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A Whole New World of Vocabulary Instruction

Posted by Elfrieda H. Hiebert on 21 January 2020

Words are not only a means of communicating, but a foundation of learning. The words that children know predict comprehension of what they read. Expanding students’ vocabularies is therefore one of the most critical functions of schooling. But choosing which words to teach has always been a challenge. Children are typically taught 6 to 8 words a week that teachers or publishers pick from specific texts. When we consider the number of words in English—as many as 600,000 in the Oxford English Dictionary—we understand why the 6-8-word approach has not proven to give an appreciable boost to children's comprehension.

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Digital resources have led to new understandings about English vocabulary. For example, digital analyses show that, of the 1,300 word families that make up most of the words in beginning reading texts, 40% are both highly concrete and already in children’s oral language.  Such words are ideal for teaching young children about letter-sound connections (e.g., socks, rock, clock or chin, skin, thin).   

Insights such as this one mean that vocabulary can be taught in ways that substantially expand students' vocabularies. In Teaching Words and How Words Work1, I describe the findings from digital analyses; these conclusions will be the focus of several entries on the Word Findings blog. Here I explain the reasons for this veritable revolution in understanding the vocabulary of school texts.

In the world of computers, millions of words from innumerable books can be analyzed in a nanosecond. This instant processing contrasts sharply with the time-intensive analyses by researchers of previous eras who laboriously tabulated word features by hand. 

Digitization isn’t only fast and convenient but also allows for the development of databases showcasing numerous features of words. For example, one group of researchers has labeled the age at which words appear in children's oral language. In another database, information on the degree to which words elicit concrete images is available. Numerous other word features can be gotten from digital analyses, including the regularity and frequency of letter sequences.

To illustrate, consider the TextBase, a database treasure trove of over 10,000 digitized texts that I have amassed over the past 15 years. I use another resource, the Word Zone Profiler, which is a text-analysis program that provides information on 15 features of words, such as age of acquisition and degree of concreteness. Through analyses with the TextBase and the Word Zone Profiler, I have established critical insights into the words that are most prominent at different points of schooling. The forthcoming series on Word Findings is based on these understandings.  

1Hiebert, E.H. (2020). Teaching words and how they work. New York, NY:  Teachers College Press.