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Robert Head and Raymond Leblanc

Teacher helping a student read


The earlier vocabulary strategies for students with learning disabilities (LDs) can be applied, the better. Foundational learning takes place in kindergarten through grade two. This is not to say that vocabulary deficiencies are not found with older students in elementary and middle school, or beyond. Computer assisted instruction, fluency-building vocabulary activities, mnemonic instructional strategies, and concept enhancement instruction as supporting vocabulary building are currently accepted  by educational research findings (Sweeny & Mason, 2011). Research suggests that the adoption of one strategy alone is not a best practice, and that multiple modalities of strategic instructional approaches work best in unison.

Summary of Research:

Sedita (2005) published an article entitled: "Effective Vocabulary Instruction", wherein we are reminded that vocabulary is one of the five core components of reading instruction, the others being phonemic awareness, phonics and word study, fluency, and comprehension.

Vocabulary is the glue that holds communication and comprehension together, making them accessible for children. There are four categories of students for whom vocabulary acquisition and instruction are most challenging: students with limited or no knowledge of English, students who do not read outside of school, students with reading or learning disabilities, and students who enter school with limited vocabulary knowledge. Educational research has established a strong relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension, yet Sedita (2005) cautions that in all this time no one best method for vocabulary instruction is fool-proof. Rather, Sedita suggests that vocabulary should be taught both directly and indirectly, using multiple strategies simultaneously and/or consecutively. This meta-analysis of strategies reveals that one teacher cannot teach students all the words they need to learn.  In summary, Sedita highlights the benefits of exposing students to new words, having them read a lot, and incorporating new vocabulary into instruction and everyday usage whenever and wherever possible.

Puhalla (2011) writes in her article, "Enhancing the Vocabulary Knowledge of First-Grade Children With Supplemental Booster Instruction", that instructional methods when utilized in Tier 2 booster sessions proved effective in teaching sophisticated vocabulary for students identified as at-risk for reading failure. It is interesting that Puhalla, like Sedita (2005) and Stahl (1999), confers that vocabulary acquisition can be attributed in part to the read aloud experiences that take place during early childhood.

Bryant, Goodwin, Bryant & Higgins (2003) acknowledge in their article, "Vocabulary instruction for students with learning disabilities: A review of the research", that the goal of vocabulary instruction is to facilitate students' ability to interact with language situations, primarily in understanding text. To this end, vocabulary instruction that produces in-depth word knowledge which can increase reading comprehension for students with LDs is key, particularly for secondary instruction. A variety of instructional methods (which are reviewed below) such as computer-assisted instruction, fluency-building vocabulary practice activities, mnemonic instructional strategies, and concept enhancement instruction are accepted strategies. Research findings suggest that interventions that engage students with memory devices and graphic depiction paired with direct instruction are the most promising, while computer assisted instruction, even if not ideal as a long-term vocabulary building strategy, can be used independently for student practice.

Gary Woolley (2010) writes in his article entitled, "A multiple strategy framework supporting vocabulary development for students with reading comprehension deficits", that, generally, students experiencing deficits in reading comprehension have inadequate oral language proficiency owing to limited lexical, syntactic and semantic knowledge. He underscores that new vocabulary acquisition enhances reading comprehension, and also requires well-linked knowledge of phonological and orthographic word forms in addition to well-developed syntactic and semantic memory associations.

Best practices to improve vocabulary acquisition for learners with reading comprehension difficulties  include:

  1. explicit instruction
  2. increasing practices
  3. engaging in intervention frameworks such as the Tiered Approach
  4.  utilizing multi-modal processes
  5. conducting semantic mapping and summarization
  6. adopting cooperative learning strategies
  7. answering questions and question generation
  8. learner self-questioning
  9. teacher (non-assessment) feedback
  10. repeated exposure to new vocabulary

In summary, teachers who intentionally scaffold learning by using visual organizational strategies, asking questions, elaborating on meanings, and engaging in cooperative dialogues, will improve students' outcomes. Multiple strategy frameworks are the best tool(s) for facilitating students' vocabulary development and whole text comprehension processing.

Strategy Description:           

In order to effectively instruct students in vocabulary acquisition, research has shown that it is best to adopt multiple strategies. A chosen strategy might include combinations of:

  1. explicit instruction
  2. increasing the practice
  3. engaging in intervention frameworks
  4. utilizing multi-modal processes
  5. conducting semantic mapping and summarization
  6. adopting cooperative learning strategies
  7. answering questions and question generation
  8. learner self-questioning
  9. teacher (non-assessment) feedback
  10. repeated exposure to new vocabulary
  11. computer-assisted instruction
  12. fluency-building vocabulary activities
  13. mnemonic instructional strategies
  14. concept enhancement instruction
  15. reading aloud
  16. including figurative information such as definitions and context information about word meaning
  17. involving children actively in word learning
  18. promoting reading widely
  19. providing multiple exposures to meaningful information about words
  20. exposing students to high quality targeted oral language
  21. encouraging word consciousness
  22. directly teaching word meaning
  23. teaching word-learning strategies, and more.

Classroom implementation & recommended practice:

Referencing Stahl's (1999) model, Sedita (2005) encourages teachers to adopt strategies that:

  1. Include both definition information and contextual information about word meaning.
  2. Involve children actively in word learning.
  3. Provide multiple exposures to meaningful information about words.

Furthermore, research-based components for effective vocabulary instruction include:

  1. reading widely (a variety of types and genres of reading selections)
  2. teacher-modeled high quality targeted oral language (set the bar ever-higher)
  3. being word conscious (speak well)
  4. teaching word meaning (stop and explain)
  5. teaching word-learning strategies (suggest strategies as they may be applied)

Reading aloud is a strategy that appeals to children of all ages, and, like sustained silent reading, is a good a source of word meanings, as readers may experience words in contexts that give them meaning.

Given the incremental nature of word knowledge building, it can be helpful for students to keep word diaries or to keep charts check-listing new words, which can mention words they have never seen; words that they have heard of but don't know; words that they recognize in context; or words that they already know, for example.

When conducting direct vocabulary instruction, and selecting new vocabulary, Sedita (2005) recommends that teachers:

  1. Preview the text, even when using text that has pre-selected vocabulary words.
  2. Read the passage and identify vocabulary words students may find unfamiliar.
  3. Select words that are key/important to understanding the text.
  4. List words that may be challenging for students. Do not worry about teaching all of them - a few before reading are sufficient.
  5. Determine which words are defined in the text by direct definition or through context, and expand on these post-reading.
  6. Identify words students may know based on their prefixes, suffixes and base or root words.
  7. Consider students’ prior knowledge.
  8. Determine the importance of the word. Will word knowledge be helpful in other content areas?”
  9. Teach words before students read that may include words that will be encountered in other texts and content areas; words important to understanding main ideas; words that are not a part of student’ prior knowledge; words unlikely to be learned independently.

Links, recommended reading and additional resources:

  1. Click here to view five (5) helpful strategies including Semantic Mapping; Teaching Word Parts; Index Card Vocabulary Game; Example or Not; and Figures of Speech - Teaching Idioms.  
  2. Click here to view a  video about vocabulary building strategies
  3. A look at the World of Words (WOW) instructional program as a supplemental intervention for preschoolers: Dwyer, J., Neuman, S. B., & Newman, E. H. (2011). Educational effects of a vocabulary intervention on preschoolers' word knowledge and conceptual development: a cluster-randomized trial. Reading Research Quarterly, 46(3), 249+.
  4. A masterfully written [short] book in the Jeanne Chall professional series for teachers: Stahl, S.A. (1999). Vocabulary Development. Newton Upper Falls, MA: Brookline Books.


Bryant, D., Goodwin, M., Bryant, B. R., & Higgins, K. (2003). Vocabulary instruction for students with learning disabilities: a review of the research, Learning Disability Quarterly, 26(2), 117.

Puhalla, E. (2011). Enhancing the Vocabulary Knowledge of First-Grade Children With Supplemental Booster Instruction, Remedial and Special Education 2011 32: 471

Sedita, J. (2005) Effective Vocabulary Instruction, Insights on Learning Disabilities, 2 (1), 33-45.

Stahl, S.A. (1999). Vocabulary development. Newton Upper Falls, MA: Brookline Books.

Swanson, E. A. (2008, Summer). Observing reading instruction for students with learning disabilities: a synthesis. Learning Disability Quarterly, 31(3), 115+.

Sweeny, S., Mason, P. (2011). Research-based Practices in Vocabulary Instruction: An Analysis of What Works in Grades PreK-12, Report for: Studies & Research Committee of the Massachusetts Reading Association, MA, USA.

Woolley, G. (2010). A Multiple Strategy Framework Supporting Vocabulary Development for Students with Reading Comprehension Deficits. Australasian Journal Of Special Education, 34(2), 119-132.

Young-Suk, K., Apel, K., Al Otaiba, S. (2013). The Relation of Linguistic Awareness and Vocabulary Reading and Spelling for First Grade Students Participating in Response to Intervention, Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 44. 337-347.

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Robert M. Head holds a BA English Literature from McGill, a BS Secondary Education from the University of Maine at Presque Isle, and is a graduate student (MA/PhD) at the University of Ottawa. He is a licensed secondary school teacher (ELA - State of Maine), 8+ years of experience as an ELL/ESL teacher, 5+ years as Taiwan Natl. Dir. of Studies with GAC ACT ES Ltd. and Natl. Dir. for Cambridge English Education Centres (Taiwan), and is a Cambridge English Language Testing Authority (CELTA) YLE/KET/PET Examiner. He has authored and co-authored several articles for peer review, acts as an academic journal' peer-reviewer, and has presented at the 2014 Jean-Paul Dionne Symposium. Robert is particularly interested in Special Needs education through inclusive practices.

Dr. Raymond LeBlanc is vice-dean of research and professional development and professor in the Faculty of Education and a member of the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Studies at the University of Ottawa.  His research domain is special education, socio-cultural approach and differential teaching.  His research and scholarly activities are in ASD, developmental disabilities, learning styles, language and communication, learning disabilities, qualitative methodologies, cultural psychology and quality of life. He is co-director of a collection in neuropsychology and special education which has published 26 books.