Attached is a research brief

Using Theory, our Intuitions, and a Research Study to Enhance Students’ Vocabulary
By Michelle Andersen Francis, Michele L Simpson
This study investigated college students’ beliefs about vocabulary knowledge and acquisition.
According to recent estimates, high school seniors read about 10 pages a day or 50 pages during a week for all their
content area courses (Campbell, Vodkl, & Donahue, 1997). These lengthy textbook assignments are often
crammed with difficult content area concepts, multiple meaning words, and technical jargon. Moreover, half of
these professors require their students to master the concepts presented in these texts independently because they do
not have the time or inclination to discuss the information during class.
To help students cope with these reading demands and the transition from high school to college, many colleges
offer elective or required courses that focus on learning strategies (Simpson, Hynd, Nist, & Burrell, 1997). We both
teach such a course and have done so for many years. The course focuses primarily on strategies that enhance
students’ organization, monitoring, rehearsal, and evaluation, but an important emphasis is also placed on
vocabulary development. This aspect is incorporated because our students are not fluent readers who can tackle
with ease the voluminous amounts of pages assigned to them. That is, they read slowly, have difficulty
concentrating on what they read, and grapple with the processes of constructing meaning from text. Often students
skip technical words; their interpretations and explanations for the words they think they “know” are at the surface
or rote level of understanding. Philosophically, our emphasis on vocabulary instruction is grounded in the
instrumentalist hypothesis that states that there is a relationship between students’ vocabulary knowledge and their
understanding of what they read (Anderson & Freebody, 1981; Blachowicz & Fisher, 2000).
Although we have had some success in expanding our students’ vocabulary knowledge and in helping them employ
a variety of generative strategies to actively construct meaning from text, several issues haunted us. The most
important was our students’ perceptions of what it means to “know” a word. That concern was particularly
intriguing to us because of what students were saying as they completed our vocabulary activities and evaluation
measures. That is, it was very common for students to ask why they had to remember the words for more than one
week (we gave cumulative exams) or why they had to write meaningful sentences for the words (the activities and
exams required them to do this). These first-year students appeared to have some very entrenched ideas of what it
meant to “study vocabulary,” and our views were definitely contradicting theirs. We also were interested in
exploring whether students’ beliefs about vocabulary knowledge were reflected in their performance on reading and
vocabulary tasks similar to the ones we were providing them. Hence, we decided to conduct a study that would
address, in particular, these vexing questions.
In this article we will explain our study and how those findings have modified how we teach vocabulary to our
students. We will begin, however, with a brief review of the literature that helped us clarify our purposes and design
our research questions.
Background Research that Guided our Study
To assist students in expanding their vocabulary knowledge, some researchers analyzed the usefulness of certain
vocabulary acquisition strategies on students’ word learning and reading comprehension skills. For example,
McKeown (1993) and Nist and Olejnik (1995) examined the usefulness of the dictionary and found that most entries
were so inconsiderate that students were unable to use the definitions in a productive manner. Nagy, Herman, and
Anderson (1985) and others (e.g. Beck & McKeown, 1991) investigated the effectiveness of contextual analysis and
concluded that using context clues might be a means of vocabulary acquisition, but that context clues were more
difficult to use as a vocabulary acquisition strategy than researchers originally had thought.
Rather than examine ways in which to increase students’ vocabulary knowledge, some researchers have investigated
the issue of what it means to know a word. Dale’s (1965) work was particularly influential in this area; he proposed
that vocabulary knowledge exists as four stages that range from no knowledge of the word to an ability to use and
remember the word. Stahl (1999) capitalized on Dale’s four stages by suggesting that vocabulary knowledge can be
placed on a continuum within which students more between on knowledge of a world’s meaning to full and flexible
knowledge of a word’s meaning. And recently, Nagy and Scott (2000) discussed the multidimensionality of word
learning and stressed the importance of students’ understanding the ”nature of word knowledge and the processes by
which it is acquired” (p. 274).
After reviewing the literature and thinking about out students’ vocabulary acquisition skills and their questions and
comments on our vocabulary methods, we identified the following research questions:
Is there a relation between students’ reading achievement and their beliefs about vocabulary knowledge?
Is there a relation between students’ reading achievement and their performance on a vocabulary
acquisition task?
Is there a relation between students’ beliefs about vocabulary knowledge and their performance on a
vocabulary acquisition task?
Is there a difference between students with low reading achievement and those with high reading
achievement I terms of their performance on a vocabulary acquisition task and their beliefs about
vocabulary knowledge?
Participants and Procedures
We recruited 110 participants from several sections of an elective reading and learning strategies course taught at a
large southern university in the U.S. Sixty-five of the first-year participants were male, and 90% were European
American. The 110 participants completed three different measures in two separate 60-minute sessions held on two
different days.
The first measure was the Nelson-Denny Reading Test, Form G (1993). We chose this reading test because of its
ability to provide a current and quick assessment of students’ comprehension, vocabulary, and overall reading
achievement. We also used the Nelson-Denny Reading Test to classify students as having high reading achievement
(n = 51) and low reading achievement (n = 31).
The second measure was the Vocabulary Beliefs Questionnaire, an instrument designed to evaluate students’ beliefs
about vocabulary knowledge and vocabulary acquisition. Because we could not find such an instrument, we created
one for this study using several sources. We began with the theories of what it means to know a word and the
research studies of how students acquire vocabulary knowledge. In terms of the first construct (i.e., beliefs about
vocabulary knowledge), Dale (1965), Stahl (1999), and others (Nagy & Scott, 2000) have suggested that vocabulary
knowledge exists on a continuum and that vocabulary knowledge involves more than memorizing a definition. In
terms of the second construct (i.e., vocabulary acquisition), findings from the research literature have suggested that
students seem to learn new words in a variety of ways, including wide reading, contextual information, definitional
information, and rich manipulations of words (Blachowicz & Fisher, 2000).
The third measure used in this study was the Vocabulary Task, an instrument previously tested with college students
in order to investigate their word knowledge at differing levels of understanding (Nist & Olejnik, 1995). To
complete the Vocabulary Task students were given an activity sheet that listed 10 nonsense words, their 10
dictionary-like definitions, and 10 context clues using the words. They chose a definition from a listing of
definitions, a common task in most commercial workbooks.
Data Collection and Analyses
The first author scored the Nelson-Denny Reading Test using the Nelson-Denny Technical Guide. The students
were given grade-equivalent scores, which strategies the students into high- and low-reading-achievement groups.
The 51 students scoring one grade level or more above their current grade level (i.e., grades 14-18) were considered
high-reading-achievement students. The 31 students scoring one grade level or more below their current grade level
(i.e., grades 12 or below) were considered low-reading-achievement students. The loss of 28 students who were
reading on grade level (i.e., grade 13) was necessary to create two distinct categories. Hence, 82 students’ responses
were coded and included in the data analyses procedures.
The Vocabulary Beliefs Questionnaire was hand scored. The students’ answers were scored on a scale of 1 to 5
points, with 5 indicating the highest possible score on each question. The students were given a score out of a
possible 70 points.
The first author scored the Vocabulary Task with a scanning machine. The first 20 multiple choice questions were
recorded on a scan sheet, but the final 10 required individual scoring because they were student-generated sentences.
These sentences were scored with use of a rubric. The students were given 1 point for an appropriate semantic and
syntactic use of the nonsense word in a sentence. We added together these two sections for each student in order to
generate an overall score out of a possible 30 points.
Students’ Reading Achievement and Their Beliefs about Vocabulary
In this study, we did not find evidence for a strong correlation between students’ beliefs about vocabulary
knowledge and their performance on a standardized reading achievement measure. Given what we had read in the
literature and had observed with the students in our classes, we had expected that there would be a strong relation
between the students’ reading achievement scores and their beliefs about vocabulary (Pintrich & Garcia, 1991;
Schommer, Clavert, Gariglietti, & Bajaj, 1997). One plausible explanation for our finding is that the Vocabulary
Beliefs Questionnaire may have failed to provide a sensitive measure of students’ beliefs. Likert-type assessments
do not take into account students who may want to respond with their own meanings, thus tapping only limited
aspects of beliefs (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997). And as Pajares (1992) pointed out, many students choose middle,
noncommittal responses when they answer Likert-type scale assessments.
A second plausible explanation for the previous finding might be traced to the literature about self-regulated
learning. According to researchers such as Winne (1995) and Zimmerman (2000), self-regulated college learners
are those who can reflect on and evaluate their knowledge and strategies. They are listeners to their own thoughts,
students who evaluate their own actions after engaging themselves in a task (Zimmerman, 2000). However, not all
college students are self-regulated learners, especially those who have just made the transition from high school to
college (Simpson & Nist, 2002). Because the participants in this study were first-year students, they may have
struggled with tasks such as the Vocabulary Beliefs Questionnaire, which required them to be self-regulated learners
who reflected on and evaluated their knowledge base. College students are not always called upon to implement the
skills of reflection and evaluation, especially at the first-year level. On the other hand, because the Nelson-Denny
Reading Test was familiar in content and format, it required little, if any, reflection and evaluation.
Students’ Reading Achievement and Vocabulary Acquisition
In terms of the second research question, the analysis indicated that there was a moderate correlation between the
students’ overall reading achievement scores and their scores on the Vocabulary Task. That is, the three different
vocabulary measures from the Vocabulary Task tested students’ vocabulary knowledge, and those students with
high scores on the Vocabulary Task also had high scores on the Nelson-Denny Reading Test, a measure of reading
achievement. This finding provides additional support to the instrumentalist hypothesis that posits a close
relationship between students’ high scores on a vocabulary test, and their ability to know more words when
completing a reading comprehension test (Anderson & Freebody, 1981; Blachowicz & Fisher, 2000).
Students’ Beliefs and Vocabulary Acquisition
We found from the analysis that there was not a strong correlation between students; scores on the Vocabulary
Beliefs Questionnaire and their scores on the Vocabulary Task. Given what we had observed with our students
during our regular units of instruction, we were initially perplexed by these findings. That is, it seemed that the
students in our classes who understood what it meant to really understand a new word were also the ones who
excelled on our weekly exams. After some reflection, however, we realized that we were trying to tap into what
Nagy and Scott (2000) described as the metalinguistic demands of word learning, a multifaceted construct that is
extremely difficult to teach and evaluate.
Differences Between High- and Low-reading-achievement Students
For the fourth research question, we had predicted that the students with higher reading-achievement scores would
have deeper and more sophisticated beliefs about vocabulary knowledge and acquisition than the students with
lower reading-achievement scores. However, according to the results of this study, there was not a significant
difference in scores between the two groups of students on the Vocabulary Beliefs Questionnaire. We have already
discussed the inherent difficulties of measuring students’ beliefs. An equally important explanation is the possibility
that students’ beliefs about vocabulary knowledge and acquisition are not related to their overall reading
achievement. That is, students can score well on a standardized reading achievement test, yet they may not be able
to describe what it means to know a word or how they acquire vocabulary knowledge because of the highly
metacognitive nature of beliefs (Harmon, 1998).
The follow-up analysis indicated that high-reading-achievement students scored significantly better on each of the
three vocabulary measures, but the difference was not pronounced on the measure that asked students to generate
their own semantically and syntactically correct sentences.
Although the means from the sentence generation measure for both groups were low (i.e., high-5.42 out of 10
possible points, low-3.71), the high-reading-achievement group did perform significantly better. This finding
supports previous research (e.g., Curtis, 1987) that has suggested that students are able to answer multiple-choice
questions about words but are not able to apply the words to novel contexts (i.e., write meaningful sentences ). As
Stahl (1999) and others (e.g., Durso & Shore, 1991) pointed out, such a level of processing is the most critical
characteristic of full and flexible word knowledge.
So, what did we learn from this research study? The findings confirmed some of our hunches and validated findings
from previous research studies. That is, we reaffirmed the theory that there seems to be a link or relationship
between students’ reading comprehension and their vocabulary knowledge. We also determined that students with
higher reading-achievement scores are the ones who can perform better than those with low reading-achievement on
measures of vocabulary knowledge, especially when they must demonstrate their understanding in formats that
require more than just recognizing a definition of a word. Having said that, we should also point out that none of
these students, whether high- or low-reading-achievement level, performed at a noteworthy level when required to
generate their own meaningful sentences using the words. This trend definitely reaffirmed out classroom
observations that students struggle when asked to do more than just memorize a definition of a word. Finally, we
would be remiss if we did not point out that we learned, according to the instruments used, that there is not a strong
relationship between students’ beliefs about vocabulary and their reading achievement or their performance on a
variety of vocabulary tasks.
Important Implications for Teaching Vocabulary
Although the results of our study did not validate all of our hunches, we did identify two important implications for
our own teaching: the need to modify some of the traditional methods of vocabulary instruction and the need to
challenge students’ beliefs about vocabulary knowledge. We believe these implications to be relevant for
secondary- and college-level teachers who are searching for ways to improve their vocabulary instruction.
First, and most important, this study reinforced the belief that vocabulary knowledge is related to students’ reading
achievement. The instructional implication is quite clear. If we want struggling, less fluent readers to learn new
words at a full and flexible level of understanding, we will need to modify our approaches. We offer two possible
modifications that have helped out students, the less fluent readers, in their quest to improve their vocabulary
knowledge and, hence, their reading comprehension.
Incorporate more oral expression
Engaging students in a variety of meaningful oral expression activities, especially when they first encounter the
words, is one way of improving their vocabulary knowledge. Students who are not fluent readers, like the ones in
our classes, particularly need the oral expression activities to help them learn new words and improve their reading
comprehension. Long before students are asked to generate sentences or complete written activities, teachers need
to discuss the targeted words with their students, emphasizing the definitions; characteristics (connotations, nuances,
interesting origins); synonyms; and antonyms. This discussion allows teachers to hear and clarify students’
misunderstandings and questions about a word and to share the beginning stages of their word knowledge. Students
then try out sentences using the new word with their partners and share their sentences orally with the class. Hence,
after 20 minutes in our classes, students hear countless examples of how to use a word correctly and how not to use
a word. These low-risk oral language activities also help struggling or less fluent readers understand the connotative
nuances and syntactic rules that govern word knowledge and actively engage them in learning (Stahl, 1999).
We are constantly amazed when students tell us that they have rarely heard vocabulary words used in sentences by
their teachers or by other students. It is as if word study is something they “do in school” that has not relevance to
their communication endeavors. Hence, we have made it a habit to incorporate the general and content specific
words we teach into our conversations with students before, during, and after class
Design activities that encourage students’ deeper levels of understanding
In our study, the fluent and less fluent readers had the most difficulty with the vocabulary task questions that asked
them to generate meaningful sentences, an important indicator of their full and flexible word knowledge. Because
most commercial materials rely on matching and multiple-choice formats that tap only surface-level word
knowledge (Simpson & Randle, 2000), teachers need to create activities that challenge students to think on deeper
levels about words.
We have found it easier to encourage students to learn words at a deeper level when they have seen the words in a
meaningful context and have a desire to learn the words. Therefore, in our classes, students read different types of
texts, from newspapers to magazines to content area textbooks. We ask them to identify words they do not know
and hand them in to us in a list form. We then identify from our students’ lists the most frequently mentioned words
and present them to the students as the top 10 vocabulary choices for the week. Each week we discuss the students’
chosen words in context, making sure they understand all the nuance of their words and that they have numerous
opportunities to use the words in oral language activities.
We follow up on the oral language activities with a variety of written formats that encourage students to think about
the new vocabulary words beyond the definitional level. One of our favorite written formats, a question-asking
activity that pairs two targeted vocabulary words, was designed by Beck, Perfetti, and McKeown (1982). For
example, when we taught the words stay and exonerated to our students, we used this paired question: “If a governor
issued a stay in a convicted killer’s execution would that individual be exonerated? Why or why not?” To answer
these paired word questions, student must determine if any relationship exists between the word. We highly
recommend paired word questions because they are easy to develop and can be used in oral or written formats.
Another creative format capitalizes on the important cognitive process of exclusion. When students practice
exclusion, they discriminate between, negate, and recognize examples and nonexamples. After studying a group of
words, we used this example with our students as a reinforcement activity:
Directions: Choose the words that does not relate to the other two words. Circle that word. In the
blank labeled “General concept” write an idea or concept that describes the remaining two words.
General concept:_____________________________________________
We model the thinking process involved in this activity and provide simple examples of the format (e.g., humorous,
funny, serious). With initial scaffolding and feedback, the less fluent readers in our classes have learned how to
complete these activities independently and successfully. Moreover, the exclusion format allows teachers an
opportunity to reinforce or evaluate three or four words, in a cumulative fashion, in just one item. There are
certainly other creative reinforcement and assessment formats, but we have shared some of our favorites that have
helped our students learn words and incorporate these words in their communication endeavors.
Facilitating Students’ Beliefs About Vocabulary Knowledge
This study also raised important questions about students’ beliefs about vocabulary knowledge and what is involved
in knowing a word. That is, the students’ scores on the Vocabulary Beliefs Questionnaire were low, and there
appeared to be no significant differences between the fluent and less fluent readers with this trend. We also know
that students typically believe vocabulary learning to be simple and quick, involving no more than the memorization
of a concise, one-word definition. Unfortunately, students who view word knowledge at a surface or definitional
level are the ones who do not profit much from traditional vocabulary activities. Hence, we have been collecting a
variety of activities to challenge our students’ beliefs about vocabulary knowledge. These activities share in
common the goal of making sure that our students understand the declarative and procedural requirements of
understanding new words (Nagy & Scott, 2000). In this section we will share three of our more successful
activities: discussions on the stages leading to vocabulary knowledge, self-evaluation vocabulary checklists, and
word maps or concept cards.
Discuss with students what it means to fully know a word.
In terms of vocabulary instruction, we have found it useful to explain to our students what is involved in knowing a
word. We reiterate throughout the semester that full vocabulary knowledge is not an all-or-none proposition, but
will involve them in knowing a word in stages. To illustrate what we mean by stages, we use the analogy of an
iceberg (Nist & Simpson, 2001). We point out to our students, via a visual of an iceberg, that what is above the
water level is the obvious of word knowledge—knowing a definition. However, what lurks below the water is what
is important to approaching vessels, or to students hoping to increase their word power. That is, to get to the hidden,
deeper level of the iceberg (i.e. to own a word) student must know synonyms, antonyms, examples of usage, the
relationships that might exist between the targeted word and other words, and the characteristics and nuance of a
word (Stahl, 1999). Admittedly, these explanations mean little until we provide concrete activities that allow them
to practice our notions.
Ask students to evaluate their level of word knowledge.
In order to help our students understand that complete word knowledge occurs in degrees or stages and to enhance
their word awareness, we have devised a self-evaluation vocabulary checklist (Nit & Simpson, 2001). The students
fill out the checklist before beginning a unit of study over a group of targeted words. Using the checklist, they circle
one of three choices for each of the words that we will be studying:
(a) No understanding: I have never seen or heard this word.
(b) Partial understanding: I recognize this word, but I could not provide the exact meaning, nor
could I use it in a sentence.
(c) Full understanding: I now this word because I can define it accurately and precisely and use it
in a meaningful sentence.
Once students finish the checklist, we discuss their ratings and the implications of those ratings in terms of the
stages of word knowledge. One interesting consequence of the checklist activity is that students no longer tell us
they “already know these words,” a common refrain for older students. Rather, our students begin to comprehend
that what they really mean when they say they “already know” a word is that they have “seen the word” on one or
more occasions, not that they can use the word meaningfully in their oral or written communication.
Teach students how to create word maps and concept cards.
A third way in which we challenge students’ beliefs about what is involved in knowing a word is through the use of
word maps (Schwartz & Raphael, 1985). A word map visually represents three important processes involved in
understanding a word. To build a map, students must write a word they are studying in a box placed in the center of
their paper. In another box placed at the top of their paper, they write a brief answer to the first question, “What is
it?” This question seeks a name for the class or category that includes the word or concept. Then the students focus
on a box on the right-hand side of the paper that poses the question: “What is it like?” This second question asks
students to identify characteristics of their targeted word. Finally, the students address the third word map question
in a box at the bottom of their paper: “What are some examples?” We have found that word maps word particularly
well for the content areas words that students choose to learn.
For the general words students choose to learn, we have found it useful to teach them the concept card strategy.
Concept cards are flashcards containing far more elaborative information. On the front of the card the word appears,
in context. On the back of the card we ask students to write the definition to the word that fits the context,
appropriate synonyms or antonyms, examples of characteristics, and their own meaningful sentence or sentences.
Of course, before our students begin the process of writing their own sentences for their concepts cards, they have
heard the word discussed and practiced extensively during our class discussions.
With the concept cards students can quiz themselves or their partners on the words and can study the words in an
ongoing manner for our cumulative tests. To provide additional practice and review, we have also asked our
students to do word sorts using their concept cards (Gillet & Kita, 1979). During a word sort students group their
cards into different categories with common characteristics, an important aspect of understanding new vocabulary at
the full and flexible level.
In our quest to improve our students’ vocabulary knowledge and reading fluency, we have relied on our teaching
experiences, our intuitions, the voices of our students, and the findings from research studies conducted by others
and ourselves. We think this combination of data sources has provided us some concrete ways to help our students
learn new words and to use them in meaningful ways in order to improve their reading comprehension and fluency.
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About the authors:
Francis teachers reading and in Developmental Studies Director at Jamestown Community College in NY. Simpson
teaches in the Division of Academic Assistance at the University of George, Athens.
This article is from the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy (47:1) September 2003. Edited for length by Bella
Questions for Self-reflection and/or Group Discussion
Were there any surprises for you in the findings of this study?
Do the suggestions for instruction in vocabulary growth that the authors provide fit for your student
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