How lack of vocabulary stymies reading comprehension

Three superior ways of acquiring new vocabulary were found by the National Reading Technical Assistance in 2010.  They are

  • Higher frequency of exposure to targeted vocabulary words
  • Explicit instruction of words and their meanings
  • Questioning and language engagement

child with adult helping to read

Working with children daily, I see firsthand how a lack of vocabulary stymies their efforts to comprehend what they read.  For example, in the past week, a fourth grader reading aloud to me

  • pronounced “archaeological” as “architectural” and didn’t realizing his mistake.
  • did not know the meaning of the word “bid” as it was used in the passage. When I questioned him further, he admitted not knowing any meanings of that word.
  • did not know the meaning of “ancestral.” Questioning him showed me he did know what “ancestor” means.  When I pointed out that the roots of “ancestral” and “ancestor” are the same, he was able to figure out “ancestral.”
  • did not know the meaning of “interwoven.” Questioning showed me he did not know what “weave” means.  When I explained “weave” and “interwoven,” he still had no idea what “interwoven” meant in the passage because it was being used as a metaphor.
  • could not pronounce or understand “initial” used as an adjective. When I pronounced it, he still had no idea.  When I reminded him about the initials of his name, he recognized the word, but had no idea what it meant in context.  I explained that initials are the first letters in his name, and that “initial” in context meant “beginning” or “first.”  Then he understood.
  • could not pronounce or understand “notoriously.” He knew “famous,” so I said “notorious” means famous for doing something bad.  Still he was confused.  “Like Hitler.”  “What’s Hitler?”

Even though this boy was reading near his Lexile number, he either missed or misinterpreted chunks of the reading passage because of lack of vocabulary.

I will recommend to his mother that he works on vocabulary each lesson, using one of the many good vocabulary-building series available.  He also needs to read more and widely.

But doing one lesson in a vocabulary book, and then moving on to the next, is not enough.  He needs to hear the new vocabulary words often, review them, be questioned about their meanings, and be able to use them correctly in sentences.

If you are a parent, I recommend you either begin using a vocabulary-building series of workbooks, or if your child uses them at school, review past “learned” words with him or her.  My experience working with children, especially ESL children, shows me they need to engage with the words often in order for the words to become part of their vocabulary.

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