with Vocabulary Development Expert Andrew
Andrew Biemiller is Professor Emeritus
of Developmental Psychology at the University
of Toronto and Associate Editor of the Journal
of Educational Psychology. He is also a
consultant for research groups, publishers,
and federal (U.S.) and state agencies, mainly
regarding vocabulary development and instruction.
Dr. Biemiller's current
research activities involve promoting vocabulary
and language development in elementary school.
does recent research tells us about vocabulary
acquire words in a fairly predictable order
and that makes it possible to decide what
words need to be taught to those whose
vocabulary is relatively small. The average
kid has about 6000 root words by the end
of grade two.
quite disadvantaged kids have about 4000
and kids who are really advantaged have about
8000 at that point. A couple of years later
disadvantaged kids have about 6000 words.
They have about the same number of words
the average kids had at the end of grade
we’re so clear that kids learn words
in the same order. Some of them are just
learning words faster. We
need to help kids in the primary grades so
that they don’t
get so far behind.
do schools do to close the vocabulary gap
between advantaged and disadvantaged children? At the present time schools don’t do very much to
close that gap. Research suggests that a
year of schooling has no impact at all on
vocabulary growth in the primary grades.
grade two, basically after kids become literate,
there seems to be much less difference in
the rate at which disadvantaged and advantaged
kids acquire new words. This would suggest
that after grade two kids are starting to
acquire more words as a result of reading.
problem is that reading isn’t likely
to do much for the vocabulary of pre-literate
kids – kids up to grade two. In fact,
when reading does help later, it’s
not just because you read. It’s because
when you encounter a new word it’s
possible to stop and think about it or ask
someone for an explanation.
acquiring language through your ears you
can’t do that. You can ask questions
one-on-one if someone will answer, but kids
rarely ask. In particularly disadvantaged
homes the words aren’t even there to
be learned. We need to do more in school. Most
kids have the first 2500 words. The words that
the disadvantaged kids don’t
have are the next 2500 words.
the research on the importance of vocabulary
has been around for so long why haven’t
schools made a greater effort to incorporate
vocabulary instruction into their curricula? There are
several reasons. Wesley Becker said many
years ago that in schools we’re mostly
concerned with teaching reading and arithmetic.
As long as the kids are making progress with
reading, we’ve been pretty happy.
people have said the kids will acquire the
vocabulary after they learn to read. However,
by the end of grade two, disadvantaged students
are already 2000 to 3000 words behind the
average. Even if they do a pretty decent
job learning vocabulary after that they don’t
make up the difference.
vocabulary gap may not get a lot wider. But
get narrower and the disadvantaged kids remain
two to three grades behind. For practical
purposes two to three grades behind in vocabulary
comes to mean 2 or 3 grades behind in reading
comprehension by the time they get to grade
four or five.
kid can look good on reading comprehension
in grades one and two because the vocabulary
we use in these grades is very restricted.
In grade three and four all of a sudden a
lot of kids who have done a good job of learning
to read can read words put in front of them,
but they don’t
know what the words mean. And then they’re
the first reason schools haven’t
focused on vocabulary instruction in the
early grades is that we’re busy teaching
other things and not teaching vocabulary.
The second reason is that we haven’t
identified which vocabulary words to teach.
I think we know the answer to that now, but,
by in large there isn’t anyone out
there using it.
third reason is that it’s very hard
to test vocabulary in the primary grades.
The methods for testing vocabulary in the
primary grades involves one-on-one oral testing.
have the time to do it.
teachers say they don't have enough time
to teach basic reading skills much less time
to devote thirty minutes a day to teaching
vocabulary. Yes. A teacher who’s
saying that they’re willing to ignore
vocabulary because they don’t have
time for it is saying in effect that it’s
okay for the kids to wind up two grade levels
behind by the end of grade two.
hard to confront teachers with that. If we
don’t teach vocabulary in the primary
grades, we are accepting the fact that disadvantaged
and advantaged kids are going to be that
there any curricula out there today that
integrate vocabulary instruction into the
reading curriculum? None that I know of.
I think the curricula that are coming out
in the next year or two, such as Open Court
and Houghton-Mifflin, will include vocabulary
of the new programs that are coming out for
approval around 2007/2008 are likely to include
a substantial commitment to vocabulary. One
major reason for that is the state of California
is requiring half an hour of vocabulary work
in any program they’re going to accept.
can parents do to help their children increase
their vocabulary? It’s pretty
clear that what’s happening in middle
class and advantaged homes is that parents
(a) are using more different words with their
kids and (b) they’re stopping to explain
what words mean now and then.
a child has a chance to learn 2 to 4 words
a day they’ll do alright. Advantaged
kids acquire 2 to 4 words a day, whereas
a disadvantaged kid may learn just one. I
really believe that just briefly stopping
to point out what a word means helps.
hand them a banana and you say this is a
banana. Or you may even just say “here
Johnny have a banana” as
you hand it to him. Bingo. The kid knows
what a banana is. That’s easy for concrete
words. For abstract words and phrases such
as “Don’t run,” you may
have to show him what you mean by run.
need to be more words in the environment.
It’s very clear that reading a lot
to kids is good but it’s a heck of
a lot better if you stop and explain a few
words as you go along. In my view what’s
really important is letting your child know
that they should ask when they want to know
a word for something or what a particular
them to ask and praise them for asking. In
a whole lot of homes it’s “don’t bug me.” Kids
are to be seen and not heard. Well, kids
who are seen and not heard are kids who don’t
ask a lot about words.
want to flood them. Doing ten or twenty words
a day is obviously not likely to work. In
fact, I suspect kids rarely learn more than
three or four words a day.
kinds of books would you recommend reading
to young children? Speaking as a parent,
I used a lot of Richard Scarry’s big word books
with my son right around age two. At that
age my son loved going through books like
that. By another year or two they want more
story, but at that age he loved things that
were just simple pictures and the words that
went with them.
next stage was books about vehicles and a
sentence or two for each vehicle. I really
don’t know anything
better than the Richard Scarry books, though
they may exist.
is the most effective way to teach vocabulary? The published research on teaching vocabulary
with kids under grade three almost all concerns
variations on one method: reading a story
several times and explaining what some of
the words mean either on each reading or
on each reading after the first reading..
research of my associates and I has shown
that by-and-large kids don’t
like a lot of interruption for explaining
words the first time a book is read. On the
other hand, as any parent knows, kids up
through age 6 or 7 are very tolerant of having
the same book read several times. In fact,
usually they want it read a lot more than
the parent or teacher wants to read it.
you get past the first reading, kids are
much more tolerant of stopping to explain
what a word means. We will typically teach
ten words per story. We don’t expect
the kids to actually learn more than three
or four of the words that are explained.
With a little bit of review they learn more
seeing the words in print help students to
retain new vocabulary words? There’s some clinical evidence that
from grade one up if you’re teaching
what a word means you should make sure they
see it and print it as well. On the other
hand, the books kids are reading in first
grade are unlikely to provide a lot of the
vocabulary words kids need to learn.
kindergarten, first grade and second grade
you need to read stories to kids, which are
more advanced than the stories they would
be reading by themselves. By grade three
or four, if the kid’s making reasonable progress with
print skills, they will be able to read the
words they’ve learned orally. My
own data shows that 95% of kids grades three
and up can read a lot more words than they
know the meanings of.
there any book lists that recommend vocabulary-rich
books to be read to young children? There
a lot out there now. I can give you two practical
methods. One method is to use the Dale-Chall
list of simple words. This word list contains
3,000 simple, familiar words, which more
than 80% of fourth grade students can understand.
order to determine how advanced a passage
is, one can see how many words in the passage
are not included in the Dale-Chall list.
This is a pretty good method. If 15% of the
words are not on list it is a fourth grade
level passage. Twenty percent makes it sixth
grade and 10% makes it second grade. So you
aren’t adding very many complex words
to get an increase in the difficulty of the
passage. That’s the quick and dirty
have a book coming out soon which has an
explicit list of a couple thousand words
we should be worrying about in the primary
grades and another 3,000 we should be worrying
about with the junior grades. That list is
based on testing a large number of kids.
a word is known by more than 80% of the kids,
and that’s generally
true of the first 2500 words, we don’t
have to worry about them. Kids learn them.
Even second language kids learn them in our
experience. If the words are known by less
than 40% of second graders we figure those
are words to worry about learning at some
point after grade two.
words you worry about the kids really learning
are the words that are known by 40-80% of
kids. By-and-large the advanced kids know
them and the not so advanced kids should
learn them. That gives you a target list
of words you really worry about during those
K, 1 and 2 years. Basically
you use exactly the same method for picking
words to be used in grades 3, 4, 5 and 6.
there anything else that you’d like
to add? The truth is that a) vocabulary accounts
for a lot of the disadvantages of disadvantaged
kids. Especially nowadays, because we’re
getting better at teaching reading skills.
What there’s been is almost no attention
at all to vocabulary.
long as you neglect vocabulary you’re still going to see
disadvantaged kids and second language kids
running along two to three grade levels behind
the average kids. Not to mention the advanced
kids. Until we reach a point of running programs
in schools so that the kid who leaves sixth
grade can actually read and understand sixth
grade texts, we’re going to continue
to see a whole lot of kids who are just fumbling
around in High School.
need for vocabulary instruction seems to
be such a huge blind spot. Yes, it really
is. I cannot guarantee that if you get all
the kids up to what is now the average of
vocabulary that everybody would be able to
read and comprehend.
you can guarantee is that if they don’t
have that vocabulary they will continue to
be falling off the way they do now. I don’t
think getting the vocabulary solves everything.
I do think that without it you’re dead
in the water.
more information on Dr. Biemiller's research