the volume of reading. Volume of reading refers to the amount, quality, and frequency of students’ reading, including classroom texts and independent reading selections. Cunningham and Stanovich draw the conclusion from several of their own studies that once students learn to read, the act of reading is the quickest way to learn new vocabulary because words used in written texts are rarer and more specific than words used in spoken language (1). Engaging students in frequent reading implicitly grows their word knowledge.

I’ll pause here to highlight an EdLeader two-episode conversation I had with Stephanie Harvey and Annie Ward on the volume of reading as a strategy. If you are looking for those episodes, they are episodes 66 and 67 on the EdLeader playlist.

  1. The third research-based way teachers can increase students’ vocabulary knowledge is through conducting direct instruction. Providing knowledge-building texts and reading instruction offers a base for developing students’ word knowledge. 

Perhaps it goes without saying, even though I am saying it now, that the more words a student knows, the better they’ll be able to engage in conversation with others as they will know what the words they hear mean. 

The word, “lexicon” is a fancy word that I learned in my undergraduate work. The Oxford Dictionary defines “lexicon” as “the vocabulary of a person, language, or branch of knowledge.” I learned about lexicons as we discussed how the language we use in various situations changes depending on the context. The words I use around my buddies while watching a ballgame (Keep Pounding! Go Panthers!) are different than the language I use at work. I am not referring to adult words or cursing, I am really talking about the formality of the language I use. We deploy a different lexicon in different situations.

Pulling that back to today’s topic, imagine the student who grows up in an impoverished household where fewer words are used and the vocabulary is limited. Without careful, intentional vocabulary instruction, that student might be limited in potential future opportunities if they lack the words to access a professional conversation.

An increased vocabulary allows students to access more texts. If we are deciding if a book is right for a student based on how many words the student struggles with, then the more words a student knows means the more books they will be able to read. The more they read, the stronger their comprehension skills grow. 

It is also true that students with a larger vocabulary are better able to express themselves. More words in my internal word bank gives me more choices in what I say allowing me to be more exactly say or write what it is that I am thinking.

As I read on Braintrust, “A broader vocabulary almost always translates invariably to a more effective manner of communicating.”

Building vocabulary knowledge is important to help students be better communicators, help them access more text, and increase their own expressiveness.

Recently, one of our district’s 45 principals, Brad Johnson, principal of West Buncombe Elementary School, was presenting to all of our elementary and intermediate principals on how his school had such great academic growth on last year’s state assessments. One of the specific strategies he discussed was explicit vocabulary instruction. He shared that the school has a word of the day that is shared in the morning on the announcements with all students and staff. Teachers in each classroom then teach the word to students with the goal that each student will correctly use the word in speech and/or writing at least five times each day. Throughout the day, students are asked in hallways, in the lunchroom, and at recess about the word of the day. Imagine students waiting in line in the hallway when the principal walks by and asks them what the word of the day is as they are being greeted. A “hello” in the hallway becomes a teaching and learning moment as explicit vocabulary instruction occurs in this quick exchange. This practice is simple and yet, very powerful. 

Dr. Robert Marzano, author of “The Art and Science of Teaching,” is one of the most well-known educational researchers in the United States. He developed a Six Step Process for Teaching Academic Vocabulary:

1. Provide a description, explanation, or example of the new term. For students who are not native English speakers, a non-linguistic representation of the term should be included.

2. Ask students to restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words. Students whose primary existing knowledge base is still in their native language should be allowed to write the description in their native language.

3. Ask students to construct a picture, symbol, or graphic representing the word. 

4. Engage students periodically in activities that help them add to their knowledge of the terms in their notebooks.

5. Periodically ask students to discuss the terms with one another. Allow in native language when appropriate for students who are not native English speakers. 

6. Involve students periodically in games that allow them to play with terms.

Dr. Marzano wrote about this six-step process for ASCD, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. The heading for his description is “They Won’t Forget the Crocodile’s Teeth.” He wrote,

“Teachers use the first three steps when introducing a term to students. For example, assume a teacher is introducing the term mutualism. Instead of offering a textbook definition, the teacher describes the term or tells an anecdote that illustrates its meaning (Step 1). The teacher might explain that the crocodile and a bird called the Egyptian plover have a relationship that exemplifies mutualism. The crocodile opens its mouth and invites the plover to stand inside. The plover picks things out of the crocodile's teeth. Both parties benefit: The plover gets fed; the croc gets its teeth cleaned. While explaining this relationship, the teacher might show students images found on the Internet.”

He then goes on to describe how the students discuss the word mutualism in their own words, giving their own examples and drawing a picture to illustrate the concept. He goes on to describe how the students and the teacher work through steps 4 through six.

In over 50 research studies on this method, at the time of his writing, Dr. Marzano found that “these studies have taught us several things about this six-step strategy. First, the strategy works at every grade level, from kindergarten to high school. Second, it works better if you use all the steps without leaving any out.”

He ends the article by stating, “It's safe to conclude that it can be a powerful tool that teachers can use in classrooms at any grade level and in any subject area.”

So for a quick review of the six-step process, the teacher provides a description, explanation, or example of the term. The students give a linguistic definition where they restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words. The students then create a nonlinguistic definition by constructing a picture, pictograph, or symbolic representation, or by acting out the word. In the fourth step, the teacher extends and refines understanding of the word by engaging students in activities that help them add to their knowledge of the terms in vocabulary notebooks. Through the coming days, the teacher periodically asks students to discuss the terms with one another. Finally, students engage in games that enable them to play with the terms and reinforce word knowledge.

As Dieter and Washington have shared, “Vocabulary instruction grounded in knowledge-rich, coherent text sets and volume of reading has the potential to close significant gaps between students who enter school with varying word wealth. When this instruction begins in kindergarten and continues to build throughout students’ education, the slow-growing plant of vocabulary becomes repeatedly fortified. Educators must plant the seeds of vocabulary instruction as early as possible and then care for the steady growth over time of vocabulary knowledge by using a coherent, knowledge-building curriculum”:


1. A Wealth of Words: The Key to Increasing Upward Mobility is Expanding Vocabulary by Dr. E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

2. Examining Scarborough’s Rope: Vocabulary by Hannah Dieter and Tanisha Washington

3. Scarborough’s Rope Model of Reading by Evelyn Reiss

4. The Art and Science of Teaching/Six Steps to Better Vocabulary Instruction by Dr. Robert Marzano

5. What Reading Does for The Mind by Anne E. Cunningham and Keith E. Stanovich

Other Episodes in the Science of Reading EdLeader Podcast Series


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