Supporting children’s language comprehension

Supporting children’s language comprehension through vocabulary instruction

Dr Clarence Green

Dr Clarence Green, Senior Lecturer at the School of Education, Federation University, explains the importance of why vocabulary needs to be taught in context and when needed.

The Simple View of Reading proposes that comprehend print messages and it is not until language comprehension and decoding decoding skills have developed that ‘recoding’ constitute two fundamental foundations for mechanisms arise. Recoding allows the child to successful reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986). develop phonological representations of words Vocabulary is one of the most important from print and learn new vocabulary from their components of language comprehension reading (Share, 1995).

After decoding, vocabulary knowledge is statistically the strongest predictor of reading success in the early years (Biemiller, 2012). Given its importance, Marzano (2020, p. 4) advises “teaching vocabulary should be a focal point” and contemporary educational research offers recommendations for teachers about effective vocabulary instruction to develop language comprehension. This contribution covers a few and is by no means exhaustive.

In emergent literacy, shared-book reading has been shown to substantially enhance the lexical diversity of oral language input (Montag et al., 2015) and the accompanying oral dialogic interaction between teachers, students and peers supports comprehension of the print message. It is crucial to develop oral language (McLachlan, 2021).

When children learn to read, they are drawing on their oral language vocabulary to comprehend print messages and it is not until decoding skills have developed that ‘recoding’ mechanisms arise. Recoding allows the child to develop phonological representations of words from print and learn new vocabulary from their reading (Share, 1995).

Teachers should make use of incidental learning and not feel all vocabulary instruction needs to be explicitly taught with teachers selecting target words (Hiebert, 2020). For students who can decode, time put aside for pleasurable self-selected wide reading of comprehensible input provides opportunities for incidentally learning new vocabulary (Green, 2021).

When it comes to the direct instruction of vocabulary, however, a widely used pedagogical model in Australia relies on an initial combination of sight words (sometimes rather dated frequency lists such as the Fry and Dolch lists) with the ‘Three Tiers’ pedagogy thereafter throughout primary school (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2013).

The guidance to teachers in the Three Tiers approach is that Tier 1 words are highly frequent in spoken language and are therefore unlikely to need teaching. Tier 2 words are those encountered across a range of texts, have high utility for academic literacy, and those which in the context of a target text would impair comprehension if not understood. Tier 3 words are discipline-specific metalanguage (e.g. multiplication) and can be taught in subject areas as needed. Tier 2 words are therefore recommended to constitute the bulk of vocabulary targets selected by teachers.

This approach valuably emphasises that vocabulary needs to be taught in context as and when needed. However, the challenge of this approach for less experienced teachers is that they vary on estimations of word-utility. Decisions can therefore be supported by having a pool of possible target vocabulary for instruction, typically informed by objective frequency (Green, 2021).

For example, two recent frequency-based core vocabulary lists for early reading have been developed. Hiebert (2020) produced the WordZones and Graves et al. (2019) the General Utility Words.

These vocabulary lists were derived from large collections of books for students approximately ages 5-12. Marzano (2020) has recently completed a large-scale project that extensively estimated and generated pedagogical wordlists for teachers, suggesting what the possible Tier 2 words might be.

He notes that while we should definitely teach vocabulary in context to aid comprehension, if we are to wait simply for words to show up in a text being used for a pedagogical activity, then we may not be providing optimal vocabulary support over the school years, nor extensive enough vocabulary instruction to ensure a reading vocabulary size sufficient for comprehension. Marzano’s (2020) list of Tier 2 words contains approximately 8000 high-value words for teachers, and groups them together by related themes and meanings.

Biemiller (2010) has usefully provided data on the developmental path of vocabulary in school-aged children. After extensively interviewing children about their vocabulary knowledge, he suggested that we teach the less proficient learners within a class those words known by majority of their peers (i.e. 60 per cent and above) in that same class.

For the majority, teachers are recommended to focus on the words known by the majority of students in the next level up but not known by the majority in the target class. Biemiller (2010) produced the ‘Words Worth Teaching’ resource based on these principles. These are valuable research-based resources and approaches to supporting language comprehension through vocabulary during early literacy.

However, it should be kept in mind that the objective testing data such as collected by Biemiller (2010), and frequency-based wordlists mentioned above, were not produced from research and texts in Australian schools.

Australian teachers should always draw on their experience and professional learning communities to adapt research-informed resources to the needs and contexts of their students.

Dr Clarence Green is an expert contributor to Education Matters Magazine. This feature was first published in Education Matters Print magazine April 2022. Dr Green has published and taught in areas of the cognitive psychology of language, literacy instruction, language development, corpus linguistics, disciplinary literacy, stylistics and English grammar.