Increasing your students’ vocabulary by reading aloud

iStock_000006341912XSmallMost educators and parents have known intuitively that reading stories aloud benefits children. Recent studies, however, provide evidence that reading aloud in the primary grades can be a significant source of vocabulary acquisition.

In studies conducted by Warwick Elley, of the University of New Zealand, regular elementary teachers read aloud one story to their students three times over a period of 7 days. Teachers agreed upon pre- and post-tests that would measure the vocabulary acquired by the children as a result of the reading.

On the tests, children were required to demonstrate their knowledge of new words in either of two ways: by identifying pictures or by finding a synonym that illustrated the word’s meaning. Test items required that the child decontextualize his or her knowledge (the story context was not used on the test).

Tests included control words (vocabulary words not present in the stories). In order to accurately gauge progress, pre-tests were given before the story was read and post-tests were given without warning two days after the last reading.

Defining words during reading

Irrespective of teacher, post-tests showed that classes were very similar in vocabulary learning. In the first study, 7 classes of 7-year-olds were read stories without being told the meanings of new words. Results showed that children learned 15% of the new, previously unknown words.

In a second study with 6 classes of 8-year-olds, children again showed a 15% gain. However, when the teachers explained new words as they appeared in the story (by synonomous phrase or role playing), vocabulary learning jumped to 40%.

Follow-up tests administered three months later showed that this learning was relatively permanent; children remembered the words they had learned. Two classes were used as a control group and did not hear any stories. Test results on these classes confirmed that the children in the study did not learn words by test taking alone.

Of particular significance in these studies is the fact that students who scored the lowest on the pre-test gained as much or more than high-scoring students. This is important since poor readers generally gain less from their reading groups than do good readers who are able to cover more text each day.

An analysis of the results of the study revealed that the most commonly remembered words were those which appeared more than once in the story, those which were depicted in an illustration or those whose meaning was apparent from the surrounding text. Nouns were learned more easily than adjectives and verbs.

Conclusions from these studies should be considered tentative because the total number of new words included on these tests was small. Still, it appears that students in the primary grades benefit from hearing stories. And, since those who score lowest on the vocabulary pre-test learn at least as much as the highest scoring students, reading aloud has the added advantage of being a discreet method for extending extra help to those students most in need of extra help.

Not all stories created equal

Not surprisingly, the study revealed that when it comes to improving vocabulary, all stories are not created equal. Analyzing the research, Elley and the teachers concluded that stories which are highly interesting to children (those that are concrete, humorous, exciting or suspenseful) are those which hold their attention.

Predictably, these stories also produce higher vocabulary gains. One story, which generated very little interest, took place in an unfamiliar environment, contained humorless characters and a plot with little action. As a result, the involvement level of the children was low and they learned few new words.

Books, Professor Elley reminds us, need to be carefully selected by teachers if significant vocabulary gains are to be made.

In conclusion, reading aloud appears to be a good source of relatively permanent vocabulary acquisition for all students. According to Elley, it is a justifiable part of the curriculum and should not be dropped when other curricular demands pressure teachers to eliminate what might be considered non-essentials.


“Vocabulary Acquisition From Listening to Stories” Reading Research Quarterly, April/May/June 1989, Volume 24 Number 2 pp. 174-187.

Published in ERN September/October 1989 Volume 2 Number 4

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