The Role of Vocabulary

Researchers have established that there is a strong relationship between vocabulary (word-meaning knowledge) and the ability of students to construct meaning (Anderson & Freebody, 1981; Davis, 1971; Johnston, 1981). This relationship has often led educators to think that one improves the abilities of students to construct meaning primarily by teaching vocabulary before a text is read. However, more recent researchers have challenged this assumption (Nagy, 1988). This challenge has come about because we have learned that readers acquire vocabulary in a variety of ways -- through wide reading (Nagy & Herman, 1987), from the use of context (Jenkins, Stein, & Wysocki, 1984; Sternberg, 1987), through use of the dictionary (Schatz & Baldwin, 1986), and from limited direct instruction (Beck, McKeown, & Omanson, 1987; Graves, 1986, 1987; Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986).

Direct Instruction and Strategy for Inferring Word Meaning

Direct instruction in vocabulary is only effective in helping students improve their abilities to construct meaning when a few words key to the selection are thoroughly and meaningfully taught (Beck, Perfetti, & McKeown, 1982; Nagy & Herman, 1987; Wixson, 1986), when the words are integrated with the activation and development of prior knowledge (Nagy & Herman, 1987), and when the teaching actively involves students in the learning (Beck, McKeown, & Omanson, 1987; Nagy & Herman, 1987). An important part of the instruction should be the teaching of a strategy to help students independently decode words and infer word meanings (Calfee & Drum, 1986; Graves, 1987). This strategy would help students achieve the overall goal of independence in constructing meaning.

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