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Evidence-Based Vocabulary Instruction

Strategies for word learning and comprehension

Vol. 20 • Issue 4 • Page 9

The importance of vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension is widely documented in professional literature, but more and more focused studies have indicated just how vital these skills are in children's learning, both in and out of the classroom. Early exposure to vocabulary at home and school is crucial to the development of effective reading skills, stresses Carolyn Ford, EdD, CCC-SLP, an instructor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of South Florida in Tampa. However, "full knowledge" of vocabulary is required for mastery," she told ADVANCE. "This includes not only knowing the definition of a word but understanding how the word meaning adapts to its use in different contexts. When you teach words, you don't want to just teach the vocabulary itself for the sense of exposure to the word once or twice."

There is evidence demonstrating that the ability to identify single words is the most important factor accounting for individual differences in text reading fluency for children with reading disabilities. Other research has shown insufficient independent reading time, lack of word learning strategies, and diffuse word knowledge can be major obstacles to vocabulary development. Even socioeconomic status has been shown to be a major factor in word exposure and knowledge.1-4"Children have exposure to vocabulary through interactions, experiences and conversations with adults or older role models," she explained. "When they miss those experiences or haven't had as many of them, they come to school behind in terms of vocabulary."

Where should speech-language pathologists begin their treatment planning for children with difficulties in word and language comprehension? "We have to provide them with opportunities to experience language and vocabulary," Dr. Ford said. "We can model reading, keep them reading independently, and just teach them more and more vocabulary in a contextualized, functional way through text and stories so they can connect it to what they know."

Clinicians should not tackle these issues alone. Creating a targeted approach to vocabulary should come out of a collaboration with members of the Response to Intervention (RTI) team, including the content area teacher, classroom teacher and parents.

The first step is to determine which vocabulary to target. This goes beyond simply administering a basic vocabulary test, Dr. Ford said. "That's only going to tell us that a child is deficient in vocabulary; it's not going to tell us much more. The best way to figure out what vocabulary to target is to figure out how the child is doing in the regular classroom in terms of vocabulary learning."

Speech-language pathologists in Florida can use relevant vocabulary data from the Florida Assessments for Instruction and Reading (FAIR), but they should obtain this data directly from the classroom teacher, Dr. Ford suggested. "Meet with the teacher and try to incorporate the vocabulary that you're using, or select vocabulary that is tied to the curriculum but is going to be used in a lot of content areas and seen often in a child's reading and writing. Once you teach it, it will be generalized to more learning activities."

Evaluations can provide additional help in selecting vocabulary. These include the Comprehensive Assessment of Spoken Language (CASL) and the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals (CELF-4) by Pearson Assessments and the Test of Language Development Primary, 3rd Edition (TOLD-P:3) and the Test of Narrative Language (TNL) by Pro-Ed Inc. CASL examines lexical/semantic skills, syntactic skills, supralinguistic skills and pragmatics; and portions of CELF-4 look in-depth at different types of vocabulary such as figurative language.

Morphological structure should not be overlooked in vocabulary work, Dr. Ford stressed. "More than ever we need to be selecting words that the child may encounter often in reading and writing in learning activities and thinking about the morphological structures that are most common for the child's grade level."

It can be taught simultaneously with spelling and comprehension in a discussion of prefixes and suffixes of selected vocabulary words and their effect on word meaning and grammatical structure change.

Vocabulary instruction also can be taught in conjunction with reading comprehension tasks, beginning with a discussion of vocabulary relevant to the text and then expanding from the context of the story. "You don't want to just select five vocabulary words and teach them in isolation; you want to talk about those words within the learning activity or story," Dr. Ford said. "I try to connect new information to what a child already knows because that will help in developing the vocabulary, connecting with the new knowledge quicker, and learning in a quicker way."

At its foundation, true reading comprehension includes a number of core vocabulary-linked elements: well-developed vocabulary, word knowledge, purposeful reading toward goals, use of metacognitive strategies, linguistic knowledge, discourse knowledge, fluency motivation and oral language. All of these areas require collaboration with the classroom teacher to review information relevant to the child's skills, she said. "It is important as a member of the RTI problem-solving team that the speech-language pathologist assist in the data collection process with the teacher."

The Woodcock-Johnson III Tests of Achievement, published by Riverside Publishing, can provide data on reading performance and written language.

As the speech-language pathologist works to develop vocabulary and reading comprehension goals, the importance of content curriculum-based vocabulary and learning activities should be kept at the forefront of treatment. Research supports the selection of vocabulary words that support a child's classroom reading, use of context and definitions, and use of examples and synonyms to teach word meaning.5,6Dr. Ford has found success with visual supports and strategy or concept maps that allow children to visualize word meanings. She also teaches children the four basic strategies of reciprocal teaching: summarizing, question-generating, clarifying and predicting.

"It's important to model the thinking process aloud and build children's metacognitive skills for reading comprehension so they learn to think on their own while reading," she said. "Using think-aloud modeling, the speech-language pathologist makes the thinking process audible for the child while talking through the thinking process as it occurs."

Acting out a word can aid comprehension in younger children. Chunking, categorizing and organizing words to allow children to see patterns and relationships between old and new vocabulary also can aid learning.

"Even when teaching through a text, try to connect it to true, actual events or to the child's life-talking about characters and their feelings and intentions to build vocabulary skills," she explained. "The most important thing we can do is help children bridge the process from cognition to language and learn how to stop and think about how they are learning before they try to answer or respond. Building those thinking skills is critical."


1. Torgesen, J.K., Rashotte, C.A., Alexander, A. (2001). Principles of fluency instruction in reading: Relationships with established empirical outcomes. In M. Wolf (ed.), Dyslexia, Fluency, and the Brain (pp. 333-55). Parkton, MD: York Press.

2. Stahl, K.A.D., Stahl, S.A., McKenna, M. (1999). The development of phonological awareness and orthographic processing in Reading Recovery. Literacy, Teaching and Learning: An International Journal of Early Literacy, 4: 27-42.

3. Justice, L.M., Ezell, H.K. (2000). Enhancing children's print and word awareness through home-based parent intervention. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 9 (3), 257-69.

4. Justice, L.M., Ezell, H.K. (2002). Use of storybook reading to increase print awareness in at-risk children: An experimental evaluation. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 11 (1): 17-29.

5. Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., Kucan, L. (2008). Creating Robust Vocabulary: Frequently Asked Questions and Extended Examples. New York: Guilford Press.

6. Beck, I.L., McKewon, M.G., Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. New York: Guilford Press.

For More Information

• Carolyn Ford, EdD,

Alyssa Banotai is a Senior Associate Editor at ADVANCE. She can be reached at

Metacognitive and Metalinguistic Skill Building

Classroom vocabulary and language comprehension strategies should focus on building metacognitive and metalinguistic skills. Carolyn

Ford, EdD, CCC-SLP, provided this list of 20 evidence-based skillbuilding measures:

• Teach language patterns that are partially familiar to the student.

• Provide multiple exposures to these patterns.

•???Relate these patterns to classroom reading and writing.1

• Work on word-level morphology (derivational suffixes) and syntax, and apply this to text-level listening and comprehension.

• Use stories.

• Use true reports of actual experiences.

• Demonstrate and act out meanings.

• Get students personally involved through conflict, doubt and surprise.

• Work in their zone of proximal development.

• Use multiple modalities to teach meaning.2

• Identify characters' motives.

• Identify reasons for characters' actions.

• Consider a situation from the perspective of different characters.

• Describe how characters' actions reflect their cultures.

• Construct stories from personal experiences.

• Comment on characters' feelings, intentions and reactions.

• Share your feelings about the content.

• Role-play parts of the story.

• Probe students' reactions to and feelings about the story.

• Connect actions across feelings and motives.3


1. Silliman, E.R., Mody, M. (eds.) (2008). Brain, Behavior, and Learning in Language and Reading Disorders. New York City: Guilford Press.

2. Oller, Jr., J.W., Oller, S.D., Badon, L.C. (2009). Cases: Introducing Communication Disorders Across the Lifespan. San Diego: Plural Publishing.

3. Merritt, D.D., Culatta, B. (1988). Language Intervention in the Classroom. San Diego: Singular Publishing.


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