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Passionate About the Value of Vocabulary
Carla Kessler Says "Natural" Isn't Good Enough

Carla and her husband Richard began creating their Web-based vocabulary curriculum four years ago after Carla's Master's Thesis helped her focus the research into an appropriate format for her own students. It has since expanded and is being piloted in several schools in Washington State. You can try it out at

I am passionate about vocabulary and the value it brings the reader. Did you know that good readers, in the elementary years, increase their "word banks" by more than 3,000 words a year, primarily through incidental learning in their reading activities? This increase can provide a student with a substantial and useful vocabulary as they enter their upper-level educational years. During my first five years of teaching, research claimed this increase in "word banks" would happen naturally with most students if you just had them read more than an hour a day. I believed the research and worked religiously to excite my students about reading and keep them reading lots. Many of us believed this. This research has since been proven faulty. Students learn new words based on context at a wide variety of rates. If you read through Scott Baker's summary of the research (, you'll see more detail about this. The skills needed to internalize new word meanings (extended mapping, rather than fast mapping) have to be taught. Even strong readers benefit from direct instruction of vocabulary and new word learning skills.

There has been a flurry of research concerning literacy in the past ten years confirming that direct instruction of skills is essential to effective reading instruction. A comprehensive and balanced literacy program should include the following elements: phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, fluency, vocabulary, assessment, and intervention, applied appropriately according to student needs. The vocabulary portion is most successfully applied when the following general techniques are included in the curriculum: semantic mapping, semantic feature analysis, computer-assisted instruction, and instructional design features that provide intervention, systematic review, instructional scaffolding, and integration into literature experiences and student background knowledge. As they progress through the activities, students should be guided in acquiring strategies for learning word meanings independently. Successful vocabulary curriculum can be summarized as providing relevancy, variety, and repetition in an immersion-based format, with guided instruction.

These documented approaches can be broken down into more detail. The top 12 best practices are listed below.

1. Learning within a context
2. Active processing by accessing prior knowledge and by challenging thinking
3. Categorization activities
4. Word choices and learning activities catered to student needs
5. Teaching/modeling of word awareness skills
6. Accessing a variety of word associations
7. Repeated opportunities to practice
8. Knowledge of derivatives
9. Awareness of grammatical category or function of the words
10. Visualizations
11. Peer interaction
12. Key word connections

(for references on these go to and visit the research section)

How can we help kids develop that fascination and curiosity for words that some of us have intuitively? Success with language use is the key. A student who is able to excel because he/she has mastery of many words and can apply that knowledge to learn or communicate, is more naturally inclined to love words. Compare this to the musically inclined student. A naturally musical student tends to appreciate music, and learning to play it, because the opportunity provides a successful, satisfying experience. For those who do not have the natural inclination in language to excel, we must teach them to master independent word learning so they can experience the same satisfaction as the already skillful student. This means both increasing their word banks, as this gives them something to build on, and teaching the skills to learn from the context.

Of the three primary approaches for teaching reading previously mentioned, phonics, comprehension, and vocabulary, the weakest area in our schools is in vocabulary instruction. Development of curriculums in this area has been neglected. Listed are nine points that summarize the research demonstrating vocabulary acquisition and the accompanying word learning skills are key to improving literacy:

1. The single most accurate predictor of how well a reader understands text is general vocabulary knowledge.
2. There is a direct correlation between the size of a student's "word bank" and success in school.
3. There is also a direct correlation between the size of a student's "word bank" and socio-economic status.
4. Students must know 85% of the words (including key words) to derive meaning from a text.
5. Students who already have large "word banks" increase their "word banks" naturally. They are the ones that already have word learning skills.
6. Students with deficient "word banks" have difficulty internalizing new words.
7. The gap between "word bank" sizes is growing under the current system. Students who start kindergarten with a discrepancy of 3,000 words (600 vs 3,600) find that discrepancy has grown to a gap of 30,000 by 8th grade (10,000 vs 40,000). Many studies of this growing gap have been done, all demonstrating the same problem.
8. Effective vocabulary instruction places excessive time demands on the teacher. Making up the difference is a tremendous challenge and current curriculums are not addressing the growing gap in a manner that supports what teachers need in the classroom.
9. The NAEP (our "Nation's Report Card") recognizes that good readers are improving while low readers continue to slip in their ability to use comprehension skills successfully (1992-2000). The problem is not one of a lack of phonics skills.

(references available at in the research section)

Since I decided to devote myself to creating an effective vocabulary curriculum for my students, I've had some success in getting kids excited about words and improving comprehension through increased "word banks," but it isn't easy. As the research continually reminds us, making up for the lack of a rich vocabulary requires intensive efforts. My approach has been to computerize the learning providing bite-size, mastery-based (and off course research-based) learning activities while putting students in control of their own learning. At the same time, the program provides teachers with data on student strengths and weaknesses while freeing them up to provide interventions as needed. Brian Cambourne, of the New Zealand literacy movement, argues that we must reproduce the student's natural "conditions for learning" in order for engagement to take place. "Engagement is more than involvement; it implies creative interaction with experience." (Brian Cambourne in "Pathways of Language Development"). His schematic representation of this model lists the following processes: immersion, demonstration, expectation, responsibility, use, approximation, and response. I tried to reproduce this schematic sequence in my curriculum program.

Please do not infer from my enthusiasm over vocabulary that reading for the joy of it is not at the key of any successful program. I am simply very excited to have found what I believe is a key ingredient for many of my students who were not improving their reading skills no matter how exciting I made it. They depended on me to create the fun and when they went on to Junior High, the enthusiasm died. They did not have the independent skills they needed to become self-sustaining readers.

Scott Baker, Deborah Simmons, and Edward Kameenui summarize the importance of vocabulary in the following statement (

"The enduring effects of the vocabulary limitations of students with diverse learning needs is becoming increasingly apparent. Nothing less than learning itself depends on language. Certainly, as Adams (1990) suggests, most of our formal education is acquired through language. Learning something new does not occur in a vacuum. Rather, new learning always builds on what the learner already knows. Adams suggests that new learning is the process of forming novel combinations of familiar concepts. Learning, as a language-based activity, is fundamentally and profoundly dependent on vocabulary knowledge. Learners must have access to the meaning of words, teachers, or their surrogates (e.g., other adults, books, films, etc.), use to guide them into contemplating known concepts in novel ways (i.e., to learn something new). With inadequate vocabulary knowledge, learners are being asked to develop novel combinations of known concepts with insufficient tools."

Comment by Carla Kessler, 5th & 6th Grade Teacher

2002 ESL MiniConference Online