Reading Comprehension | Vocabulary

The influence of vocabulary on reading comprehension

By Kiera Summer

08 Nov 2022

A group of students reading at school.

Reading comprehension is a simple phrase for a monumental task, and it can be hard to know where to start. How do we begin to move learners beyond reading words and towards understanding them?

It can be tempting to set reading task after reading task and hope that learners eventually find their own strategies to understand meanings. Sure, through repeated exposure, some children develop unconscious approaches or behaviours that give them advantages in comprehension. But why leave learning up to chance? This is where explicit teaching comes in.

The core focus of explicit teaching must be on the simplest building blocks of communication: vocabulary. By expanding vocabulary, we can help children to grasp what’s going on in a text, to fill gaps in their understanding, and to spot nuances they otherwise would not. In this blog, we will take a deep dive into the reasons why vocabulary is vital for comprehension, and the methods you can put into practice with your learners.

How your vocabulary affects your reading comprehension

Unfortunately, the reality is that poor readers often have limited vocabulary. The more words a learner can define the meaning of, the more likely it is that they will also be able to read fluently.

To begin with, we start off learning vocabulary through speech. As our knowledge of the world becomes more advanced, we are exposed, via text, to more advanced vocabulary. After all, “reading provides a more effective context for learning new words than oral conversation” (Nagy & Anderson, 1984).

When we are reading, we have a lot more time to go back and check our understanding than we do during conversations. There, checking our understanding would interrupt the flow of speech. Reading also provides more opportunities for contextual clues, including repetition and synonyms that might help us interpret the meaning of new words.

The majority of an adult’s vocabulary consists of words that are only experienced and employed in text, and are never used conversationally.

A limited vocabulary makes reading comprehension difficult

There are clear connections between vocabulary and comprehension. In reading, we need to understand enough of a text to decipher words we don’t recognise. Even a high-level reader will come across words they don’t know - but imagine that that is how a new reader might feel even with a seemingly simple story. You can see why some children might be put off reading!

The more extensive a reader’s vocabulary, the more easily they can understand the vocabulary within the text and begin to get satisfaction out of their reading.

Another element of vocabulary to consider is the format of comprehension questioning itself. In an information retrieval question, a synonym or paraphrase is likely to be compared to the direct quote in the text. This requires an understanding of more than one set of words being used to communicate the same thing.

This is true again for answering comprehension questions, with questions frequently asking for an explanation “in your own words”. It may often be that the seemingly “lazy” copy-and–pasted answers learners offer up in these cases are in fact a sign of a limited vocabulary.

The role of vocabulary in reading

Through reading, we develop a wider “passive” vocabulary. There are some words we wouldn’t find easy to use in conversation, but that we understand in a text. How often do you say ‘thus’ when chatting with your friends over lunch?

To understand written text, learners need to pick up vocabulary they probably won’t have heard in listening to normal speech. For this reason, to read texts well, learners need to build their internal word bank, explicitly.

The relationship between vocabulary and reading has been named “the Matthew effect”. This term refers to the positive feedback loop between vocabulary size as a novice reader and vocabulary growth rate over time. The effect is mediated by how much time is spent on reading and the variety of reading experiences. Therefore, early readers with a wider vocabulary are more likely to spend more time reading and strengthen their vocabulary even further. This makes a lot of sense: if we see the purpose of reading as both for pleasure as well as for information gathering, then naturally the level of motivation to do it is going to be lower for those who struggle to achieve either of these aims.

Rather than fighting an uphill battle to increase time spent reading for those who struggle (though that is important to an extent), boost their joy and motivation to read by building the vocab they need.

Bedrock immerses learners in ambitious vocabulary in exciting, engaging fiction and non-fiction texts, giving both book-lovers and struggling readers text they can enjoy (and which bolster their vocabulary). It is essential to close the gaps in vocabulary and put learners on an upward trajectory with their reading, rather than a downward spiral.

The role of vocabulary in writing

In order to write well, learners must have an active mastery of language, not just a passive grasp. This means learners’ internal word banks have to be extremely solid. Moving from passive to active understanding takes a lot of reinforcement. Learners need ample opportunity to see the word many times in many contexts and bring it to attention to lodge it securely in the learner’s memory.

Each genre of writing has its own conventions; a key part of writing in different styles is knowing the vocabulary that suits the text’s purpose. In formal letter writing, we may end with “yours sincerely”, for example. This phrase is unlikely to be heard or seen in any other context. So, for a learner to be asked to write a letter, they need to have had the chance to actively learn the words they need.

A key part of how Bedrock improves literacy is the combination of vocabulary with comprehension, helping learners apply learned vocabulary to new, relevant contexts.

Reading for meaning

Early reading focuses on encouraging learners to work out the sounds of words and vocalise them. The next level, of course, is to understand the meaning of those words at the same time as saying them.

Appropriate questioning encourages learners to move to the higher level of reading for meaning. This might mean asking for specific information from the text, or at a different level, asking inferential questions. Readers learn to take in all contextual factors available, use their existing knowledge, and make educated guesses about the content of the text and what it is communicating.

Some readers might quickly be able to sound out words but have no idea what they are saying. If you were feeling confident, you might be able to have a good go at reading the Spanish menu aloud on holiday (and you might sound quite convincing!) but that doesn’t mean you know what patatas bravas means, or whether you want to order them.

Reading for meaning means we look everywhere to make sense of written language. There may be images on the menu, or maybe someone else is having the same thing on the next table. Maybe there is a tapas section, and you have had some of that before. Reading for meaning expands your understanding of the menu beyond the words used - you can use prior knowledge and context clues to infer what the text might mean. If you do eventually order the patatas bravas, thanks to your high-quality encounter with that new word, you will remember what it means the next time you see it on the menu.

It’s the same with high-level vocabulary, only slightly less delicious.

Drawing on existing knowledge to improve comprehension

Reading can be an overwhelming skill to learn in the early stages. Beginner readers are often so consumed with decoding the words and sounds that they lose sight of the bigger picture. Gentle questioning helps learners to get into the habit of “checking their work” the way you might check a sum in numeracy: “If we know Benny hates the snow, what might he be about to do next?” “Does it make sense that he would be playing outside with the other children?”

As well as helping strong readers, these questions give a sense of confidence to a reader who is having to work quite hard. A struggling reader still knows plenty about the world! For dyslexic children, who often suffer low self-esteem around literacy tasks, drawing on their existing interests and knowledge of how the world works helps them to avoid losing their confidence when trying to understand texts.

Bedrock offers a database of widely varied texts, both fiction and non-fiction, to suit the interests and expertise of even the most discerning of young readers.

Word knowledge is word mastery

We need to be aware that truly knowing a word goes beyond being able to sound it out – and we need to be checking that readers are engaging at a deeper level with the new words they learn. This improves their recall of the word.

There are a few different ways of thinking about what it means to ‘know’ a word. The two classic categories can be called ‘passive’ vs ‘active’ knowledge. Passive knowledge of a word means that we can understand it, but couldn’t use it confidently ourselves. Babies spend a long time in passive knowledge, where they may understand what is said to them but can’t yet be understood when they babble and try to produce language. Even in the womb, babies begin to recognise sounds and tones of voice! Passive knowledge is the easier end of the spectrum, and it is where we all start from. Even for the adult reader, there will be words that you can get the gist of when you read but would never use yourself, or might not be able to spontaneously recall.

Active knowledge consists of words that you could say or write in your own communication. To use a new word actively, a learner will usually need to see and/or hear it multiple times before it enters passive and then active use.

Something to be aware of is that early readers are in a position where the majority of the words they read are words that they have already been exposed to in speech across plenty of contexts. On the other hand, around year three or four of reading, the reading experience shifts, and the larger portion of words will be new and learned only through reading rather than speech. This is a big leap to make, and learners often need extra support during this phase.

Another complication comes when more experienced readers become able to sound out most of what they see accurately. This is great, but it means that we can’t be sure if the learner understands a word or if they can simply say it. Biemiller (2005) found that, “from the third grade onward, but not in earlier grades, 95% of children could read more words than they could explain.”

By directly targeting vocabulary instruction, we can help learners to master more of the words they might otherwise get away with only sounding out and skimming over.

Word recognition skills to improve reading comprehension

Actively building vocabulary gives learners a chance to reinforce the patterns words follow and the ways they tend to be linked.

A stronger reader can often recognise a new word because of prior lexical knowledge: for example, knowing prefixes and suffixes, recognising derivative words or grammatical details (e.g., this word ends in -ly so it is probably an adverb / about how something is done). This knowledge, known as morphology, is a key skill in word recognition and is an important ingredient in making reading comprehension stronger.

How Bedrock teaches vocabulary with reading to master both

Bedrock Learning’s approach helps learners to grow and reinforce their vocabulary and reading skills by combining explicit vocabulary learning and comprehension exercises. This provides a convenient and effective way for teachers to ensure our learners are not only practising comprehension tasks that are typically set in exams and assessments, but that they are also being challenged to expand their word bank so that they can experience tangible progress every time they read.

Bedrock’s methods help make the learning process rigorous and continuous, as the building blocks of the core vocabulary curriculum are set up as a foundation first and used in tandem with comprehension.

Bedrock offers a huge range of fiction and non-fiction original texts, alongside integrated resources and activities. This includes human narration, which engages the aural memory, as well as contextual images to create visual hooks. New vocabulary is consolidated through synonyms, antonyms and engaging word activities.

Learning and “overlearning” vocabulary gets to the root of comprehension and builds confidence. Bedrock provides a structured and intentional framework (the deep-learning algorithm) to make sure that words are seen and practised enough times to be truly mastered.

The variety of text types and topics helps learners get excited to read, and with the fully structured and scaffolded lessons, they can comprehend more and more. Each activity is self-marking, saving you time and enabling you to get a quick and accurate overview of learners’ progress.

It’s easy to get caught up in the stress of pushing our learners to the most advanced feats of reading, but we can keep our cool and focus on the essentials. We need to keep the following at the forefront of our minds (maybe even on a Post-It above our desks!)

"Without grammar, very little can be conveyed. Without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed." Wilkins, 1972.

Reading and vocabulary improvement

Consistent, self-marking literacy instruction for all learners