What Is the Role of Vocabulary in Reading Comprehension?

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There are almost 200,000 words used in the English language and it is continually evolving. New words are added to the dictionary every year and the meanings of words can change over time.

English words have roots in Latin, German, Greek, and French morphed over time into the language we speak today. To further complicate things, English was intentionally transformed by our forefathers in the 1700s to create an American English, a symbolic gesture when breaking away from Great Britain and forming an identity as a new country.

These changes can make learning vocabulary and finding meaning in texts seem more complicated than they need to be.

Vocabulary Definition in Reading Instruction

Let’s start by defining vocabulary, specifically how it applies to reading instruction. Merriam-Webster defines vocabulary as “a sum or stock of words employed by a language.” However, in reading, vocabulary can be defined as a growing list of words that students need to comprehend complicated texts.

We use vocabulary when listening, speaking, reading, and writing. As anyone who has ever tried to learn another language knows, an individual’s vocabulary proficiency can change depending on the task at hand. Vocabulary proficiency when speaking does not guarantee proficiency in reading, writing, or even listening. However, the vocabulary we use when speaking and listening plays a crucial role in learning to read, as emergent readers use the words they hear spoken aloud to make sense of words they encounter in print.

The Science of Reading: Vocabulary Acquisition and Instruction

Vocabulary acquisition is a critical component of the science of reading, as it plays a fundamental role in reading comprehension. Effective instruction in vocabulary is explicit, systematic, and cumulative, involving direct teaching of vocabulary words, planning and organizing instruction, and revisiting vocabulary regularly.

There are many research-based strategies that educators can use to help students acquire new vocabulary, such as encouraging wide reading, using graphic organizers, and providing opportunities for students to use new vocabulary in context.

Why Is Vocabulary Important in Reading Comprehension?

Back in 2000, the National Reading Panel identified vocabulary and comprehension within its list of “five pillars” essential to reading instruction based on an aggregate of previous research. Over the last 20 years, numerous other factors have been identified as essential to literacy and developing strong readers, including background knowledge, writing, language development, and the integration of learning environments designed to support positive reading behaviors and habits.

Reading success pillars

How Does Reading Improve Your Vocabulary?

There is evidence that students can improve their skills simply by reading more. Spending a lot of time reading has been shown to have a statistically significant impact on students’ vocabulary development, general knowledge, spelling, verbal fluency, and reading comprehension. But students must have access to a range of texts as well as opportunities to read outside of the school day.

Shared reading experiences expose students to unfamiliar words and provide opportunities to derive meaning from new vocabulary. In addition, regularly engaging in silent independent reading provides time for students to practice word-learning strategies and to reinforce their understanding of words they already know.

To increase independent reading and motivation, be sure to provide students with:

  • Access to a variety of reading materials in your classroom library
  • Book recommendations based on their learning goals and interests
  • Space to select books of interest
  • Books that they are allowed to take home
Vocabulary Role in Reading Comprehension Inline

How to Teach Vocabulary

Vocabulary can serve as a powerful bridge between students and teachers, particularly when they come from different linguistic backgrounds. In such cases, a shared understanding of key terms and concepts can facilitate communication and learning, allowing teachers and students to better connect with each other. Valuing the linguistic diversity in the classroom will create a more inclusive learning environment that promotes cross-cultural understanding. The following four strategies may help you find ways to teach vocabulary effectively to all your students.

Strategy 1: Build Background Knowledge

Building background knowledge is essential for vocabulary development and reading comprehension. The more students read, the more knowledge they gain, and the less challenging they find the next book or passage. Students absorb information and gain knowledge about the world with every page they read. They also learn specific disciplinary vocabulary associated with various topics, which moves from short-term to long-term memory each time they encounter the same word and need to recall, and possibly build on, its meaning.

To help students acquire vocabulary, organize instruction around themes rather than skills. Introduce students to multiple books and other resources on a topic, allowing them time to explore the topic fully.

Strategy 2: Provide Explicit Vocabulary Instruction

Providing meaningful vocabulary experiences will be more effective than teaching vocabulary in isolation. Instead of having students memorize word lists, scour reading materials for words that may be unfamiliar to students. This will motivate the need for finding meaning in the vocabulary.

Words that are likely to appear across a variety of texts offer students a level of usefulness and shades of meaning not available in basic or domain-specific vocabulary. Knowledge of academic Tier 2 vocabulary will set readers on course for a deeper understanding of texts in a variety of genres and domains. This also allows for additional reinforcement since students will have opportunities to recall the definitions more often than vocabulary that is specific to one topic.

Choose words that students already have the vocabulary to describe. Words that can be defined using context clues or word-attack strategies that students are already proficient in can be left off the list.

Strategy 3: Teach Word Learning Strategies

In primary grades, students learn to decode words that they likely already understand. They know what an apple is, for example, before they learn how to read the word “apple.” However, as students get older, they are more likely to learn new words through reading and will need additional word-attack strategies to figure out meanings of words they encounter. Learning strategies, such as doing word sorts, or identifying word families, word roots, and affixes can enhance a reader's ability to decode and understand unfamiliar words as they encounter them.

Strategy 4: Take a Generative Approach

According to Dr. Shane Templeton, a literacy studies professor at the University of Nevada, if you can learn one word, you can learn 10 due to the generative nature of words. Into Reading is the only program that includes generative vocabulary lessons every week. Systematic vocabulary instruction, including morphology, word relationships, vocabulary in context, and academic language, builds cross-curricular context and critical thinking skills, all while providing multiple opportunities for students to practice.

Generative vocabulary inline

Vocabulary Development and English Learners

English learners (ELs) bring with them unique opportunities and challenges when encountering new vocabulary. They strive to understand figurative language and words that are not commonly used in everyday conversation. Encourage multilingual learners to tell stories, read multlingual books, and choose relevant material. Fill your library with engaging materials that build on students’ prior knowledge. Reading texts that interest them will ultimately improve their ability to read content-based texts in the classroom. Listening to audiobooks can also help students build vocabulary and comprehension skills.

The Importance of Vocabulary in Reading Intervention

Vocabulary instruction is an essential part of reading intervention. It should be deliberate, systematic, and focus on both the meaning and usage of words. In addition to the strategies above, use word study, graphic organizers, and visual aids during explicit instruction. It is also essential to provide students with opportunities to apply new vocabulary in meaningful contexts. Effective vocabulary instruction can improve reading comprehension and help all learners succeed.

Summary: Vocabulary in Reading Instruction

Vocabulary plays a critical role in reading instruction, as it is essential for reading comprehension and fluency. Effective vocabulary instruction involves explicit and systematic teaching of words, as well as encouraging a wide range of reading and listening experiences necessary for knowledge building. While vocabulary instruction can be challenging, the impact of vocabulary instruction on reading comprehension is far-reaching.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


HMH core, intervention, and supplemental programs are rooted in the science of reading. Find out more about our evidence-based approach to teaching a child to read.

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