Vocabulary Matters: The Role of Word Families in Reading Comprehension

 //  Apr 16, 2019

Vocabulary Matters: The Role of Word Families in Reading Comprehension

Think about a group of words. Let’s say help, helper, helpful, unhelpful, helps, helped, for example. These clusters of related words are known as morphological word families. Analyses of large numbers of texts have shown that a relatively small portion of English words—2,500 word families to be exact—account for 90% or more of the words in texts that we read every day. These vocabulary words encompass much of our daily lives and are vital to the foundation of the ideas within our culture; they are also crucial to how we think about literacy instruction.

And yet, when thinking about teaching the approximately 600,000 words in written English in today’s classroom, educators often cherry pick a handful of exotic words to teach (i.e. lackadaisical, sheepish, or rumpus). While interesting, these words only occur within one in 10 million words of text and as a result of this practice, student comprehension suffers. Does this focus on rare words that students are unlikely to encounter in the outside world, best help level the vocabulary playing field? Some students come to school with many words to describe the social and natural worlds, but other students depend on close instruction to learn these words. Educators can utilize these powerful 2,500 word families to focus on what core vocabulary matters most in text and better address the individual comprehension needs of all students.

Taking a closer look at the “help” example, students can build an understanding of how these words represent families of shared meaning, while learning that the words and their family members can also represent many different meanings. Help is used as a verb to describe providing services but it is also used to describe taking something without permission. As a noun, help is used to describe assistance and, more recently, the displayed instructions on computers.

The words in the core vocabulary also represent connected concepts. The word help is connected to a group of other words within the 2,500 word families, all of which pertain to helpful actions: assist, contribute, promote, improve, guide, protect, save, rescue. Students' vocabularies are deeply enriched when they learn these distinctive and nuanced meanings and understand how they connect to one another. But, proficiency with these word families doesn't come from memorizing definitions of single words.

To become adept with morphological connections, multiple meanings, and networks of related words, students must be immersed in extensive reading from texts where these words are prominent. Deliberate practice where students can interact with examples of the words in action also supports their vocabulary growth. To bring this practice to life, I authored Scholastic W.O.R.D. (Words Opening Reading Doors), a K–5 digital program full of texts and game-based deliberate practice that emphasize core vocabulary, building students’ knowledge and ensuring they will be able to comprehend any text.

When all students have year-round access to the digital tools and rich texts needed to put these fundamental ideas into practice, they will build strong vocabularies, laying the path for success in school and life.