Vocabulary Instruction


Numerous studies have identified a correlation between vocabulary and comprehension, whereby the larger a student’s vocabulary, the better their comprehension. The question then is: How do we improve a student’s vocabulary?

Wright and Cervetii (2016) systematically reviewed the research pertaining to vocabulary intervention and comprehension outcomes. They identified four major findings:

  • Teaching the meaning of target words within a text led to increased comprehension of that text.
  • Instruction that involved active processing (e.g., putting the word in a sentence, comparing and contrasting words to discover relationships, studying the semantic features of the word) was more impactful than just providing a definition or requiring students to find the meaning of the word in a dictionary.
  • There was limited evidence that direct teaching of word meaning improved comprehension overall.
  • There was no evidence that instructions in strategies for determining the meaning of the word (e.g., using context clues or the words morphology) improved comprehension overall.

It is worthwhile discussing each of these findings in a little more depth.

Teaching Meaning of Target Words

  • Based on their findings, Wright and Cervetii argue that even limited vocabulary instruction is better than no instruction in terms of supporting students’ understanding of a particular text.
  • Consequently, vocabulary instruction should be a part of everyreading program, especially if your focus is on increasing comprehension.

Instruction Involving Active Processing

  • The more exposures a student has to a word, the greater the benefit.
  • Teaching students words that are central to the meaning and/or are in a context with which the student is not familiar are of more value.
  • Therefore, extensive instruction in a particular word needs to meet the needs of the individual student (i.e., only focus on the words students don’t know). This is important given the limited amount of instruction time.

Improving Comprehension Generally

  • Given the huge number of words students are likely to encounter in texts, simply focusing on the small number of words that could be covered in a teaching session, is not going to generalise to an overall improvement in comprehension.
  • The selection of vocabulary that is likely to appear in texts students will read across all subject areas has been found to have greater generalisability to comprehension gains.
  • It is impossible to disentangle vocabulary instruction from content. Therefore, conceptual knowledge around a topic, is likely to transfer to greater comprehension of texts requiring a similar knowledge base.
  • The vocabulary contained in texts is significantly broader than that used in every day conversations. Therefore, the more widely and frequently a student reads, the more likely there will be an increase in vocabulary and generalised gains in comprehension.

Strategies for Determining Word Meaning

  • Wright and Cervetii argue that one possible reason for the lack of a transfer effect to generalised gains in comprehension, was the interventions studied were too short.
  • In addition, they suggest that teaching students to self-monitor their understanding of individual words and the text overall may be more important than learning one or two specific strategies.

Limitations and Conclusions

  • Although there may not have been significant gains in students’ generalised comprehension, they demonstrated gains in other linguistic knowledge (e.g., morphology).
  • Increases in vocabulary are likely to support students in other areas (e.g., oral participation and writing).
  • The analysis was unable to consider the relative impact of different instructional methods.
  • The research analysed did not provide information on the longitudinal impact of vocabulary instruction. It is likely that over time the teaching of vocabulary has a spiral effect whereby as vocabulary increases, more text is understood, resulting in greater incidental vocabulary acquisition.

Applying this research

  • Regularly expose students to texts containing words outside of their current knowledge and systematically pre-teach those words. This should include multiple exposures to the word in different contexts and actively processing the word (finding synonyms, antonyms, putting in a sentence, etc., in addition to discussing the meaning of the word).
  • Expose students to a wide range of contexts so they build their general knowledge.
  • Include specific instruction on words that students will need to understand in other subject areas.
  • Only focus on words that are outside of a student’s current knowledge.
  • Teach students how to self-monitor when reading to ensure individual words and the text overall makes sense.

For more information on improving comprehension.


Wright, T.S., & Cervetti, G.N. (2017). A Systematic Review of the Research on Vocabulary Instruction That Impacts Text Comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 52(2), 203–226. doi: 10.1002/rrq.163


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