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Reading, Writing, and a Lifetime of Achievement

The Importance of Early Vocabulary and School Support for Literacy

by Andrew Biemiller

Basic academic skills can be taught. Not all students learn at the same rate (any more than children learn swimming or cycling skills at the same rate), but almost all can master these skills. They can convert print to speech and vice-versa (basic literacy skills). They can master the relationship between number and quantities, and basic operations with numbers.

We should focus on whether children master these skills rather than exactly when they are mastered. It shouldn’t be a big deal whether a child reads fluently by the end of 2nd grade or the middle of 3rd grade, but in our schools, the former is “success” and the latter is “failure”.

Once learned, swimming, cycling, reading, and computing are skills that can be used throughout life.

However, becoming literate requires more than “reading mechanics”. Children also need an adequate vocabulary in the commonly-used language of the nation. Unlike “basic skills”, acquiring an adequate vocabulary requires ongoing support for many years. Young children clearly build vocabulary from the language used around them. However, the “language around them” varies dramatically for less-advantaged versus more advantaged homes.

Unfortunately, schools have not had much effect on vocabulary development, especially in the primary grades. During the primary grades, disadvantaged children continue to fall further behind advantaged children. Schools will have to take more responsibility to ensure adequate vocabulary development across the primary years if disadvantaged children are to break out of poverty and linguistic barriers.

Building vocabulary involves both exposure to a wide range of relevant vocabulary, and probably more incidental and intentional vocabulary clarification and teaching than is commonly recognized. This is especially true during the preliterate period—before children can read fluently or until age 8 to 10. Fluent readers acquire most of their additional vocabulary from print sources (books, internet, etc.). However, in the preliterate period, most new vocabulary has to come from oral sources.

I suspect that direct word meaning explanations may be more needed during the preliterate period. When one encounters a new word (or different meaning) while reading, there are a number of possibilities. A person can ask someone about the word, actively try to determine the meaning, or keep reading in hope that the text will clarify it. However, when listening to someone else, it is often less possible to ask questions (especially in a group), or think about the unknown word while the other person continues to speak or read aloud. While some words unknown before hearing a story are acquired after hearing it, many more are acquired when meanings are explained by the reader. Several studies have shown that children can acquire 10 or more new word meanings per week with classroom instruction.

How many new meanings are needed by disadvantaged children? Based on research with English-speaking children from a wide range of family incomes, I estimate that—at the end of grade 2—average children know about 6000 root word meanings. Disadvantaged children (average for the lowest quartile), know about 4000 rootword meanings. Since average children acquire about 1000 meanings per year, these low-vocabulary children are already 2 years behind at the end of grade 2. Advantaged children, or those in the highest vocabulary quartile, are about 2 years ahead at this point. This four-year range was also seen in the higher grades through grade 6.

Word meanings are learned in a predictable sequence. Those with larger vocabularies know mainly the same meanings as those known by smaller vocabularies plus some in addition. This makes it possible to determine high priority words for classroom instruction in the primary and upper elementary grades. These are meanings that are known by those with large vocabularies, but often not by those with smaller vocabularies. I have published a list of such word meanings in Words Worth Teaching. While far from perfect, this book provides a starting point for vocabulary instruction in the elementary years.

Expanding vocabulary during kindergarten is a step in the right direction. However, unless vocabulary support is continued throughout the primary years, less advantaged children will not continue to add enough needed vocabulary in the rest of the primary years. It is possible that children who reach the end of the primary grades with at least an average vocabulary and fluent reading skills will be able to progress thereafter with normal classroom reading and classroom vocabulary instruction. In the upper elementary grades, children are usually taught more about affixes and often about Latin and Greek word stems, as well as more vocabulary in conjunction with science and social studies curricula. However, Drs. Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich reported that children with low vocabulary by grade 1 or 2 often continue to make poor academic progress, even into high school.

Until schools seriously address vocabulary problems for some extended time early in education, most disadvantaged children and some others will continue to lag behind their classmates in school and after school.


Biemiller, A. (2005). Addressing Developmental Patterns Vocabulary: Implications for Choosing Words for Primary Grade Vocabulary Instruction. In E. H. Hiebert and M. Kamil (Eds.) Bringing Scientific Research to Practice: Vocabulary. (pp 223-242). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Biemiller, A. (2010). Words Worth Teaching. Columbus, OH: SRA/McGraw-Hill.

Biemiller, A. & Boote, C. (2006). An Effective Method for Building Meaning Vocabulary in Primary Grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 44-62.

Biemiller, A. & Slonim, N. (2001) Estimating root word vocabulary growth in normative and advantaged populations: Evidence for a common sequence of vocabulary acquisition. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 498-520.

Christian, K., Morrison, F. J., Frazier, J. A., & Massetti, G. (2000). Specificity in the nature and timing of cognitive growth in kindergarten and first grade. Journal of Cognition and Development, 1(4),429-448.

Cunningham, A. E., & Stanovich, K. E. (1997). Early reading acquisition and its relation to reading experience and ability 10 years later. Developmental Psychology, 33, 934-945.

Morrison, F. J., Smith, L., & Dow-Ehrensberger, M. (1995). Education and cognitive development: A natural experiment. Developmental Psychology, 31, 789-799.