What is vocabulary?

Vocabulary refers to the words students must know to communicate effectively. Students develop four vocabularies: listening vocabulary, speaking vocabulary, reading vocabulary, and writing vocabulary. Oral vocabulary refers to words that students recognize in listening or use in speaking; these develop first and are larger than reading or writing vocabularies. Reading vocabulary refers to words students recognize in print, and writing vocabulary refers to words students can use when they write. (Put Reading First).

Why teach vocabulary?

Vocabulary plays an important part in learning to read. As beginning readers, students use the words in their oral vocabularies to make sense of the words they see in print. Students will recognize words in text and make meaning from connected text only if they have the words in their oral vocabularies. While they may be able to decode words they don’t know, they cannot comprehend these words. Simply put, a beginning reader cannot read words they do not already know orally.

As students learn to read more advanced texts, they are able to figure out the meaning of new words that are not part of their oral vocabularies. However, even though they can learn some new words from context, students must be able to understand approximately 95% of the running words in the text in order to understand and infer meaning (Ellery 205).

Children begin school with a great difference in a range of background knowledge and vocabulary. Children in higher SES households typically know about twice as many words in 1st grade as do their classmates from lower SES households (Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, 2002). Students with limited vocabularies may begin reading fairly well in preK-2, using books with controlled vocabularies. However, these students begin to fall behind in later grades because they lack the vocabulary necessary to attack more complex text. Differences in vocabulary development persist into later years, with the gap every widening. Those with poor vocabularies not only struggle with reading, but struggle to comprehend concepts, ideas, and information from all content areas.

Consequently, rapid development of oral vocabularies is important in the primary grades. Systematic efforts are key to developing students’ oral and reading vocabularies beginning in the pre-reading years (Neuman, 2008).

Interventions for Vocabulary


  • Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing Words to Life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: The Guilford Press.
  • Ellery, V. (2005). Creating Strategic Readers. New York, The Guilford Press. 77-105.
  • National Reading Panel (2000). Put Reading First.
  • Neuman, S. (2008). Changing the Odds for Children at Risk. Westport, CT, Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.