A University of Kansas professor has authored a study highlighting the importance of focusing instruction early in a child’s life on vocabulary and understanding what is read, not only on aspects of word recognition, which are the hallmarks of “learning to read." Attention to vocabulary and understanding text early in students’ school careers can help them develop the ability to comprehend text better.
Diane Nielsen, associate professor of curriculum and teaching, conducted a study with 28 kindergartners at a high-poverty, urban school who were all behind their classmates in aspects of language development. Students took part in a 12-week storybook-based intervention in which they focused on vocabulary and narrative (story) understanding. At the end of the intervention, they made significantly greater gains in vocabulary and narrative skill — two key elements of reading comprehension success — than students with similar needs who did not participate.
“As important as word recognition is, and it’s super important, vocabulary needs to be given as much emphasis,” Nielsen said. “It is essential that children learn to quickly decode words, but if they don’t understand the meaning of the words, then their ability to understand the overall meaning of a story or other text will be compromised. And comprehension should always be the ultimate goal of reading.”
Research has long shown that many kindergartners enter school with limited vocabulary knowledge and other language skills behind those of their peers, and a large portion of those who do come from poor backgrounds. This not only puts them behind their peers in reading achievement, it often leads to children being designated for special education when they should not be.
Nielsen, whose study was published in the journal, Reading Psychology, took place over the course of 12 weeks with students who were behind their peers on standardized measures of language development and narrative.
Nielsen suggested that the findings are important because students can often appear to be good readers in the primary grades, but when text becomes more demanding they can quickly fall behind. Such students may be able to identify and pronounce the words they are reading, but limited vocabulary knowledge and a general lack of understanding of how stories and other types of text work affects their comprehension.