When you look at the five components of reading and how teachers’ emphasis on them changes as students learn to read, one constant is word learning. This shouldn’t be surprising for those familiar with Scarborough’s Reading Rope, which suggests that vocabulary and background knowledge are essential components of skilled reading. These two strands of the rope can account for a 50-60 percent variation in reading comprehension scores. Not only do students need to know how to decode words, but they must also know the meaning of words in order to apply their meaning toward comprehension.

Fortunately, students are building vocabulary and background knowledge all the time as they pick up new words from context through reading and listening, learn new words and ideas in their daily lives, and of course, in all the various content areas they study in school.

Explicit vocabulary instruction not only helps students build vocabulary in the moment, but also gives them the tools to learn new words as they encounter them. Here’s an effective routine to help students learn new words whether they’re in an English class or the science lab.

Four-Part Processor

To understand the rationale behind this routine, it helps to keep the four-part processing model of word recognition in mind. At its base are the phonological and orthographic processors that govern spoken and written language, respectively, and that inform and influence one another. From there, we move up to the meaning processor, where definitions of words and the meaning of the information coming in are processed. Finally, at the top, is the context processor, which layers in the information about text structure, speaker or author, environment, or any other contextual information that may affect the understanding of the sentence and passage.

Stacy Hurst is an assistant professor of teacher education at Southern Utah University, where she teaches courses in literacy and early childhood education. She has degrees in sociology and elementary education and a master’s degree in education. Her extensive experience also includes teaching 1st grade and working as a literacy coach and reading specialist. Stacy is the co-author of a foundational literacy program and is also the chief education officer at Reading Horizons, an educational software company that teaches structured literacy concepts through a blended software and direct instruction approach. Stacy is passionate about literacy and believes that learning how to read well is a civil right. She can be reached at stacy@readinghorizons.com.

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