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by Jean Roger Alphonse and Raymond Leblanc

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A Description of the Approach

Two of the most studied approaches for developing students’ reading comprehension skills are teaching vocabulary and teaching reading strategies (Lemire-Théberge, Dion, Guay, Barrette, & Brodeur, 2013). Practicing reading can promote students’ vocabulary acquisition, as it improves comprehension, which in turn results in an increase in vocabulary. Comprehension requires that the reader use rather complex cognitive processes to integrate the information contained in the text with their background knowledge, and as a result, students must interact with the text in order to understand what they’re reading (Saint Laurent, 2002); many students with learning disabilities (LDs) struggle with this. According to Lemire-Théberge et al. (2013), educators can best support students with LDs by integrating the teaching of vocabulary with the teaching of reading comprehension strategies.

Reading comprehension strategies are methods and strategies that the reader uses to read and understand a text that can be adapted, depending on the specific situation. Saint-Laurent (2002) identifies the main strategies necessary to understand a text as:

  1. Activating prior knowledge,
  2. Asking and responding to questions about the text,
  3. Inferring elements of implicit information,
  4. Retaining the essential information collected, and
  5. Ensuring students have understood what they have read.

To be effective for students with LDs, instructional activities must be focused on explicit instruction (Bissonnette, Richard, Gauthier, & Bouchard, 2010), not only instruction relating to the meanings and illustrations of words, but equally relating to the teaching of one or more reading comprehension strategies.

Results of the Research

In a study entitled “Pilot study of teaching activities related to reading comprehension for beginner readers at risk” (translated title), Lemire-Théberge et al. (2013) proposed, as a result of a review of the empirical literature, that teaching vocabulary could be important for beginner readers. Intervention studies of preschool and kindergarten students have demonstrated that it is possible to develop the vocabulary of young students. In these studies, educators read stories aloud to their classes, explained the meanings of difficult words, and then asked students to use the words orally. However, even if the students retained the sense of many of the words, the effects of this learning on their reading comprehension could not be evaluated (Lemire-Théberge et al., 2013). According to Lemire-Théberge et al. (2013), the approach used in these studies seemed to be better adapted to pre-readers than beginner readers, as pre-readers are not actually practicing reading while they are learning the meaning of words.

The researchers hypothesize that it would be interesting to integrate the teaching of vocabulary with the teaching of reading comprehension strategies. In fact, studies have shown that using multiple reading comprehension strategies can be effective for advanced readers from the late primary years through to post-secondary. “Studies of beginner readers suffer from gaps in methodologies that neglect to distinguish between beginner and advanced readers at the time of the analysis” (translated from Lemire-Théberge et al., 2013, p. 7). The researchers therefore decided, in an experimental study, to adapt the use of multiple strategies for beginner readers in first and second grades with LDs by teaching one single strategy at a time. Over a period of two consecutive years (Study 1 and Study 2), two new methods of teaching vocabulary or a strategy to support beginning readers in Grade 1 or Grade 2 were tested. The research was designed to test three conditions with two groups and 18 students per condition: 1) vocabulary, 2) control group, and 3) strategy.

Vocabulary Condition

In the vocabulary condition, the teacher first showed all of the students pictures of the new vocabulary words. During the session, the teacher reviewed between one and three words that had been previously taught, and then proceeded to teach between five and seven new words using the strategy. For each word presented, the teacher showed students a visual that helped to illustrate the meaning of the word. The printed word was shown divided into syllables with the visual and any complex sounds or silent letters were highlighted. The teacher said the words, taught the pronunciation, described the visual, and then used the word in a sentence. Next, the teacher asked students to pair themselves with a partner in order to practice the three steps, with the help of a checklist:

  1. Practice decoding the words (read the words),
  2. Associate the words with their definition (find the definition), and
  3. Read a passage that includes the words (read the story).

Control Condition

The control condition was completed in classrooms using the teachers’ traditional teaching styles, and used the same texts and vocabulary words as in the vocabulary condition.

Strategy Condition: Intervention Implementation

Four activities based on the same texts and the same vocabulary words as the vocabulary condition were proposed; however, in this group, the definitions of vocabulary words were not taught. For each of the eight words, the teacher presented the students with a visual that showed the word spelled out and divided into syllables, with the complex sounds or silent letters highlighted.

Groups of students then took turns rotating through the three activities. The first two activities (read the words and read the story) followed the same steps as the activities in the vocabulary condition. The third activity (find the idea) was specific to the strategy condition. Students reread each paragraph of the story and then formulated one sentence that captured the main idea of each paragraph.

The following results were obtained for study 1:

  1. At pre-test, the average word recognition abilities of the students were similar across all three conditions; differences became apparent over the course of the intervention. The teaching of vocabulary therefore seemed to achieve its instructional goal of making students aware of the meaning of words. With respect to their ability to identify the main idea, students in the strategy condition achieved a higher mean score than students who participated in the two other conditions.
  2. At post-test, mean scores for the three groups appeared similar. “Despite the fact that students appeared to progress further over the course of the intervention, students in the vocabulary and strategy conditions did not score higher in the post-test; this suggests that the interventions need to be modified in order to obtain more generalized and lasting gains” (translated from Lemire-Théberge et al. 2013, p. 15).

For study 2, the activities used in the vocabulary and strategy groups were revised to maximize their effectiveness. A full assessment of vocabulary and reading skills was conducted at post-test. The following results were obtained for study 2:

  1. At pre-test, assessment results indicated that students in the vocabulary condition had comprehension and recall scores that were slightly higher than their peers in the other two conditions. In terms of the identification of main ideas, students in the strategy condition had higher scores than their peers in the control condition.
  2. Between the pre-test and the post-test, students in the vocabulary condition saw the most progress in comparison to their peers in the other two conditions. In addition, the learning achieved over the course of the intervention was maintained at post-test, which suggested that the revised activities produced more lasting gains.

In conclusion, integrating the teaching of vocabulary with one or more reading comprehension strategies appears to be a successful strategy. According to the researchers, not only is the use of this intervention likely to make teaching vocabulary more appealing to primary teachers for whom teaching reading is a priority, but it also allows students, particularly those with LDs, the opportunity to make substantial gains in the area of vocabulary. The results of this pilot study by Lemire-Théberge et al. (2013) produced sufficiently significant results to justify further research in the integration of teaching vocabulary with reading comprehension strategies.

Implementation of the Strategies

Experiencing words prior to reading texts will not permanently address vocabulary difficulties for students with learning disabilities. According to Lemire-Théberge et al. (2013), integrating the teaching of vocabulary and the teaching of a reading comprehension strategy (or multiple strategies) needs to be well planned. These specific, systematic, regular, and progressively organized activities are necessary for significant results to be achieved by students in first and second grades with learning disabilities.

Shared reading, an instructional strategy used in many schools from kindergarten through third grade, can be adapted to serve as an example of how to teach vocabulary and reading comprehension strategies to beginning readers with LDs. In fact, the teacher can lead a shared reading aimed at explicitly teaching both vocabulary and reading strategies. To facilitate this, a large print text that students can easily see is used. The teacher reads the text and encourages student participation by explaining word meanings and contexts and then asks students to construct sentences through the use of illustrations. The teacher can then also explicitly teach one or more reading comprehension strategies, such as making inferences, finding the main idea of a paragraph, and predicting the rest of the story. Finally, following the shared reading, the teacher can ask students to work in small groups to put the different strategies to use. According to Biemiller (2007), students with LDs who use these strategies can learn the meaning of between 8 and 12 words per week at school – enough to support average vocabulary gains during the primary years, providing these programs can be supported throughout the full academic year.

The choice of words to teach is also equally important in order to facilitate reading comprehension for students with LDs. There are two different approaches that can be used in order to plan which vocabulary words to teach. One alternative, the approach of Beck and McKeown (cited by Biemiller, 2007) recommends teaching common words that are generally used and are not limited to one subject area or another, which appear frequently in books read by students at the primary level. Alternatively, the approach elaborated by Biemiller (2007) recommends teaching the meanings of more general, or non-specific words, which are known by 40 – 80% of students with an average vocabulary level at the end of second grade.

Online Resources for Teaching Shared Reading

The LD@school website includes numerous resources (print, webinars, videos, podcasts, etc.) to support Ontario educators working with students with LDs. Click here to visit the LD@school website and access an introductory article on literacy and LDs.

Reading Rockets is an online, American multimedia literacy initiative offering information and resources on reading. Click here to visit the Reading Rockets website and access an introductory article on shared reading.


Biemiller, A. (2007). L’influence du vocabulaire sur l’acquisition de la lecture. Encyclopédie sur le développement des jeunes (pp. 1-12). London, ON: Réseau canadien de recherche sur le langage et l’alphabétisation. Accessed April 2, 2014 from http://dev.literacyencyclopedia.ca/pdfs/topic.php?topId=19&fr=true

Bissonnette,S., Richard, M., Gauthier, C. & Bouchard, C. (2010). Quelles sont les stratégies d’enseignement efficaces favorisant les apprentissages fondamentaux auprès des élèves en difficulté de niveau élémentaire? Résultats d’une méga-analyse. Revue de recherche  appliquée sur l’apprentissage, 3 (1), 1-35.

Brunet, É. (2002).  Liste des 1500 mots les plus fréquents de la langue française que lisent les élèves francophones. Accessed April 2, 2014 from  http://eduscol.education.fr/D0102/liste-mots-frequents.htm

Lémire-Théberge, L., Dion, E., Guay, M.-H., Barrette, A. & Brodeur, M. (2013).  Étude pilote d’activités d’enseignement de la compréhension en lecture destinées aux lecteurs débutants à risque. Enfance en difficulté, 2, 5-29. Accessed April 2, 2014 from http://www.erudit.org.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/revue/enfance/2013/v2/n/1016245ar.pdf

Saint-Laurent, L. (2002).  Enseigner aux élèves à risque et en difficulté au primaire. Québec, Canada : Gaëtan Morin, Éditeur.

horizontal line teal Jean Roger Alphonse is a doctoral student in the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa, with a concentration in Teaching, Learning, and Assessment. He also teaches in the pre-service training program at the University of Ottawa. In terms of research, his areas of interest are teaching and learning strategies, differentiated learning, and coaching and support for teachers

 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.