Vocabulary              [ Vocabulary Instruction and Reading Comprehension ]   |   [ Spelling ]

ERIC Identifier: ED250696
Publication Date: 1984-00-00
Author: Hodges, Richard E.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills Urbana IL.

When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean..."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master-that's all."

(Lewis Carroll, THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS 1872).
The nature and origins of words have long held a fascination for interested scholars and lay public, not only to satisfy intellectual curiosities, but also because word knowledge has particular importance in literate societies. For the same reasons, scholarly interests have turned toward determining the nature of vocabulary development -- that is, how and to what extent speakers and writers of English become, like Humpty Dumpty, masters of our lexical stock.

The outcomes of these investigations are of more than passing interest to educators; for word knowledge contributes significantly to achievement in the subjects of the school curriculum, as well as in formal and informal speaking and writing. In fact, a substantial body of research has been published in this century concerning the educational implications of these vocabulary studies (Dale and Razik 1963).


The vocabulary, or lexicon, of language encompasses the stock of words of that language which is at the disposal of a speaker or writer. Contained within this lexical storehouse is a core vocabulary of the words used to name common and fundamental concepts and situations of a culture, as well as subsets of words that result from one's personal, social, and occupational experiences.

Probably the most important influence on one's speech is the simple circumstance of the language spoken in the country of one's birth. Each of us grows up interacting with and interpreting the world around us, to a large degree through the medium of language.


Languages are as vibrant and dynamic as the cultures of which they are a part, and the lexical stock of a language is a vivid example of this linguistic principle. Words are, after all, no more than labels for concepts about the world around us, and as new concepts emerge or old ones change, the lexical stock changes accordingly. It is a linguistic paradox that change is a constant when applied to vocabulary. Many words in common use 200 years ago are now obsolete, just as many words in use today will be tomorrow's artifacts.

The English language is no exception, with a lexicon that reflects its many sources of origin and the effects of change over time. Besides the core stock of words rooted in Anglo-Saxon beginnings, English contains additional thousands of words borrowed from language communities with whom we have come in contact. Both of these sources have provided yet more words -- those that have been derived from earlier word forms by addition of prefixes and suffixes or those that have been shifted to new grammatical functions.

Still more words have emerged by the process of compounding, in which existing words are joined to form new combining parts of words, or simply by creating new words out of "whole cloth." The ingredients of our lexical stock are indeed rich and varied (Bolton 1982, Francis 1965, Laird 1981, Pyles 1971, Shipley 1977)

We do not learn most of our words by looking them up in a dictionary. Rather, we learn them in the context of our experiences with listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Many studies have been undertaken to determine the nature and extent of children's vocabulary development (Petty, Herold, and Stoll 1968). These studies demonstrate the truly prodigious linguistic accomplishments that children attain by the time they reach school age. While estimates vary, by age six most children have active vocabularies numbering in the several thousands of words (de Villiers 1978).

There is, however, an important difference between knowing words and understanding their broad range of uses and referents, for vocabulary development is first and foremost a matter of concept development. For this reason considerable attention has been turned in recent years to children's semantic development; that is, to the development of word meaning (Anglin 1970, de Villiers 1978, Foss and Hakes 1978). These studies illustrate that how words are used, not their length or frequency of use, indicates children's lexical maturity and, commonly, their intellectual maturity as well (Straw 1981).


Vocabulary development is, of course, a lifetime undertaking in which schools play a critical role in enriching and extending the young child's basic lexical repertoire, particularly through the medium of written language. Yet, "it is not the enlargement of vocabulary itself that is of value but the enlargement of the mind to new ideas" (Petty, Herold, and Stoll 1968). For this reason, vocabulary instruction properly belongs in all subjects of the curriculum in which students meet both new ideas and the words by which they are represented in the language.

The opportunities for vocabulary instruction are especially pronounced, however, in language arts and reading where words themselves can be an appropriate focus of study. Bearing in mind the dictum that knowledge of word meaning is the ultimate objective of study, teachers can provide numerous opportunities for students to explore the origins and forms of words as a means of extending and enriching their word knowledge (Dale and O'Rourke 1971, Hodges 1982, Johnson and Pearson 1984).

Teachers can also use students' personal experiences and prior knowledge to develop vocabulary in the classroom. Through informal activities such as semantic association students brainstorm a list of words associated with a familiar word, pooling their knowledge of pertinent vocabulary as they discuss the less familiar words on the list. Semantic mapping goes a step further, grouping the words on the list into categories and arranging them on the visual "map" so that relationships among the words become clearer. In semantic feature analysis words are grouped according to certain features, usually with the aid of a chart that graphically depicts similarities and differences among features of different words.

Finally, analogies are a useful way of encouraging thoughtful discussion about relationships among meanings of words (Johnson and Pearson 1984). The linguist W. N. Francis once commented that "many people...go through life with a vocabulary adequate only to their daily needs...but never indulging in curiosity and speculation about words. Others are wordlovers -- collectors and connoisseurs..But even those who aspire no further than to the writing of good clear expository prose must become at least amateur connoisseurs of words. Only this way -- not by formal exercises or courses in vocabulary building -- will they learn to make the best possible use of the vast and remarkable lexicon of English" (Francis 1965).

The success or failure of schooling to foster word knowledge is in large part dependent upon teacher attitude toward vocabulary. Thus, in the final analysis, teachers who are "wordlovers" themselves provide students both with a potent example of the value and pleasure that can be derived from exploring the richness and diversity of English lexicon, and with classroom contexts for such exploration by drawing on students' shared experiences.

Students may thus learn that language learning is a lifelong venture, one in which written language plays a particularly important role. Every contact with written language affords an opportunity to learn more not only about the writing system we use -- its structure and how words are spelled -- but also about the meanings and uses of words themselves.

This Digest was prepared for the ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills, 1984 with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under OERI contract. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or the Department of Education. ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced.


Anglin, Jeremy M. THE GROWTH OF WORD MEANING. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970.


Dale, Edgar, and Taher Razik. BIBLIOGRAPHY OF VOCABULARY STUDIES. 2d rev. ed. Columbus, OH: Bureau of Educational Research and Service, The Ohio State University, 1963.

Dale, Edgar, and Joseph O'Rourke. TECHNIQUES OF TEACHING VOCABULARY. Palo Alto, CA: Field Educational Publications, 1971.

de Villiers, Jill G., and Peter A. LANGUAGE ACQUISITION. Cambirdge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Foss, Donald J., and David T. Hakes. PSYCHOLINGUISTICS: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF LANGUAGE. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1978.

Francis, W. Nelson. THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE: AN INTRODUCTION: BACKGROUND FOR WRITING. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1965.

Hodges, Richard E. IMPROVING SPELLING AND VOCABULARY IN THE SECONDARY SCHOOL. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills and National Council of Teachers of English, 1982.

Johnson, Dale D., and P. David Pearson. TEACHING READING VOCABULARY. 2d ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984.

Laird, Charlton. THE WORD: A LOOK AT THE VOCABULARY OF ENGLISH. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.

O'Rourke, Joseph Patrick. TOWARD A SCIENCE OF VOCABULARY DEVELOPMENT. The Hague: Mouton, 1974.

Petty, Walter T., Curtis P. Herold, and Earline Stoll. THE STATE OF KNOWLEDGE ABOUT THE TEACHING OF VOCABULARY. Champaign, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1968.

Pyles, Thomas P. THE ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.

Shipley, Joseph T. IN PRAISE OF ENGLISH: THE GROWTH IN THE USE OF LANGUAGE. New York: Times Books, 1977.

Straw, Stanley B. "Assessment and Evaluation in Written Composition: A Commonsense Perspective." In RESEARCH IN THE LANGUAGE ARTS: LANGUAGE AND SCHOOLING, edited by Victor Froese and Stanley B. Straw. Baltimore: University Park Press, 1981.

Thompson, David S. LANGUAGE. New York: Time-Life Books, 1975.

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