SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

Direct Instruction of Academic Vocabulary: What About Real Reading?

  1. Top of page
  2. Direct Instruction of Academic Vocabulary: What About Real Reading?
  3. References
  4. Response to Krashen
  5. References

This is a comment on Nagy and Townsend's “Words as Tools: Learning Academic Vocabulary as Language Acquisition,” a review of attempts to teach academic vocabulary directly, which appeared in the January/February/March 2012 issue of Reading Research Quarterly (pp. 91–108). Because of its focus on instruction and interventions, the article gave the impression that direct instruction is the only means for the development of academic vocabulary.

Nagy and Townsend emphasized that “vocabulary learning must occur in authentic contexts, with students having many opportunities to learn how target words interact with, garner meaning from, and support meanings of other words” (p. 98), but they did not mention that this happens when we read real texts that we are interested in and focus on their meaning.

Nagy has published compelling evidence supporting the hypothesis that we gradually acquire vocabulary from reading for meaning, evidence that suggests that reading alone can do the job of building a large vocabulary and that reading for meaning is more efficient than direct instruction for vocabulary development (Nagy, Anderson, & Herman, 1987; Nagy & Herman, 1987; Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985). After studying the size of the vocabulary appearing in printed school English, Nagy and Anderson (1984) concluded that

our findings indicate that even the most ruthlessly systematic direct vocabulary instruction could neither account for a significant proportion of all the words the children actually learn, nor cover more than a modest proportion of the words they will encounter in school reading materials. (p. 304)

Nagy and Townsend concluded that successful intervention consist of “rich vocabulary instruction,” which goes far beyond the usual idea of direct instruction. It “consists largely in providing students with multiple opportunities to use the instructed words, both receptively and productively, generally in the context of discussion about academic content” (p. 101). In the studies cited in the article, this kind of direct instruction of academic language has a positive effect: Students learn some academic words in these studies. Yet, we must nevertheless ask, “Compared to what?” (Coles, 2003): Comparison groups did not engage in genuine academic reading for their own purposes.

Based on Nagy's earlier work as well as other research showing the power of reading (Krashen, 2004), there is good reason to hypothesize that academic vocabulary is acquired gradually through genuine academic reading for the readers’ own purposes and that this path is more effective and efficient than even rich instruction. It is reasonable to hypothesize that two stages are involved: (1) extensive self-selected reading for pleasure, which provides the linguistic and conceptual background that makes academic reading more comprehensible; and (2) selective reading of a large number of academic texts in an area of great personal interest to the reader.

Obvious arguments against relying on direct instruction for more than a small fraction of vocabulary development include the fact that the meanings and grammatical properties of academic words are often very complex; even professional linguists sometimes disagree on their precise definitions and conditions of use (see, e.g., Hyland, 1996). Also, there are a lot of academic words—more than can be taught at one time.

Many people have acquired a great deal of academic vocabulary without instruction, certainly without traditional direct instruction and even without the rich instruction that Nagy and Townsend described. In fact, I doubt that any member of the human race has ever consciously learned more than very modest amounts of academic language. This claim, of course, is subject to empirical investigation.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Direct Instruction of Academic Vocabulary: What About Real Reading?
  3. References
  4. Response to Krashen
  5. References
  • Coles, G. (2003). Reading the naked truth: Literacy, legislation, and lies. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Hyland, K. (1996). “I don't quite follow”: Making sense of a modifier. Language Awareness, 5(2), 91109. doi:10.1080/09658416.1996.9959895.
  • Krashen, S.D. (2004). The power of reading: Insights from the research (2nd ed.). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
  • Nagy, W.E., & Anderson, R.C. (1984). How many words are there in school printed English? Reading Research Quarterly, 19(3), 304330. doi:10.2307/747823.
  • Nagy, W.E., Anderson, R.C., & Herman, P.A. (1987). Learning word meanings from context during normal reading. American Educational Research Journal, 24(2), 237270.
  • Nagy, W.E., & Herman, P.A. (1987). Breadth and depth of vocabulary knowledge: Implications for acquisition and instruction. In M.G. McKeown, & M.E. Curtiss (Eds.), The nature of vocabulary acquisition (pp. 1935). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Nagy, W.E., Herman, P.A., & Anderson, R.C. (1985). Learning words from context. Reading Research Quarterly, 20(2), 233253. doi:10.2307/747758.

Response to Krashen

  1. Top of page
  2. Direct Instruction of Academic Vocabulary: What About Real Reading?
  3. References
  4. Response to Krashen
  5. References

There are at least two things that teachers need to do to help students acquire academic language. First, scaffold classroom interactions involving academic language so students experience them as i + 1 (i.e., within their zone of proximal development) rather than i + too much. Second, increase the volume of students’ meaningful exposure to and use of academic language both within and outside of the classroom. Our review begins to address the former; Krashen's letter reminds us that we did not address the latter.

Krashen hypothesized two stages that may be involved in building academic language: “(1) extensive self-selected reading for pleasure, which provides the linguistic and conceptual background that makes academic reading more comprehensible; and (2) selective reading of a large number of academic texts in an area of great personal interest to the reader.” These stages may well describe the experience of students who currently succeed in acquiring academic language, but in many cases, teachers feel that it is a struggle to get their students to read any academic text at all. For the students who need the most support to achieve academically, the chances of stage 1 occurring are slim, which makes the chances of stage 2 occurring impossible.

Until there is a shift in K–12 schooling and, arguably, in society that makes stage 1 possible for all students, they are faced with increasingly difficult texts and increasingly less of the background knowledge necessary to understand them. If the Common Core State Standards (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2010) succeed in shifting the landscape of curricula/teaching to include an emphasis on much more reading of informational texts, we might see less of a knowledge/vocabulary gap in our typically high-achieving and typically low-achieving students. Yet, for the foreseeable future, teachers need to find powerful ways to scaffold students’ reading of content area texts. Reading the texts aloud and traditional methods of vocabulary preteaching are inadequate. Teachers need to build motivation to read, background knowledge, and facility with academic language. We believe that high-quality vocabulary instruction, as described in our review, can offer one part of such scaffolding.

However, teaching individual words, even with the best methods, is only a small part of the solution. We agree with Graves's (2006) proposal that a curriculum to promote vocabulary growth should include four components: providing rich and varied language experiences, teaching individual words, teaching word-learning strategies, and promoting word consciousness. Nevertheless, having this sensible framework does not mean that we have solved the problem of promoting academic-language development. There is still distressingly little research to show that these components, either individually or in combination, can actually lead to significant growth in generalized measures of vocabulary or reading comprehension. Moreover, there is even less, if any, research to help us know what relative weighting of these components might be most effective for which students.

With respect to research on academic vocabulary development, Krashen noted that the intervention studies we presented did not have comparison groups that engaged in “genuine academic reading for their own purposes.” This is a big limitation in the literature and should be addressed. However, such a comparison raises serious issues concerning assessment. Genuine academic reading is likely to lead to very gradual gains in knowledge of large numbers of words, whereas rich vocabulary instruction aims to produce substantial gains in knowledge for a small set of words—as well as incremental increases in knowledge of the words around the target words. What words would we measure if some students took part in rich vocabulary instruction and others read academic texts that varied based on students’ reading levels and interests? What would we count as knowing a word? On what basis do we determine the relative importance of breadth versus depth of knowledge?

We thank Krashen for reminding us of the big picture. Availability of high-quality, motivating texts may not be a sufficient condition to improve students’ knowledge of academic language, but it is at the very least a necessary condition. As researchers, we of course call for more research on what is best to do when such texts are available to all students. However, we agree with Krashen that making such texts available to all students should be one of our highest priorities.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Direct Instruction of Academic Vocabulary: What About Real Reading?
  3. References
  4. Response to Krashen
  5. References
  • Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010). Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Washington, DC: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers.
  • Graves, M.F. (2006). The vocabulary book: Learning and instruction. New York: Teachers College Press; Newark, DE: International Reading Association; Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.