Is Vocabulary Instruction Important for Beginning Readers?

When children first begin reading instruction they should be learning to decode easy words that they already understand. A good reading program will begin with simple reading texts so that beginning readers will be successful. The program should then gradually build the difficulty of the reading material as students become more skillful.

All students will encounter words that they do not know when they are reading. This is why it is important to include vocabulary instruction in a good reading program.  If students do not understand the words they are reading, they will not have good comprehension of the meaning of the text.  Teachers must give their students appropriate reading vocabulary instruction.

It is also vitally important that ELL (English Language Learners) students are given specific definitions of the vocabulary words they will encounter while reading. While students are learning to speak the English language, they do not yet have an extensive vocabulary. We need to be aware that ELL’s may not ask about words they do not know the meanings of, and this will greatly limit their comprehension. Proactive instruction in vocabulary is essential for these students.

What can parents do?  A child who has been talked to frequently and exposed to advanced vocabulary at home, in particular from listening to and interacting with adults,  and one who has been read aloud to frequently, will have a larger listening and speaking vocabulary than one who has not had this exposure.  A child who has had much exposure to television and less exposure to books and adult conversation, will have a lower level of vocabulary acquisition. This information is well documented.*

Make sure you have books in your home. Read to your children. Talk about the stories you read to them.  Talk to your children many times every day and don’t be afraid to use big words.  Make sure they have plenty of exposure to appropriate adult conversation and limit their television viewing.  Statistically, children who start school with larger vocabularies tend to become better readers.

You can improve your children’s chances to become successful readers by talking with them often and reading aloud to them every day.

*Work Cited:

What Is A Good Reading Program—How Should We Teach Reading?

Landmark research was conducted on reading instruction by The National Reading Panel from 1997-2000.  Their job was to analyze the research on reading and to discover what was most effective in teaching children to read. This study resulted in the Report of The National Reading Panel, Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction (1).

The conclusions of the National Reading Panel were that children needed specific kinds of teaching that should be included within a good reading instruction program.  Summarized, these were:

  • Phonemic Awareness Instruction—This simply means that children learn that there are sounds (or phonemes) in words, and that these sounds can be moved around (add a sound or subtract a sound) or manipulated, to change words into different words.
    • Example 1:  Add the sound /s/ to the word ‘pot’ and it becomes the word ‘spot.’
    • Example 2:  Tell me how many sounds you can hear in the word ‘me’ (two sounds: /m/ and /ee/).
  • Phonics Instruction—Knowing that written letters represent sounds, and that we can connect the sounds to make words.  This instruction is much more effective if the instruction is systematic and sequential and followed up by reading real words using the phonics instruction just given.
    • Example 1:  The letter B makes the sound /b/.
    • Example 2:  Connect these sounds, /t/ – /o/ – /p/, to make the word ‘top.’  Connect these sounds, /h/ – /o/ – /p/, to make the word ‘hop’.  Read the sentence: ‘Hop on top.’
  • Fluency Instruction—Reading with accuracy, expression, and enough speed to understand the meaning of what you read. Reading aloud (with guidance) and having reading material at the right level of difficulty helps students develop fluency.
  • Comprehension—Understanding and thinking about the meaning of what is being read.
  • Vocabulary Instruction—Teaching students the meanings of the words he/she will be reading.

When you, as a parent or teacher, are considering a reading program for your students, look for a program that will include and integrate these elements along with the stories that students are reading.  Phonics instruction is much more effective when it is used in meaningful reading right after it has been taught, rather than as isolated practice.

Next time, we will talk about teaching phonemic awareness.  Happy Reading!

Work Cited:  1-

Further Reading:

Why Is Learning to Read So Difficult? A Bit of History

How did our children learn to read 100 years ago?  The American Book Company printed McGuffey’s Eclectic Primer in 1896 (first published, 1881, by Van Antwerp, Bragg & Co. and later by Henry H. Vail in 1909). The primer begins with a listing of the A-B-C’s in uppercase and lowercase letters, and then introduces a few simple words.  The first sentence in Lesson 2 reads:  “The cat has a rat.”(1)

The introduction to McGuffey’s Eclectic Primer informs the teacher that only a few words will be introduced in each lesson so that the youngest readers will be successful.  The preferred phonics-based reading method was to teach the alphabet and the sounds of the letters; then students would begin to read.  Each lesson listed the letters that would be used for the first time, and the new words that would appear in the lesson.  This was followed by a few sentences.  From time to time a few sentences even appeared in a simple cursive text.

This is how students were taught to read until the early 20th century. Post WWI the “experts” began to develop new materials with a “meaning emphasis” that downplayed teaching phonics and emphasized repetition.  The result was the publication of the Dick and Jane stories (which have recently resurged in popularity).

This new method of teaching reading was first called “look-say” and came to be known as “sight reading” or the “whole word method,” and later on as “whole language” reading.  This method of teaching reading emphasized repetition of words, using pictures to get the meaning and de-emphasized teaching phonics.  By the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s this method was proving to be troublesome and a push to return to phonics resulted (2).  However, the new methods of teaching reading were deeply entrenched and its advocates were firmly against repeated phonics practice.

Fast forward to the present and we are still finding it difficult to teach our children to read.  An amazing 68% of American children cannot read at a proficient level and 34% cannot read at even a basic level (3).  But there is hope and you can teach your students to read.  Next time we’ll talk about what a good reading program should include.

You can teach anyone to read!

Works Cited:

1-McGuffey’s Eclectic Primer, Revised Edition, Van Nostrand Reinhold, N.Y.



Further reading: