Vocabulary and comprehension in focus
It is quite possible to read aloud fluently in a new language with minimal comprehension: the problem for many EAL/D learners is not that they cannot decode or read the words on the page, but that they cannot comprehend them.
Vocabulary knowledge and comprehension are crucial in developing the ability to read meaningfully and to learn through reading, and research shows that there is a strong reciprocal relationship between the two. That is, vocabulary development is both an outcome of comprehension and a precursor to it, with word meanings making up as much as 70–80% of what learners understand from text. In fact, the proportion of new words in a text is the single most reliable predictor of its difficulty for learners. Therefore the relationship between vocabulary and comprehension is two-way and dynamic, with one proviso — lower primary learners rely on oral language and words they are familiar with through speaking to scaffold their reading development, but as they progress, more and more vocabulary is learned from written text.
Students arrive at school with vastly different levels of vocabulary, due to their home backgrounds. EAL/D learners may arrive with minimal English vocabulary, and so the explicit teaching of vocabulary becomes critical, as it is the best predictor of both reading and listening comprehension across all years of schooling. If new words are not consistently taught and learned in all subject areas, then the problems EAL/D learners face are compounded, and their ongoing underachievement becomes more likely.
Direct instruction in vocabulary influences comprehension more than any other factor. Although wide reading can build word knowledge and also knowledge about the world, students need thoughtful and systematic instruction in key vocabulary. This requires careful planning by teachers. Direct instruction means that the new or difficult words in a text are first predicted by the teacher, and then activities are devised to define, practise and recycle the new vocabulary. For students to understand a word, at least three interrelated meaning-making systems come into play: graphophonic (knowledge of sound-letter relationships, for instance, decoding), semantic (knowledge of the word meaning), and syntactic (knowledge of the word class or how the word fits into language structure). In proficient readers, these systems are deployed simultaneously. Teachers should ensure that texts are comprehensible for students (for instance, that they provide what is known as ‘comprehensible input’). If EAL/D learners cannot comprehend at the literal level of understanding, they cannot progress to the deeper levels of critical, interpretive or creative meaning-making.
Research has demonstrated that for students to comprehend a text without assistance from the teacher, they must already know 98 per cent of the words. In the middle years, this requires a vocabulary of 8000 to 9000 words. For instruction, where the teacher scaffolds or supports the students’ comprehension, 90–95 per cent coverage (existing word knowledge) is still required. This finding indicates that learners must reach much higher vocabulary sizes than thought before to read in class. If texts are harder than 90–95 per cent coverage, they will not work as instructional texts, and students will become frustrated or give up. This can be a real danger for EAL/D learners. Low-literacy EAL/D learners in particular require an explicit and continuing focus on building sight vocabulary and comprehension skills.
There are some time-worn but effective strategies for building in an explicit comprehension and vocabulary focus for EAL/D learners. Indeed, such literacy strategies work for all learners. Note that there is a difference between receptive vocabulary (for instance, words students recognise) and expressive vocabulary (for instance, words used in speaking or writing). Research indicates that students may need to encounter a new word up to 15 times to acquire it as part of their expressive vocabulary (hence the need for recycling). For direct or explicit instruction, teaching fewer words well is more effective than teaching many words in a cursory way. Teachers should also focus on high frequency words in texts rather than more obscure terminology. That is, teach the words students are definitely going to encounter again in other contexts.
Teaching strategies which will help support the active learning of vocabulary and hence improved reading comprehension (and writing) include the following: word walls; mini flipbooks; designated vocabulary notebooks; class-generated glossaries (using computers for images where relevant); flashcards; vocabulary games (commercial or hand-made); spelling tests and competitions; fun homework activities on new words; word chains or word maps; and, of course, online vocabulary programs and activities. As a final suggestion, recent research on middle school EAL/D learners suggests that teachers sometimes have little precise idea of their students’ vocabulary knowledge or levels of comprehension, and that progress in these areas is not a systematic focus nor systematically recorded. Simple diagnostic testing will provide a baseline for knowing where your EAL/D learners are in their word knowledge, and for developing a program that is linguistically responsive to their needs and their progress in language and literacy learning.