Vocabulary

What is vocabulary?

Vocabulary refers to the words we must know and understand to communicate effectively. It is the knowledge of words and word meanings. Reading vocabulary refers to words we recognise or use in print. The words we need to know to understand what we read.

Why is vocabulary important for reading instruction?

Vocabulary plays an important role in word recognition. A student is more likely to be able to read a word if they find a match between the word on the page and a word they have learnt through listening and speaking. This also supports them to read related words.

Vocabulary is also the key to reading comprehension. Readers cannot understand what they are reading without knowing what most of the words mean. As children learn to read more advanced texts, they must learn the meaning of new words that are not part of their oral vocabulary.

Dr Deslea Konza says that the number and variety of words that children know in the preschool and initial years of schooling, is a significant predictor of reading comprehension in the middle and secondary years of schooling and of broader academic and vocational success.

Watch Dr Deslea Konza speak about vocabulary.

Dr Deslea Konza on vocabulary in children


How to teach vocabulary

Almost all children are experienced users of language when they begin school, but reading requires more complex, and often more abstract vocabulary than that used in everyday interactions. Developing a vocabulary is an incremental process in which there are degrees of knowing words.

It is not possible to directly teach the meaning of every single word that a student will encounter in reading. An important consideration involves how to choose the words.

The three-tiered model of vocabulary development, described by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2013) is a framework to classify words. Isabel Beck’s distinctions among three types or tiers of vocabulary words are very helpful in making choices of specific vocabulary to teach.

Tier 2 words appear more frequently in text than in oral language, so children are less likely to learn them without assistance.

In this video, Jessica Venables explains how teaching tier 2 words adds precision by providing new ways to express concepts that are already understood and that these words require explicit teaching as they may not be part of children’s everyday oral language.

Teaching tier 2 words


When considering what we want our students to learn we must also have an understanding that as vocabulary learners the knowledge of words will include the morphology of words, being word conscious and knowing the meanings or semantics of a word and that they can use words in context – so the relationships to other words. It is important to keep this in mind during our planning.

Although a great deal of vocabulary is learnt indirectly some vocabulary should be taught explicitly.

This video provides an example of how explicit instruction helps students learn new words that are not part of their everyday experiences.

Explicit instruction of vocabulary


Dr Deslea Konza recognises that word lists, the use of dictionaries and putting words into sentences are traditional ways of teaching vocabulary, but this is not sufficient for students who need to build vocabulary and Dr Konza recommends these strategies for vocabulary development:

  1. build vocabulary instruction into everyday routines
  2. select the best words to teach
  3. explicitly teach new words
  4. teach students to use contextual strategies
  5. teach the use of graphic organisers.


Professional learning

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