Vocabulary Instruction for Struggling Readers

vocabulary2.jpg The concepts and strategies presented in this section of the lesson are based on the information found in Chapter 8 of Irvin (1998), the Biemiller article (2000) and the selection of vocabulary strategies and practices cited in this lesson's reference list.

If you have been keeping up with the instructional literature presented in the last five years, you will have seen an enormous growth in vocabulary instruction processes and procedures. Virtually every reading program manual has a large selection of vocabulary activities which range from the use of graphic organizers, student or teacher generated, to creative writing activities which require application of vocabulary knowledge. Yet, Biemiller (2000) suggests that schools do little to promote vocabulary development, particularly in the early years. Irvin says that "committing definitions to memory" is a daily occurrence in hundreds of classrooms which leads to superficial understanding and rapid forgetting (p. 131). Your own professional experience will confirm that there is much truth to these statements.

Biemiller relies on Chall's work extensively. In 1990, Chall reported that her study team traced the decline in reading achievement experienced by working class children. These children had been competent readers by third grade, but their vocabulary limitations had a negative effect on their reading comprehension as they advanced to seventh grade. Biemiller (2000) suggested that his own research has shown that students who test in the lowest quartile in grade two only reach the medium for grade 2 when they are in grade 5. This is despite the fact that they may add root word vocabulary faster than the higher quartile children. Lastly, Biemiller (2000) reported that vocabulary is acquired in the same order by most students.

Bielmiller (2000) stated that students have capacity to learn 2000-3000 vocabulary roots a year in the early grades. By the time they graduate from high school, they have acquired a common vocabulary of 11,000 to 14,000 root words. Children can acquire and retain two or three words a day through contextualized instruction and explanation, while less verbally fluent children and adolescents (struggling readers) have been found to benefit little from inferring words in meaning. A more direct approach is reported to work well with these students--when "given adequate opportunity to use new words and adequate instruction in word meanings." This supports that explicitly taught strategies provide success with struggling readers (Bielmiller, 2000, p. 28).

Graphic Organizer Activities

Rakes, Rakes, and Smith (1995) suggested that information is learned better if it is repeated in different forms, such as linear, through reading and writing, and visually, through use of the graphic organizer or other visual modes.

Graphic organizer activities for vocabulary instruction require that knowledge of the selected word be linked and expanded through activities that include sketching, synonyms and/or antonyms, sentence making, use of context and the like. Graphic organizers provide follow up for expansion and require the use of vocabulary within a context, rather than in isolated lists. Students will complete their organizers in unique fashions; each should be judged separately. However, each student's organizer will share components common to others.

 Try This

trythis.jpg Graphic organizers to support vocabulary instruction

Vocabulary Graphic Organizers – This contains many different graphic organizers that can be used for vocabulary instruction.

Semantic Feature Analysis allows students to examine related words and concepts by using particular criteria that allows the concepts to be compared.

A Word Map is a visual organizer that helps students engage with and think about vocabulary.

Vocabulary Word Box is similar to a word map.

Concept of Definition Maps help broaden students' experiences with new words.

The Word Builder uses word parts to figure out the meanings of words.


The following strategy is innovative and lends itself to elicitation of prior knowledge and explicit instruction methodologies. In addition, it can be implemented in buddy or paired reading activities (explained later) which will support your struggling readers. Finally, given time, it will allow for independent student practice.