7 Vocabulary Myths

We’ve all heard the rumors about what is best when it comes to teaching vocabulary… So are they true? Can students really learn words by looking them up in the dictionary? Are context clues enough? Learn more about the common misconceptions of vocabulary acquisition. 


Myth #1: Explicit vocabulary instruction does not work 

Vocabulary is acquired in three ways: exposure to rich oral language, wide reading, and through direct vocabulary instruction. It has long been assumed that a large portion of vocabulary can be acquired incidentally through encountering vocabulary words in language and through reading. However, we know: 

  1. When it comes to oral language, our spoken language is at a much lower and casual level than language in literature. We also know that not everyone is exposed to the same amount of rich oral language in their environments (from conversation, interactions with others, exposure to different multimedia, etc) or their rich oral language may not be in English. 
  2. Wide reading is becoming increasingly rare, with an almost 20% drop in kids reading for enjoyment in the last few decades. 10-12 rich exposures with a word, in various contexts, is what helps a word to stick. If learners are encountering words less, because they are reading less, they are inherently acquiring less rich vocabulary. In addition, we know that an author’s purpose is not to teach vocabulary. 

Therefore, it is important that vocabulary instruction is also provided. Read our blog here about what best practice vocabulary instruction should include. 


Myth #2: Context clues are enough to support vocabulary acquisition

As discussed in Myth #1, an author’s purpose is not to teach vocabulary. Instead, an author adds language for rich imagery and to tell a vivid story. For this reason, clear context clues are not often provided. In fact, “The probability of learning a word from context upon first encounter is 15%” (Nagy et al., 1985). 


Myth #3: Rote memorization of dictionary definitions is effective

Simply put, dictionary definitions and rote memorization for vocabulary acquisition do not work to arrive at depth of understanding. Using language, to teach language, is not an effective way to provide vocabulary instruction for the large percentage of students who struggle with language. A dictionary may be a tool for understanding vocabulary, but rarely does the dictionary provide enough explanation of a meaning or student friendly language enough for learners to comprehend. “In 1974, George Miller studied sentences children had produced after studying dictionary definitions for novel words. They show clearly that dictionary definitions give students rather limited and sometimes frankly incorrect information about word meaning.” Source


Myth #4: Reading comprehension comes with understanding 75% of the words in a text 

Recent research suggests that students actually need to know anywhere from 95%-98% of words in a text to fully comprehend. Students can learn new words by encountering them in a text, but learning this word depends heavily on knowing the other words provided. This is a key reason that we can “bust” Myth #1. If we rely heavily on students encountering words in a text to learn new word meanings, it is also heavily dependent on their decoding skills and their already present vocabulary. For this reason, a combination of oral language, wide reading, and effective direct instruction are important so that students understand words they may be encountering. 


Myth #5: A few exposures to a vocabulary word means we understand it

On average, a learner must be exposed to a word 10-12 times to deeply understand the meaning. The catch being, these must be rich encounters that help to better understand the word in multiple contexts. Thus, learners must be exposed to a word in multiple contexts, with multiple repetitions, to deeply understand the word’s meaning. 


Myth #6: Lesser used vocabulary should be the target words for direct vocabulary instruction 

It can be assumed that the words we want students to know are those that have infrequent use or nuanced meanings. However, that does not mean that all words hold the same value in terms of importance. If students are to know 50,000+ words by 12th grade, it is impossible to expect that we can provide adequate instruction for that many terms. However, some more infrequent words may be worth prioritizing. Words that may be generative, or help to support other categorical word meanings, should be prioritized. This may also include front loading words that are specific to a content that will be encountered in class (such as math, science, or social studies).  In addition, Tier 2 words with more nuanced meanings that students may encounter in a text should be directly taught.


Myth #7: If you can spell and pronounce a word you know it

Knowing correct pronunciation of a word suggests that learners have encountered the term before. This may also include knowledge of how to decode  the word or spell the word. However, this knowledge does not necessarily independently correlate with understanding word meaning. Instead, words can be orthographically mapped in a student’s mind when these three pieces come together. Depth of knowledge also comes from correctly understanding the word in context of the text. 


Vocabulary instruction is nothing to be afraid of. As we work to “bust” the myths traditionally associated with vocabulary acquisition, we can better understand what our learners need. Researchers continue to learn more about the importance of vocabulary on reading comprehension. It is crucial that educators understand best practices for vocabulary instruction and independent vocabulary work for their learners.

Looking for a program that deeply teaches Tier 2 vocabulary and critical thinking in a fraction of the time? Check out InferCabulary


Source: https://www.serpinstitute.org/wordgen-weekly/vocabulary-instruction#myths