Knowing Vocabulary Words (& Measuring Growth)

Let me paint the picture…

Sitting in IEPs and Curriculum Planning Meetings over the past 25 years as a practicing SLP, I now realize that “knowing a word” means different things to different people.  Several years ago, I recall reveling in the success of helping 12 high school students “learn” a set of 100 “academically challenging” words. I did this by pairing the vocabulary words with pictures and rehearsing them over and over using a well known online vocabulary program that paired a definition with a term.  I beamed with pride as all 12 semester scores registered between 90 and 100%, thinking I had “taught” these students 100 new vocabulary words and they had “learned” them successfully.  

Only two months later, as some of the same students were engaged in a reading comprehension task, I watched with extreme disappointment as they passed over some of the very vocabulary words I had “taught” with no recognition of the word itself, nor the meaning I was sure they had “learned”.  

The only thing that matched the impact of this bummer was my dedication to figure out what the heck went wrong.  How could these students go from what seemed like “really knowing these vocabulary words” to “not really knowing these vocabulary words”?  


Adjusted Instruction

Ironically, the answer had to do with defining my terms.  

In other words I needed to determine: 1) what was I specifically hoping to accomplish?; and 2) how would I know when I found it?

It did not take long to learn about two very distinctive categories of word learning known as breadth and depth.  Increasing a student’s breadth of vocabulary knowledge, which is what I had done, means introducing students to a lot of words at a very superficial level.  While the words I “taught” were considered “academically challenging”, they shared few semantic connections and I was only teaching them in one context.  I wish I could leave out the part regarding rote memorization (insert hand-over-face emoji here).

Both breadth and depth matter to reading, but depth, in particular, seems to be an important factor in reading comprehension (Ouellette, 2006). If my intention was deep vocabulary acquisition to support reading comprehension, I would need a completely different game plan. What I had not understood back then, but would soon embrace as essential to strong vocabulary intervention (and vocabulary instruction) was that semantic knowledge has many facets and exists on a continuum. 


Vocabulary Acquisition

In fact, at any given time, young word learners may be developing as many as 1,600 vocabulary words at different levels of “knowledge” (Carey, 1978).  With each new encounter, word learners acquire, exchange and adapt their semantic knowledge. 

This includes:

  • associations; words that relate conceptually
  • nuance; shades of meaning among similar words
  • polysemy; words that sound the same but mean something different
  • connotation; the emotional sense of a word
  • register; the social situations where the word is most appropriate
  • collocation; words that are frequently found surrounding the target word


To complicate matters even further, this pocket of semantic knowledge is only ⅓ of what Charles Perfetti has coined the Lexical Quality Hypothesis.  In addition to semantic knowledge, a word learner must also have knowledge of phonology and orthography in order to truly “know” a word.  

Now that we have established that vocabulary acquisition is not an “all or nothing” concept, how can we be sure that our vocabulary instruction is truly moving the needle along the previously mentioned continuum?  Stay tuned…


Author: Jen Knapp; MS, CCC-SLP