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What does the research say about direct instruction?

There are many lists of the effective principles for vocabulary instruction. Larry Ferlazzo has ‘The Big 10’ and Reading Rockets summarises research to end up with Four Pragmatic Principles for Enhancing Vocabulary Instruction.

However, Graves¹ has summarised the main principles from a range of research and identified six key areas that underpin effective vocabulary teaching that we need to attend to in direct instruction.

1. Include both definitional and contextual information

Whilst just working with definitions of words can make some difference to pupils’ vocabulary, it has been found time and again that definitions together with context has a greater effect on pupils’ vocabulary.

When defining words, it is best to create pupil-friendly definitions as some dictionary definitions can use more complex language than the word being looked up. One piece of research by Mckeown (1983)³ provided two groups of pupils with different definitions; one from a dictionary and one developed by the researcher. Pupils were then asked to write sentences that included the defined words. Those that had the dictionary definition wrote 25% of their sentences using the word appropriately and 75% where it was not. The group that had the carefully constructed definition wrote 50% of their sentences using the word correctly.

When using the context to develop an understanding of the word, it is obvious that the first time a word is met the understanding is limited but grows each time it is met in different contexts. This means contextual teaching needs to be robust, and well-planned in order for it to be effective. One example of this is the word ‘set’. The English Oxford Living Dictionary has over 20 definitions for the word on its own and then many more if followed by an adverbial, e.g. set about or as a phrasal verb such as ‘set off’ or ‘set in’. If we take the definition of ‘set’ as located in a specific position as in ‘The village was set amongst trees and hills’, it will be difficult to make sense of the instruction to ‘set the table’. This article lists 164 definitions of ‘set’. ‘Run’ is another example of a word that has many definitions. How many different ways of using it can you think of? Baths, noses, rivers, traffic lights …

2. Involve active and deep processing of the words

Stahl and Fairbanks, 1986² and Beck and Mckeown, 1991³ define deep processing as comparing and contrasting word meanings, thinking about and discussing the nuances of words, applying words in talk and writing in specific contexts and then in pupils’ own contexts.

3. Provide multiple exposures to the word.

Implicit in what has been said about the previous two principles is the fact that meeting a word once will not enable pupils to make that word their own and to choose when to use it correctly. Multiple exposures to the word are necessary and these exposures need to demand that pupils explore the words in different ways.

4. Review, rehearse and remind pupils about the word in various contexts over time.

Coming back to vocabulary already learned and reviewing and reminding pupils about it is a key aspect of vocabulary instruction. By their very definition, the words being taught are not words that children will meet in everyday speech. This will demand planned activities to ensure the words are being used and understanding of them deepened.

5. Include discussion as a prominent part of instruction.

Purposeful talk to explore, try out and consolidate learning is essential. Vocabulary instruction is not a quiet, individual activity but one where pupils grapple with new words, the meanings of these words in relation to their lives and when and how to use them. Also important is teacher talk: the quantity and quality, the variety and sophistication of the vocabulary used and repetition and paraphrasing of pupil talk; all of which have been shown⁴ to positively affect vocabulary children’s vocabulary acquisition.

6. Spend a significant amount of time on the word.

This will all take time and the implication is that we can not teach all words to the same depth. We need to select the words that we teach in depth carefully so that they are worthy of the time we will spend on them. There is also an implication here that time needs to be clearly identified within the curriculum.

Think back to the list of vocabulary activities that you completed in week one. Look again at the Direct Instruction column and identify which of the principles are involved in some of your activities.

If you have a good example of an activity that embodies some of the above principles, describe it in the comments and explain which principles are involved.

If you find that few of the principles are evidenced, take one of the activities and think about how you could adapt it to incorporate more of the principles of effective instruction.

Share what adaptations you made to the activity in the comments.

When you have done that, look at what others have posted and join in the conversation to discuss examples or ideas that most interest you.

  1. Graves, M. F. (2016), The Vocabulary Book: Instruction and Learning 2nd ed, Teachers College Press
  2. Stahl, S. A. and Fairbanks, M. M. (1986) ‘The Effects of Vocabulary Instruction: A Model-Based Meta-Analysis’, Review of Educational Research, 56(1), pp. 72–110. doi: 10.3102/00346543056001072.
  3. McKeown, M. G. et al. (1983) ‘The Effects of Long-Term Vocabulary Instruction on Reading Comprehension: A Replication’, Journal of Reading Behavior, 15(1), pp. 3–18. doi: 10.1080/10862968309547474.
  4. Neuman, Susan & Pinkham, Ashley & Kaefer, Tanya. (2015). Supporting Vocabulary Teaching and Learning in Prekindergarten: The Role of Educative Curriculum Materials. Early Education and Development. 26. 1-24. 10.1080/10409289.2015.1004517.

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This article is from the free online course:

An Introduction to Teaching Vocabulary

Babcock Education