Why is Teaching Vocabulary Important for Reading?

Teacher teaching vocabulary to a student

Vocabulary is one of five fundamental parts of structured literacy. As Gough and Tunmer’s ‘Simple View of Reading’ illustrates, it is as important for students to develop vocabulary knowledge as it is for them learn how to decode words. Combining a student’s ability to decode with a robust vocabulary leads to increased comprehension.

Decoding + Language Comprehension=reading to gain meaning

Emily Hanford notes in her article APM Reports: At a Loss for Words: “This comes straight from the scientific research, which shows that reading comprehension is the product of two things. First a child needs to be able to sound out a word. Second, the child needs to know the meaning of the word she just sounded out. So, in a first-grade classroom that’s following the research, you will see explicit phonics instruction and also lessons that build oral vocabulary and background knowledge. And you see kids practicing what they’ve been taught.”

How does vocabulary instruction align with the Science of Reading?

The Science of Reading maintains that vocabulary instruction should not be left to chance. Students require explicit instruction in vocabulary.

As proponents of the Science of Reading, we have long advocated for explicit instruction of phonics. We have also championed the use of decodable texts so students have plenty of practice applying phonetic knowledge. That said, the books that emerging and beginning readers can access independently, are primarily designed to solidify their understanding of a code-based reading system, not build vocabulary. However, Informed Literacy has incorporated Tier II vocabulary instruction in Set 3 of their decodable readers as well as in many of their nonfiction books. We also designed explicit lesson plans for teaching vocabulary.

How can I develop my beginning readers’ vocabulary if they are only able to decode simple words?

ELL students and beginning readers need more than simple books to help develop their vocabulary. Multiple experts in the field of education agree that reading aloud to students is a vital part of developing vocabulary. Read alouds serve multiple purposes.

  1. They expose students to book language (sentence structure and grammar) beyond their current reading ability.
  2. The vocabulary in read aloud books is often more rich and varied than in the books that students can access independently.
  3. Oral language precedes written language so students are able to understand sophisticated words and content well before they are able to read about it.

I read aloud to my students every day. Is that enough?

Unfortunately, no. Vocabulary instruction must be explicit and requires intentional preparation.

Before reading aloud, the teacher should have in mind several target words, often referred to as Tier II words. Let’s say you were reading aloud a book about dogs. Unless you are working with an ELL student, the best choice for vocabulary development is Tier II words. Tier II words are not everyday words which are referred to as Tier I, nor are they content specific (Tier III).

Can you explain more about teaching Tier II vocabulary words?

Using the same example of a read-aloud book on dogs:

  • Tier I words might include words such as dog, paw, and wag.
  • Tier III words might include muzzle, obedience, and St. Bernard. Some students may be unfamiliar with these words, but you can explain them ‘on the fly’ while reading. (i.e. Suppose the sentence said, “The dog’s muzzle was covered in mud.” After reading the sentence, you might simply say, ‘That means the dog’s nose was covered in mud.’
  • Tier II words are words with which students may not be familiar or words that have multiple meanings and could therefore lead to confusion. Examples of Tier II words would be stray or pants. Students may not have heard the word stray before. Most students know that pants mean an article of clothing, but unless they are familiar with dogs, they may not understand that pants can also mean to breath heavily.
  • Choose a word and give a kid-friendly example of what the word means. The word pants means to breathe heavily and loudly.
  • If appropriate, encourage the students to act out the word.
  • Then provide some synonyms such as huff and puff and gasp.
  • Sometimes it is helpful to give an antonym or two.
  • Use the word in a few different sentences. When Alisha finishes a long-distance run, she always pants.
  • Provide opportunities for students to use the word in sentences.
  • Revisit these words often throughout the days and weeks of the school year.

That is just the basics of Tier II vocabulary instruction. We highly recommend ‘Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction’ by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan to learn more about this topic. Click on the images below if you’d like to purchase any of the books we reference in this post.

We find Collins Cobuild Learner’s Dictionary a helpful resource for choosing Tier II words.

Besides reading aloud are there any other ways to help students develop vocabulary?

Yes! According to Natalie Wexler, author of “The Knowledge Gap”, it’s important to select read-alouds around a specific topic. “If teachers organize their read-alouds by topic instead of a skill-of-the-week, children have the chance to hear the same concepts and vocabulary repeatedly. Once they have a general familiarity with a topic, they can read more difficult text independently.” (page 35)

Also of note in ‘The Knowledge Gap’ is the idea that curriculum must be content rich. It is not enough to teach main idea and inference skills. Students must develop a base of knowledge in the areas of Social Studies and Science. “Because if students are asked to write about a text’s main idea, they won’t be able to produce anything that makes sense unless they’ve acquired a fair amount of related factual information.” (page 223)

The way to build knowledge is to immerse students in one topic at a time so they can become ‘experts’ on that topic. Immersion can include topic centered read-alouds, but it should also include hands-on experience and opportunities to explore the topic in-depth.

Be sure to check back periodically for future posts on the importance of developing vocabulary.


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