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A Review of the Current Research 
on Vocabulary Instruction
A Research Synthesis
2010
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A RESEARCH SYNTHESIS
A Review of the Current Research 
on Vocabulary Instruction
This document was compiled, written, and edited by Shari Butler, Kelsi Urrutia, Anneta Buenger, 
Nina Gonzalez, Marla Hunt, and Corinne Eisenhart.
Developed by the National Reading Technical Assistance Center, RMC Research Corporation
The NRTAC expresses its appreciation to Elizabeth Goldman, C. Ralph Adler, and Robert Kozman
of RMC Research Corporation for their editorial and production support. Original design by 
Lisa T. Noonis.
2010
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This document was developed by the
National Reading Technical Assistance
Center. The document was produced
under U.S. Department of Education
Contract No. ED-08-CO-0123 with 
RMC Research Corporation. The views
expressed herein do not necessarily
represent the policies of the U.S.
Department of Education. No official
endorsement by the U.S. Department of
Education of any product, commodity,
service, or enterprise is intended or
should be inferred.
http://www.ed.gov/programs/readingfirst/
support/index.html
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Introduction
1
Methodology
3
Database
3
Analysis
3
Results
3
Frequency of exposure to targeted vocabulary words
4
Explicit instruction of targeted vocabulary words
4
Questioning and language engagement
5
Conclusions
7
Appendix
9
Studies reviewed for this synthesis
11
References
17
Contents
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Introduction
1
The National Reading Panel (NICHD,2000) identified vocabulary as one of five major components of reading.Its
importance to overall school success and more specifically to reading comprehension is widely documented (Baker,
Simmons,& Kame’enui,1998;Anderson & Nagy,1991).The National Reading Panel (NRP) stated that vocabulary
plays an important role both in learning to read and in comprehending text:readers cannot understand text
without knowing what most of the words mean.“Teaching vocabulary will not guarantee success in reading,just
as learning to read words will not guarantee success in reading.However,lacking either adequate word
identification skills or adequate vocabulary will ensure failure”(Biemiller,2005).
Vocabulary is generically defined as the knowledge of words and word meanings.More specifically,we use
vocabulary to refer to the kind of words that students must know to read increasingly demanding text with
comprehension (Kamil & Hiebert,2005).It is something that expands and deepens over time.
The NRP’s synthesis of vocabulary research identified eight findings that provide a scientifically based
foundation for the design of rich,multifaceted vocabulary instruction.The findings are:
• Provide direct instruction of vocabulary words for a specific text.Anderson and Nagy (1991) 
pointed out “there are precise words children may need to know in order to comprehend particular lessons 
or subject matter.”
• Repetition and multiple exposures to vocabulary items are important.Stahl (2005) cautioned
against “mere repetition or drill of the word,”emphasizing that vocabulary instruction should provide students
with opportunities to encounter words repeatedly and in a variety of contexts.
• Vocabulary words should be those that the learner will find useful in many contexts.Instruction
of high-frequency words known and used by mature language users can add productively to an individual’s
language ability (Beck,McKeown,& Kucan,2002).Research suggests that vocabulary learning follows a
developmental trajectory (Biemiller,2001).
• Vocabulary tasks should be restructured as necessary.“Once students know what is expected of them
in a vocabulary task,they often learn rapidly”(Kamil,2004).
• Vocabulary learning is effective when it entails active engagement that goes beyond
definitional knowledge.Stahl and Kapinus (2001) stated,“When children ‘know’ a word,they not only
know the word’s definition and its logical relationship with other words,they also know how the word
functions in different contexts.”
• Computer technology can be used effectively to help teach vocabulary.Encouragement exists but
relatively few specific instructional applications can be gleaned from the research (NICHD,2000).
• Vocabulary can be acquired through incidental learning.Reading volume is very important in terms 
of long-term vocabulary development (Cunningham & Stanovich,1998).In later work,Cunningham (2005)
further recommended structured read-alouds,discussion sessions and independent reading experiences at
school and home to encourage vocabulary growth in students.
• Dependence on a single vocabulary instruction method will not result in optimal learning
(NICHD,2000).
Stahl (2005) stated,“Vocabulary knowledge is knowledge;the knowledge of a word not only implies a definition,
but also implies how that word fits into the world.”Consequently,researchers and practitioners alike seek to
identify,clarify,and understand what it means for students “to know what a word means.”The sheer complexity 
of vocabulary acquisition,as evidenced by reviewing critical components such as receptive vocabulary versus
productive vocabulary,oral vocabulary versus print vocabulary,and breadth of vocabulary versus depth of
vocabulary (Kamil & Hiebert,2005) raise questions worthy of further research.Other factors such as variations in
students’ vocabulary size (Anderson & Freebody,1981;Nagy,2005),levels of word knowledge (Dale,1965;Graves
& Watts-Taffe,2002),as well as which words are taught (Beck et al.,2002;Biemiller,2005) and how word
knowledge is measured (Biemiller,2005) must all be considered in shaping our understanding of vocabulary
acquisition.
The studies examined in the NRP Report (NICHD,2000) suggested that vocabulary instruction does lead to
gains in comprehension,but methods must be appropriate to the reader’s age and ability.The importance of
vocabulary to success in reading is well known,but there continues to be little research that conclusively identifies
the best methods or combinations of methods of vocabulary instruction.
This publication reviews the most recent research on vocabulary acquisition and instructional practices since
the release of the National Reading Panel’s report.
2
Methodology
3
Database
In order to review the research since the NRP’s review,we used procedures defined by Cooper (1994) to identify
the body of studies included in this synthesis.These procedures included searching subject indices and citations,
browsing,and footnote chasing (White,1994).Computer searches of PsycINFO and ERIC databases from
2002–2009 were conducted to locate appropriate studies.Descriptors for the computer search included “reading”
and “vocabulary,”“vocabulary development,”or “oral language development.”The ERIC search yielded 342 results
and PsycINFO yielded 297 results.Removing duplicates between the two databases generated a total of 324
results.Studies were selected through a two-step process that began as a broad search to locate all potentially
relevant research articles and became more restrictive as selection criteria were applied.
Analysis
Because this review builds on the work of the NRP,we adopted its criteria for including studies:
1. The study must have been relevant to instruction of vocabulary and/or oral language development.
2. The study must have been published in a scientific journal.
3. The study’s experimental design had to involve at least one treatment and an appropriate control group or
needed to have one or more quasi-experimental variables with variations that served as comparisons between
treatments (NRP,2000).
Beyond the NRP’s criteria,this review added:
4. The study must have been published between 2001 and 2009.
5. The study must have included student participants in pre–K,K,1,2,or 3,or any combination thereof.
Applying these criteria reduced the number of applicable studies to 14.Using a code sheet based on two published
syntheses (Klingner & Vaughn,1999),extensive coding was conducted to organize pertinent information from each
study.The code sheet allowed reviewers to record information on the coder,participants (e.g.,participants’ ages)
and their setting;the study’s purpose,research design,and methodologies;and descriptions of the intervention,the
measure,observations,and findings.When a study presented multiple purposes,sets of participants,and results,
only those purposes,etc.that pertained to this synthesis were coded and analyzed.
Results
See the appendix for an overview of the research findings.Examination of the 14 studies included in this synthesis
indicates convergence on the following research themes:(a) frequency of exposure to targeted vocabulary
augments children’s understanding of word meanings and their use of targeted words,(b) explicit instruction
increases word learning,and (c) language engagement through dialogue and/or questioning strategies during a
read-aloud enhances word knowledge.
Frequency of exposure to targeted vocabulary words
Higher frequency of exposure to targeted vocabulary words will increase the likelihood that young
children will understand and remember the meanings of new words and use them more frequently.
In a multiple study research design,Biemiller and Boote (2006) found that repeated reading of a storybook
resulted in greater average gains in word knowledge by young children.The researchers found that students made
an average gain of 12% compared with the control group (children who only heard the story read once),as
measured by a vocabulary test that assessed the meaning of words within context.
These results duplicate findings by Coyne,Simmons,Kame`enui,and Stoolmiller (2004),who researched 
how instructional time should be allocated to meet the intensive needs of children at-risk for reading difficulties.
Although rereading stories and text demand additional instructional time,the increase in word learning for at-risk
children makes rereading an effective use of time.A study by Justice,Meier,and Walpole (2005) that investigated
the effectiveness of rereading text to enhance word learning also provided evidence of the positive impact of
exposure to targeted words through repeated readings.
Another study,of third graders,found that semantic and lexical knowledge accrues over time.Greater gains
were made in semantic (meaning-based) knowledge when students had greater frequency of exposure to the
targeted words.The authors found a more gradual effect on lexical knowledge (McGregor,Sheng,& Ball,2007).
Nation,Snowling,and Clarke (2006) studied a group of eight- and nine-year-olds to determine individual
differences in vocabulary acquisition in children who have impaired reading comprehension.The findings indicate
that poor comprehenders needed as many trials as the control group (children without comprehension deficits) to
learn the phonological form of four nonsense words.It was learning the meaning,or definitions,of the “words”
that clearly separated the children who struggled with comprehending text from those who did not have
comprehension difficulties.The findings indicate that the source of poor comprehenders’ difficulties with lexical
learning may be rooted in semantic,rather than phonological,learning differences.
Explicit instruction of targeted vocabulary words
Explicit instruction of words and their meanings increases the likelihood that young children will
understand and remember the meanings of new words.
Biemiller and Boote (2006) found that while rereading stories improved students’ understanding of word
meanings by 12%,an additional 10% gain occurred when word explanations were taught directly during the
reading of the storybook.Biemiller and Boote suggest that teachers introduce morerather than fewerword
meanings during read-alouds,stating that increasing the oral vocabulary of K–2 students by 400 word meanings
per year is a reasonable goal.A similar study in Ipswich,England (Cain,2007),with third grade students,
investigated whether or not the use of word explanations (definitions) facilitated students’ word learning.The
investigator found that although students made gains when explanations were provided for unfamiliar words,they
made the greatest increases when they explained their own definitions of the targeted words.
Although there is strong evidence supporting explicit instruction of vocabulary,a question remains regarding
which aspect or model of instruction is best.Investigating approaches to explicit vocabulary instruction,Nash and
Snowling (2006) found that using a contextual approach to instruction provided greater vocabulary gains
compared with lessons that emphasized learning word definitions.Their findings also indicated that recalling the
pronunciation of the unfamiliar words proved more difficult than learning their definitions.
4
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