Vocabulary instruction that improves reading comprehension

Student sitting on a pile of booksResearch reveals that vocabulary exercises that are commonly used to improve students’ reading comprehension often produce a bigger vocabulary, without necessarily improving students’ understanding of the material they are reading. Chris Sloan, a teacher at Judge Memorial Catholic School in Salt Lake City, Utah, observed this in his own English classes. Customarily, he assigns a chapter to read each night with vocabulary words to look up in the dictionary and to use in sentences. Although most students complete the assignments, he reports that their reading comprehension does not improve measurably.

Sloan set out to develop vocabulary instruction that would improve his students’ reading comprehension. With the help of two university professors, Jan Dole, University of Utah, Salt Lake city, and Woody Trathen, Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina, Sloan studied the available research. He concluded that students appear to benefit most from vocabulary instruction that teaches them how to select important words and understand these words within the context of the reading. Using these ideas, Sloan designed literature and vocabulary units to test an alternative instructional technique alongside his traditional approach.

Ten-week study

Forty-three students in two English classes in this primarily middle-class school participated in this 10-week study. Any student could elect to take Sloan’s English class entitled “Action and Adventure” and students who did were not grouped by ability. The classes read three novels: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (John LeCarre, 1963), The Call of the Wild (Jack London, 1905), and Tarzan of the Apes (Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1912).

During the first four weeks, both classes read The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and completed vocabulary exercises with words chosen by Sloan. In the traditionally taught class, Sloan talked with students about their definitions and sentences for vocabulary words prior to a discussion of the previous night’s reading. Sloan did not explain the criteria for selecting vocabulary words. He did not ask students to find definitions appropriate to the context of their reading, and he did not discuss vocabulary words within the context of the literature discussion. During discussions of the reading, he asked groups to identify passages they thought were important and to explain why they were important. He also instructed them to find out all they could about the characters.

In the experimental class, Sloan discussed why the words he chose were important to the main characters, ideas, events or themes in the novel. Students were trained to underline a word as they read it in the text and to predict its meaning from the context. They also looked up its meaning and were told to select the definition most appropriate to the context. The importance of these words and the appropriateness of the definitions were discussed in class. Experimental vocabulary instruction was integrated into the discussion of the novel. Words were discussed as they tied into the plot, theme and characters of the story.

During the second four weeks, students read The Call Of The Wild. For this novel, students in both classes worked in small groups, choosing their own words to study. In the traditionally taught class, Sloan instructed students to work in groups to select vocabulary words “they felt they ought to know.” In the experimental class, Sloan helped students decide which words were important to the characters, events, ideas or themes in the story. Experimentally taught students were asked to justify why they chose specific words. In the beginning, according to Sloan, only a few students were able to identify appropriate words. Using words selected by students, Sloan helped them to determine whether they were important for understanding the story. With coaching, more and more students in the experimental class learned to select appropriate words.

During the final two weeks, both classes read Tarzan of the Apes and worked independetly to select and study their own words without any teacher guidance or peer support.

Experimental class scores higher

A vocabulary test was administered as a pretest at the beginning of the study and again as a post-test after the first two novels were read. The two classes scored the same on the pretest. On the post-test, however, the experimental class scored significantly better than the traditional class. Comprehension of each book was measured with a test consisting of four short-answer and one essay question. Questions targeted main characters and themes and required students to integrate information from the entire text. Answers were judged on whether the question was clearly answered with supporting examples from the story. On all three comprehension tests, the experimental class scored significantly higher than did the traditional class.

Understanding contextual meaning

Sloan et al. conclude that three elements are key to developing vocabulary knowledge that improves reading comprehension:

1. providing specific criteria for the selection of words important to the content of the reading;

2. ensuring that students learn the contextual meaning of words; and

3. providing multiple oppportunities to practice using words within the context of story discussions.


“Teaching Vocabulary Within the Context of Literature”, Journal of Reading, Volume 38, Number 6, March 1995, pp. 452-460.

Published in ERN May/June 1995, Volume 8, Number 3

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