Research Synthesis: Vocabulary Instruction K-12
A large and rich vocabulary is the hallmark of an educated individual. It is the belief of the North Allegheny English Language Arts Department that providing effective vocabulary instruction is a high priority. Numerous studies have shown that robust instruction is quite effective not only for learning the meanings of words but also for affecting reading comprehension (Nagy). This robust instruction must be vigorous, strong, powerful, in effect at all grade levels, and must involve directly explaining the meanings of words along with thought-provoking, interactive follow-up.
It is obvious that not all words in the English language require this robust approach. In their book Bringing Words To Life, Beck and McKeown divide vocabulary words into three tiers. Tier one consists of the most basic words such as clock, baby, happy, and walk. Words in this tier rarely require instructional attention. Tier three is comprised of words whose frequency of use is quite low or limited to specific domains. Some examples might be isotope, lathe, peninsula, and refinery. In general, a rich understanding of these words would not be of high utility for most learners. Tier two contains words that are of high frequency for mature language users and are found across a variety of domains. Examples include coincidence, absurd, industrious, and fortunate. A rich knowledge of these words can have a powerful impact on verbal functioning. Thus, instruction directed toward Tier two words is the most productive.
Just as important as the words selected for study are the instructional strategies used to introduce and develop vocabulary. Robust instruction includes instruction that is frequent, rich, and extended (Blachowicz). To increase the frequency that a student encounters the words, students should be introduced to about ten words per week with activities around them daily. Rich instruction is defined as instruction that goes beyond definitional information to get students actively involved in using and thinking about word meanings and creating associations among words. Having students create uses for a word is important to ensure that the word is an active part of their vocabulary. Teachers must be trained on the specific activities that support these instructional strategies for robust instruction to occur.
Though the District has utilized a systematic vocabulary program for decades in grades 7 – 12, this program (Sadlier-Oxford’s Vocabulary Workshop) does not support the findings of the experts in the field (Beck, Perfetti, McKeown, Omanson, & Opple, 1985). During the implementation phase of this Review, the Curriculum Review Team recommends a systematic process for the selection of Tier two words for each grade level or course. The resources will be a combination of materials from the recommended anthology series combined with activities from Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction and Creating Robust Vocabulary by Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan. This standard set of materials will be provided to every teacher of English/Reading in the district and will become a required part of the curriculum.