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Building Vocabulary Takes Wide Reading

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    Cheryl Dobbertin

Today’s students are often challenged to read complex texts. In fact, Expeditionary Learning’s ELA curriculum features complex “central” texts that students work with in class and for homework, with support from the teacher and peers. It is important that all students have access to, and support with, reading text at the appropriate level of complexity for their grade level.

However, the focus on complex texts has led many educators to believe that other types of reading – reading for pleasure, reading to pursue interests, reading multiple sources to research a topic – are no longer important. In fact, these types of reading may be more important than ever before because it is through voracious reading that students ultimately build the vocabulary, knowledge and fluency they need to truly conquer complex texts. The more students read, the better they read. The better they read, the more they comprehend. The more they comprehend, the higher the achievement. Reading widely builds important world knowledge and ensures that students acquire additional vocabulary, both of which are critical for overall reading comprehension.

Although vocabulary can be developed in many ways, the best way is through reading. Many researchers are convinced that reading volume, rather than oral language, is the prime contributor to individual differences in children’s vocabularies (Hayes, 1988; Hayes & Ahrens, 1988; Nagy & Anderson, 1984; Nagy & Herman, 1987). Why? Put simply, we encounter more unique words when reading than we do though speech.


“The relative rarity of the words in children’s books is, in fact, greater than that in all of the adult conversation, except for the courtroom testimony,” said Cunningham and Stanovich in their interesting 2001 article What Reading Does for the Mind. “Indeed, the words used in children’s books are considerably rarer than those in the speech on prime-time adult television. The categories of adult reading matter contain words that are two or three times rarer than those heard on television.”

We will explore more about both direct and indirect ways of helping students acquire vocabulary in our upcoming free webinar, "Word Work: Helping All Students Succeed through Effective Vocabulary Development". Our free interactive webinar on Monday, September 14, from 4:00PM - 5:00PM EDT (3:00-4:00 CDT, 2:00-3:00 MDT, and 1:00-2:00 PDT) will examine more about how reading texts influences vocabulary acquisition. It will delve into a variety of strategies for direct and indirect vocabulary instruction. Participants will be able to analyze engaging vocabulary instruction in action to determine next steps for their own practice.

Please register here by September 11th to attend and take advantage of this exciting opportunity. Connectivity information for the webinar will be sent to those registered early in the day on September 14th. We look forward to seeing you online!


Cunningham, A. and Stanovich, K. (2001) What Reading Does for the Mind. Journal of Direct Instruction, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 137–149.

Hayes, D. P. (1988). Speaking and writing: Distinct patterns of word choice. Journal of Memory and Language, 27, 572–585.

Hayes, D. P. & Ahrens, M. (1988). Vocabulary simplification for children: A special case of ‘motherese.’ Journal of Child Language, 15, 395–410.

Nagy, W. E., & Anderson, R. C. (1984). How many words are there in printed school English? Reading Research Quarterly, 19, 304–330.

Nagy, W. E., Herman, P. A. (1987). Breadth and depth of vocabulary knowledge: Implications for acquisition and instruction. In M. G. McKeown & M. E. Curtis (Eds.), The nature of vocabulary acquisition (pp. 19–35). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.