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Baumann, James F. and Kame’enui, Edward J. (2004). Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice. NY: The Guilford Press.

p. xii + 244
$28 (Paperback)   ISBN 1-57230-932-6

Reviewed by Sylvia Read
Utah State University

February 4, 2005

Though edited collections sometimes suffer from an unevenness in the contributions, this collection of original essays bucks that trend. All of the chapters are written by prominent researchers in the field who both describe current research and offer practical ways for teachers to enact that research in the classroom. Though the book isn’t intended to be a compilation of classroom practices, it describes many ways to integrate research-based vocabulary instruction into the day-to-day life of the classroom.

Since the research has shown that vocabulary needs to be taught through four modes (wide reading, explicit teaching of specific words, teaching of word-learning strategies, and development of word consciousness), this book is divided into three main sections: 1) teaching specific vocabulary; 2) teaching vocabulary-learning strategies; and 3) teaching vocabulary through word consciousness and language play. The first mode, wide reading, isn’t addressed in depth, though some of the authors make reference to it as one important component. However, the evidence is compelling that wide reading must be supplemented and that direct instruction of vocabulary is far from a futile endeavor.

The first four chapters of the book address ways of teaching specific vocabulary.

Beck and McKeown outline a vocabulary program that is based on learning “tier two” words—words that are not overly familiar (brother), nor overly rare (ecclesiastical). Tier two words are found frequently across many domains and thus have the potential for greater impact on students’ reading comprehension. Beck and McKeown argue that learning words from context isn’t as easy as it sounds and even when the context is strong, students aren’t guaranteed to understand the word. The rest of the chapter is devoted to recommendations on how to choose words to teach, how to teach them effectively through “rich” instruction, when to teach, how to teach about the different kinds of context clues, and how to keep good vocabulary instruction going in the classroom.

Biemiller extends the argument for direct instruction of vocabulary by looking at the differences in students’ vocabulary upon entering school and how, without deliberate attention to vocabulary growth, the gap widens considerably until by the end of grade 2 there is a 4,000 word difference between students in the highest vocabulary quartile and the lowest vocabulary quartile. He also presents research evidence that shows a serious lack of attention to vocabulary instruction in the primary grades. He offers some simple suggestions for teaching vocabulary that will allow students to learn as many as three words a day including rereading books and explaining words. About ten words a day are taught, but as many as three a day are retained. In fact, he urges that primary teachers try to teach 8-10 words a day primarily through reading and rereading aloud high quality children’s literature and explaining target words.

Coyne, Simmons, and Kame’enui wrote one of the most practical chapters in this book. In it, they describe the research base and the principles underlying using shared storybook reading to improve the vocabularies of young children. Traditional storybook reading does nothing to close the gap between children with small vocabularies and those with large vocabularies. What is needed is “conspicuous” and “rich” instruction accompanying high quality children’s literature, which they point out has a complexity of vocabulary greater than that of most adult conversation. A storybook intervention is also described in detail, including a sample of daily lessons plans for reading and rereading picture books with kindergarteners.

Stahl and Stahl’s chapter also focuses on the potential for effective vocabulary instruction through read alouds. Children’s storybooks provide an avenue for students to learn relatively rare words that are more academic in nature than the words they hear on television or even in the adult conversation around them. Several effective strategies for incorporating vocabulary instruction into storybook reading are summarized: Text Talk (Beck and McKeown, 2001), picture walks (Clay, 1991), Word Wizard (Beck, Perfetti, and McKeown, 1982), teaching classification, and semantic mapping.

The next five chapters address ways of teaching vocabulary-learning strategies.

Graves’ chapter discusses the value of teaching prefixes and describes a specific set of lessons for teaching high-utility prefixes. The 15 most frequently occurring prefixes are found in over 4,000 words. Prefixes tend to be spelled consistently and are relatively easy for students to identify. Graves reviews the small amount of research on teaching prefixes, which is all positive, and then provides a four-day cycle for teaching prefixes. The teaching cycle includes explicit description of the strategy, teacher modeling of the strategy, class collaborative use of the strategy using overhead transparencies, guided practice, and independent practice. Graves ends by emphasizing the need for formal review of the strategy, prompting students’ use of the strategy at opportune times, and nudging students toward independent use of the strategy.

Marzano argues that researchers need to clarify their use of the term vocabulary. In terms of reference, vocabulary “words” can be general or specific, can refer to concepts or can be singular terms. Marzano argues that vocabulary instruction should include proper nouns, phrases, and also general conceptual terms. Marzano also discusses modes of representation. It is assumed that vocabulary is largely a linguistic concept but dual coding theory suggests that we store our knowledge of words both in verbal form and in image form. This theory is supported by research showing that vocabulary instruction that involves having students create mental images of words is more effective than instruction that relies only on learning word definitions. Marzano also discusses the general agreement that there are differing levels of word knowledge but goes on to argue that a deep knowledge is not necessary for every vocabulary term or for improved reading comprehension. Finally, Marzano discusses indirect vs. direct methods of vocabulary instruction. Learning vocabulary terms requires multiple exposures to words. During reading, students tend to encounter new words only once in a book or passage. Multiple exposures occur over longer periods of time. Through direct instruction, multiple exposures happen more efficiently. Wide reading and direct instruction can also be combined effectively by having students choose words from their reading that they want to learn more about. Overall, Marzano’s vision for vocabulary instruction includes both wide reading and direct instruction. It aims for a top-level linguistic understanding of words accompanied by visual representations of terms. The terms chosen are ones that students will encounter in their academic reading and should include both general and specific words, proper nouns, and phrases.

Templeton’s chapter summarizes the vocabulary-spelling connection. By having students study spelling words according to their morphological derivations, students learn how the spelling of words is logically connected to their meaning. Templeton offers a scope and sequence of spelling and vocabulary instruction for the intermediate grades and beyond that is based on teaching suffixes and prefixes, vowel and consonant alternations, and Greek and Latin roots.

Bear and Helman’s chapter focuses on earlier stages of literacy learning. They argue that instruction must be targeted according to students’ developmental levels. The three levels they address are emergent, beginning, and transitional. At the emergent level, students’ oral vocabularies are developed through reading aloud and picture sorting. At the beginning level, students’ sight vocabularies increase through the use of word sorts and word banks. At the transitional level, the study of homophones begins and students begin to explore the relationship between spellings of words and their meaning.

Edwards, Font, Baumann, and Boland discuss the research on teaching vocabulary through morphemic and contextual analysis. They recommend teaching common roots and affixes, providing explicit instruction in how morphemic analysis works, using word families to promote vocabulary growth, promoting independent use of morphemic analysis, and enhancing students’ understanding that morphemic analysis doesn’t always work. In terms of contextual analysis, they discuss which context clues are most helpful and offer instructional guidelines for teaching students how to use context clues. Finally, they offer an example of how to teach morphemic and contextual analysis in tandem.

The final section of the book contains three chapters that address teaching vocabulary through word consciousness and language play. Johnson, Johnson, and Schlichting discuss logology, or word and language play, dividing it into eight categories: onomastics, expressions, figures of speech, associations, formation, manipulations, games, and ambiguities. A short discussion on the research base shows that students’ comprehension benefits from understanding language play such as idioms, metaphor, and simile. The authors focus next on onomastics, or the study of names. They discuss having children study first names and surnames, eponyms, aptronyms, demonyms, toponyms, unusual town and city names, odonyms, anemonyms, nicknames, pen names, and store names. The rest of the chapter is devoted to a discussion of expressions (idioms, proverbs, slang, catchphrases, and slogans) and figures of speech (similes and euphemisms). The chapter ends with a recommendation that teachers include word play in their regular classroom instruction in order to promote students’ interest in language and improve their understanding of oral and written language.

Scott and Nagy discuss various ways to develop word consciousness, particularly in the upper elementary grades. Specifically, they discuss how to teach students the difference between oral and written language and the role that word choice plays in both. Through the Gift of Words project, upper-elementary teachers developed vocabulary curriculum while they participated in a 7-year intensive inquiry. With their students, they focused on the language in well-written novels and poems. They also provided scaffolding writing experiences in which students used a Gift of Words Bank to write stories with richly described characters and settings. Through this guided writing experience the students saw how well-chosen words can transform boring writing into powerful writing.

Blachowicz and Fisher discuss how to promote word play through “fun” activities such as jokes, riddles, and puns. They suggest ways to create a word-rich classroom environment including having students play card games, board games, memory games, and bingo with words. They also suggest adapting commercial games such as Scrabble, Scattergories, and Boggle for classroom use. Crossword puzzles, codes, jumbles, and computer games have potential for developing students’ interest in words. Word riddles, name riddles, and hink pink help children learn to manipulate words and word parts. Playful discussions using guessing games and drama also have the potential to heighten students’ awareness of words and bring word play into the classroom.

Overall, the chapters in this book promote a well-balanced approach to vocabulary instruction, one that is neither heavy-handed kill and drill nor free-for-all read whatever you want. It recognizes the reality that left to themselves, motivated readers’ vocabulary will grow and less-able or less-motivated readers’ vocabulary will fall farther and farther behind increasing the achievement gap that exists when children enter school. It doesn’t offer any silver bullets, but rather a practical set of instructional strategies that, if nothing else, increase the amount of time spent on vocabulary development in elementary classrooms. The sad fact is that vocabulary, particularly in the primary grades, gets very little instructional time during the developmental years when there exists the best chance to close the achievement gap.

This book would be useful to both researchers and practitioners. Researchers will find reviews of the best research in vocabulary and teachers and teacher-educators will find excellent instructional strategies, some of which are described in great detail and others in more general terms.


Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (2001). Text talk: Capturing the benefits of read aloud experiences for young children. The Reading Teacher, 55, 10-35.

Beck, I. L., Perfetti, C. A., & McKeown, M. G. (1982). Effects of long-term vocabulary instruction on lexical access and reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 74, 506-521.

Clay, M. M. (1991). Introducing a new storybook to young readers. The Reading Teacher, 45, 264-273.

About the reviewer

Sylvia Read teaches language arts methods and children’s literature to preservice and inservice teachers. Her research interests include writing instruction practices in k-5 classrooms, the reading and writing of nonfiction texts with primary grade students, and the authenticity and quality of multicultural literature for children.

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