Literacy Part 1: Vocabulary Acquisition in Secondary Schools: A Framework for Application



An extensive and varied vocabulary is a powerful tool in today’s world. Yet, many secondary students do not possess the skills necessary to enrich their vocabularies and their teachers are often unsure or unaware of the best approaches to accomplish this task. It is essential for students to develop the ability to grow a vocabulary that corresponds with the level of reading comprehension required to successfully navigate a high school career and beyond. Accordingly, it is crucial that vocabulary instruction occurs at the secondary level, but what are the best methods of instruction? Can we formulate a framework for instruction to guide our teachers so that they can support all our students, especially under-performing readers, those students reading below grade level?

Some type of vocabulary instruction is still widely administered in secondary schools, but in many cases, approaches to the teaching of vocabulary in secondary classrooms haven’t kept pace with the research generated on the subject. The “reconceptualization” of the process of reading over the last 40 years, has at its core, a transformation in the way vocabulary is learned. Reading comprehension is a complex process that requires the reader to gather information on many levels concurrently. It requires the activation of background knowledge and the creation of interpretive structures based on the text (Hall, White, and Guthrie, 1992). Moreover, it involves a variety of syntactic, semantic and referential processes, similar as those that are used to deduce the features of unfamiliar words. Evidently, a strong association exists between reading comprehension and vocabulary (Anderson and Freebody, 1981).

It is this theoretical transformation and the evident connection between comprehension and word knowledge that should propel the generation of a set of principles for teachers to facilitate vocabulary acquisition in the classroom. Thus, to reach a conclusion of best classroom applications it is first necessary to examine the history of reading comprehension and one of its most comprehensive theories, then to outline their connections to vocabulary knowledge, and finally to describe a framework for the development of appropriate applications.


Up to the mid-sixties reading was viewed as a simple perceptual process that utilized the translation of graphic symbol from print into an oral code. Readers listened to the sounds they produced and translated them into words. In this basic view reading was defined as a mental process that produced a linguistic code that was acted on by the brain as a language process. Then in the middle to late sixties, scholars began to study the reading process. This included individuals from a variety of fields and led to an interdisciplinary investigation.

The first group to study the reading process was the linguists. The psychologists, sociologists, psycholinguists, and sociolinguists followed them. The linguists showed that all literate societies attempt to represent important features of their oral language in written form and that written language has letters to represent the basic units of sound. A second insight we gained from linguists was that we do not have to represent in written language certain things that will be easily deduced from the normal processes of the language. Finally, Chomsky provided a “nativist” view of language acquisition that contends that all humans come into the world with the necessary wiring to acquire the language of the community they are born into (Pearson & Stephens, 1992).

In the 60’s a new field of study, psycholinguistics, began. This field devoted itself to determining whether the linguistic perspective could serve as a psychological model of language performance. Researchers studied the implications of the linguistic theories for language comprehension and acquisition. Although early theories diminished, the desire of psychologists to study language with theoretical devices had been recognized.

The psycholinguists discovered that children were participants in a language community and invented their own oral language rules. This research showed that children were active learners and that a detailed process of language acquisition took place. These studies helped to change old assumptions as to how we learn to read. They showed that errors made while reading orally could be used to demonstrate internal processes of comprehension to help abolish miscues. They eventually developed the three cue systems that readers use to understand text: syntactic cues, semantic cues, and graphophonemic cues. They believed that word order provided semantic cues for the reader.

At the same time Frank Smith stated that reading was not something that was taught, but something that was learned (Smith, 1981, and that, “…children learn to read by reading and by being read to” (p. 4).

Smith suggested that the function of teachers is not so much to teach reading as to help children read. Smith also advanced the arguments that readers who focused too heavily on visual information lose sight of meaning, that reading was a matter of making informed decisions, that reading was a constructive process, and that readers made sense of what they read based on what they already knew.

The psycholinguists helped to encourage literacy experiences that focused on making meaning, on designing texts for emergent readers, on understanding the reading process and appreciating the efforts of student readers. But most importantly, they changed views of the reading process and how it should be taught.

At about this time Anderson and Pearson (1984) developed probably the most influential notion in reading, schema theory. This theory explained how the construction of human knowledge is represented in memory and how these configurations are constantly adjusted when new experiences are encountered. Comprehension of text occurs when we are able to find “slots” within a particular schema to place all the elements we encounter in a text. But most importantly schema encouraged scholars to examine texts from the perspective of the knowledge and cultural backgrounds of students.

The sociolinguists most significant contribution to our understanding of reading was their assertion that reading was a social process. They helped rethink the role of language within the classroom by contrasting the purposes that language serves in school with the functions it serves outside of school. They also helped highlight the role of community and the notion that reading was a process guided by social factors. Furthermore, they made us conscious of social, political, and cultural differences and their effects on language (Orasanu & Penney, 1992).

Reading, once the sole dominion of educators, has become the property of a host of disciplines. The knowledge base has grown dramatically over the past 40 years combining input from the fields of psychology, linguistics, and sociology. Reading is no longer thought of as something one does or teaches, but as a complex, constructive process through which individuals strive to make meaning. Hence, we now realize that literacy is not an independent, isolated event, but a struggle to obtain meaning based on varying cultural, social, and linguistic information held by both parties that the reader must, somehow, construct into usable knowledge.

Interactive Theory of Reading

Rudell and Speaker developed a model called the Interactive Reading Process that comprises an essential set of elements that many scholars consider the most comprehensive theory on reading in existence today. Their theory helps set a “comprehension” foundation from which vocabulary acquisition techniques can be formulated. It’s important to note that he elements of their model function simultaneously during the reading process under the control of the knowledge utilization and control segment. The model is divided into four components:

Reader Environment

· Textual Features-These are defined as the linguistic structure and the associated visible structures. Visible structures include printed words, pictures, charts, graphs, headings, written questions, and summaries.

· Conversational Features-These are defined as the patterns of interaction present during interpersonal communication. They include message form, message content, addressor, addressee, audience, outcomes, tone and, manner.

· Instructional Features-These are defined as those aspects directly related to teaching. They include lesson plans, goals and objectives of the teacher, the structure of learning and classroom implementation.

Knowledge Utilization and Control

· Affective State-This includes the reader’s interests, attitudes, and values. These help to guide the reader’s objectives during the reading process.

· Cognitive State-This is the reader’s plan for the construction of text representation influenced directly by the reader’s affective state.

· Metacognitive State-This consists of the reader’s strategies like self-correcting and self-monitoring used by the reader to while reading. The strategies include critical and evaluative reading, hypothesis testing and self-questioning as the reader struggles between direct meaning and his or her original goal in reading that specific text.

· Text Representation-This incorporates the reader’s use of textual features, declarative and procedural knowledge directed by the reader’s affective goal to develop a personal construct.

· Declarative and Procedural Knowledge/Decoding Knowledge-This is the reader’s knowledge about visual forms of language. Effective decoding requires the reader to possess skills that allow schemata to be accessed. This is combined with declarative and procedural knowledge to correctly identify old and new words. Three areas should be considered as components of decoding: visual and phonological chunking, lexical access, and context affects.

· Language Knowledge-This includes lexical, syntactic, and text structure knowledge needed to comprehend the production of language. This is closely connected to world knowledge.

· World Knowledge-This is the individual experiential information the reader has concerning the facts and beliefs and procedures for functioning in certain situations. It contains semantic information and its schemata are used to form the structures of conceptual information taken from the text. Schema theory has highlighted the connection between world knowledge and the construction of a text representation.

Reader Product

· Comprehension is the construction of meaning from a text. Word recognition drives the acquisition of meaning. Oral output consists of oral reading and spoken discourse about a text. Written output is made up of two forms: written language, which is visible language and written representations which include graphs, maps, diagrams, and any feature used to represent a text. The affective, cognitive, and metacognitive states change according to the reader’s needs and the complexities of the text (Ruddell & Speaker, 1990). To assist in the construction of meaning, the skilled reader monitors these changes. New knowledge is the information derived from successful interaction with the text. Depending on the reader’s skill level, the new knowledge will focus on fundamental reading skills, or the acquisition of language and world knowledge.

Certain criteria for the evaluation of instructional strategies based on the Interactive Model should be noted. The strength of this model is that it clearly delineates the specifics necessary for vocabulary acquisition to occur. These criteria should help guide the generation of applications in the secondary classroom:

· Content should be sufficient to define context

· Teacher-student interaction should be highlighted

· Background knowledge should be activated prior to reading

· Students should have the chance to develop an internal awareness of new strategies

· Students should be sensitive to pronunciation that may cue word meaning and mispronunciation that may confuse schema

· Students should have the opportunity to use new words and concepts in written and oral language

· Students should be provided with opportunities to develop personal strategies for word growth and optimistic attitudes about language usage (Ruddell, 1986, p. 121)

Theory and Method

Reader comprehension and vocabulary acquisition are an interactive process. General comprehension of the text should occur before vocabulary learning takes place because of the amount of new words encountered in texts. The teacher must understand the importance of reader environment, knowledge use and control by the reader, knowledge background of the reader, and the reader’s learning expectations. Also, establishing motivation and the desire to acquire new vocabulary is central to successful development.

Unfortunately, the teaching of vocabulary in secondary schools has frequently taken the form of something called the “dictionary method”. This consists of teaching the meanings of words through the memorization of their dictionary definitions. This is one of the least effective methods of learning new vocabulary. Memorizing doesn’t involve much active processing by the reader (as suggested by the Interactive Model) and it may not provide a sufficient variety of contexts. In addition, dictionary paraphrases aren’t always sufficient for imparting a word’s meaning, particularly the more discriminating aspects of meaning. This method and variations of it, which in many cases form the basis of vocabulary instruction in secondary classrooms, is insufficient for teaching the meaning of words. But most importantly, it doesn’t account for what students already know.

The size of a college reader’s vocabulary is estimated as somewhere between 40,000 to 50,000 words (Carpenter & Just, 1987). Even poor readers acquire large vocabularies by the time they exit high school. At its best, rote memorization cannot account for more than a small part of this growth. The size of readers’ vocabularies and the rate of growth for acquisition attest to the breadth of learning involved and indicate that the process entails more than basic memorization.

When we take into account the complexity of the reading process it becomes clear that certain types of vocabulary instruction work best. Keeping this in mind some of the newest techniques in vocabulary acquisition are based on these assumptions:

· Words have more than one definition. Students need to aware that words have more than one definition. Students need to develop “energetic” associations relating new words to actual situations. Abstract concepts and the categorical meaning of words should also receive added attention.

· Words have multiple meanings. The teaching of vocabulary must help students understand that content determines the meaning of a word. The practice of teaching context clues to word meaning is highly recommended. Active processing is a useful approach since it activates readers’ background knowledge.

· Conceptual frameworks should be taught. Words that share a common conceptual basis should be taught together to develop a “thread of meaning.“ In addition, the teaching of word families and roots should be applied. (McNeil, J.D., 1992).

One fundamental application based on these assumptions is the development of two practices that are an integral part of any vocabulary acquisition “training”: contextual analysis and structural analysis.

Contextual analysis is the process of deducing a word’s meaning from its context. To make sense of words, a reader must infer part of the meaning from the context. These inferences are based on syntactic, semantic, and referential processes that constitute comprehension. These processes use cues in the text as well as readers’ general knowledge.

Structural analysis is the process of separating an unfamiliar word into its skeletal components and inferring its meaning from them; sometimes known as “within word meanings” or just as “prefix/root/suffix.” This process allows the reader to access meaning from the hidden clues that reside in many words (Carpenter & Just, 1987).

Successful vocabulary-training programs should include overt and embedded use of contextual and structural analyses combined with a certain amount of direct instruction to create a balanced approach that respects individual variations in student abilities. It should also include conceptual frameworks that promote students’ awareness of the inter-connectivity of words. Keeping this in mind, let’s take a look at what components a successful program might have.

Practical Framework

A) Facilitating Comprehension

Facilitating the acquisition of vocabulary need not be a complicated task. Teachers should be aware that they must strive to make texts comprehensible through schema activation, real world connections to heighten motivation, allowing students the chance to internalize processing strategies, and the introduction of conceptual frameworks for learning vocabulary in the context of subject matter and associated words.

Words are learned in a relatively measured way over time. Teaching students how to apply various word learning strategies has been highly successful. Moreover, since comprehension facilitates vocabulary learning, contextual clues may be the most powerful tool available for the quick assimilation of new words. Likewise, it is less likely that a student will be able to make good inferences based on his or her knowledge of the text if the teacher doesn’t make the context more comprehensible through the activation of the reader’s background knowledge.

An example of a situation in which a student is under-prepared for a reading might be when a core novel is assigned without proper pre-reading activities. Let’s say the book Farewell to Manzanar is assigned to a class without any pre-reading activities concerning the circumstances leading up to the interment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, students might struggle with the meaning of passages mis-identifying terms like “camp” for summer camp since this is the only existing knowledge they have of camps. Although this is an extreme example, it is clear that a student who possesses a strong understanding of the history and key terminologies relating to this period in American history will have greater success when making inferences about unknown words within that contextual domain. Therefore, the first and most important step for increasing vocabulary in secondary schools is the inclusion of effective pre-reading activities and key discussions prior to the start of a book, play, article, essay, etc.

These activities need not be just historical in nature, they should also allow for students to develop “knowledge threads” accounting for “streams” of existent knowledge pertaining to the selection. For instance, lists of terms relating to World War II could be taken from students and put on the board. This existing knowledge can them be examined and connected to desired knowledge and sections of the reading.

This type of teaching isn’t always being practiced in many under-performing secondary schools. Some teachers may assume that students’ world knowledge includes certain items, when in fact they may have no background knowledge at all. Teachers should take nothing for granted concerning world knowledge, especially in English and history classes.

B) Motivating Students

In addition, effective vocabulary-training programs are able to motivate students. Teaching techniques should engage students’ interest and acknowledge the importance of creating a level of excitement during the learning process. This seems like a tough task considering the apparent limitations that the study of vocabulary might entail. But in reality, successful vocabulary-acquisition training encompasses many of the elements utilized in language arts instruction and can be as interesting as the study of any great novel or play (Smith, 1966, p. 290).

The approach is what counts most. Is the instructor excited about vocabulary acquisition training? Does he or she use a variety of methods? Does he or she embed training during regular instruction? Is the classroom program clearly outlined so that students are aware of expectations? Does the selected strategy provide for teacher-student, student-student interaction? Does the selected strategy provide opportunity for students to access prior knowledge and schemata related to the word meaning?

C) Creating a Network of Ideas

One revolutionary concept is the teaching of vocabulary as a network of ideas. This refers to relating ideas and a new concept to what we already know through integration. Some practices that foster integration are conceptual mapping and semantic mapping.

Conceptual mapping is a technique that enables students to map new vocabulary words into sections. As students move though a chapter and new words are encountered students are able to discuss these words by deciding where each word should be placed on a “map.“ During the creation of the graphic, students refer to examples given in the text, ask each other for non-examples of each term, and define the terms in their own words. This method is appropriate for all core subjects including math.

Semantic mapping is a tool for relating new concepts to a student’s background knowledge. This type of mapping is generally used to connect conceptual meanings of words to a hierarchical organization of schemata. An advantage of teaching words for their associative and categorical meanings rather than their denotive meanings is improved recall. Similar to semantic mapping, semantic feature analysis assists students to see how words in the same category differ. Students develop a written model based on the category to be examined. They then chart how each item is the same or differs. Students discover that no two words have identical patterns; consequently, no two words have exactly the same meaning. Some teachers use this as a culminating activity when students have the base knowledge of a topic in a content field (McNeil, J.D., 1992).

D) Reprocessing Ideas

The role of metacognition in the process of literacy development is a significant one in that it enables learners to lay claim to new strategies and concepts through the act of reprocessing these ideas into usable information based on innate individual systems of organization, and at its roots it develops the foundation for the connection to reading that all writing produces. Metacognition exercises students’ awareness of text by activating, then confirming, strategies used to aid comprehension. This in turn leads connects to increased vocabulary. It has been noted that younger and poorer readers display low levels of this awareness while they try to make sense of text (Garner, 1987).

During a metacognitive conversation, a student becomes conscious of his or her mental activities and participates in describing it and discussing it to others. It is one of the keys to deep learning and the accomplishment of utilizing skills and knowledge in a variety of manners. Metacognition creates an ongoing discussion between students, teachers, text and their individual relationships to reading. It also examines how we think and allows for comparison checks between students and teachers alike, not for the purpose of deciding which is the best universal strategy, but to enable students to choose what works for them given their own unique characters and personal experiences. When a student is developing metacognition, he or she is noticing what is happening in the mind during a variety of everyday situations. This is then applied to reading; identifying all the processes occurring while reading, and then sorting through them and choosing those appropriate and worth engaging in frequently.


Since the learning of vocabulary is closely related to a student’s ability to comprehend text, it is important that vocabulary-acquisition training programs do not rely solely on memorization, but that they help students learn how to obtain word meanings from reading. Students need strong pre-reading activities to help them comprehend what they read. Teachers should include these activities in their teaching and also develop a style of teaching that embeds the vocabulary processing strategies of conceptual and structural analysis. Furthermore, although some direct vocabulary instruction can be useful, the majority of time should be spent on training students in vocabulary acquisition. This type of “training” should include vocabulary processing strategies and the development of “idea networks” that promote active reading so that students are proficient at accessing different approaches when faced with unfamiliar words. Finally, students must have the chance to reprocess ideas internally through activities that help cultivate metacognition.

In order to be successful vocabulary-acquisition training centers, classrooms should be exciting learning environments that integrate student interaction with teacher and fellow students alike, facilitated by educators who strive to motivate. These educators should endeavor to deconstruct texts to comprehensible parts and seek to make overt those strategies accomplished readers consistently utilize. Moreover, these contingencies need not be the sole domain of the English department; they can be applied equally across the curriculum in, essentially, any subject for any level of student attending mainstream or special classes. I believe that by following a solid practical framework we can transform all classrooms into vocabulary-acquisition training centers and encourage a turnaround in reading achievement throughout the state.


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