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Children with Higher Vocabularies have Better Decoding Skills

Vocabulary development is linked to development in phonological awareness (National Reading Panel Report, 2000) for children who are hearing and children who are DHH (Kyle & Harris, 2010, Easterbrooks, Lederberg, Miller, Bergeron, & Connor, 2008; Dickinson, Golinkoff, & Hirsh-Pacek, 2010). This means that children with higher vocabularies have better phonological awareness skills.

Teachers who are motivated to improve their students’ literacy skills should not focus on teaching phonological awareness and other code-based skills at the expense of vocabulary! Decoding skills only represent a small subset of skills that do not sustain reading achievement over time and better phonological awareness skills are linked to better reading outcomes.

Children with stronger vocabulary and syntax skills  . . . have a richer representation of word parts, and these represented segments facilitate growth in phonological awareness (Desjardin, Ambrose, & Eisenburg, 2009).

Vocabulary is important-- Even in the early grades when students are learning the mechanics of reading.

Phonological Awareness is the understanding . . .

  • that the letter m makes the sound “mmmmm” (alphabetic knowledge)
  • that ‘apple’ can be divided into two syllables ‘aaa’ ‘pul’ (phonological awareness)
  • that ‘cat’ rhymes with ‘bat’ (phonological awareness)
  • that ‘g-i-f-t’ can be sounded out into a word ‘gift’ (decoding and blending)

FAQ: What is the relationship between vocabulary development and decoding?


DesJardin, J.L., Ambrose, S., & Eisenberg, L.S. (2009). Literacy skills in children with cochlear implants: The importance of early oral language and joint storybook reading.  The goal of this study was to longitudinally examine relationships between early factors (child and mother) that may influence children's phonological awareness and reading skills 3 years later in a group of young children with cochlear implants (N = 16). Mothers and children were videotaped during two storybook interactions, and children's oral language skills were assessed using the “Reynell Developmental Language Scales, third edition.” Three years later, phonological awareness, reading skills, and language skills were assessed using the “Phonological Awareness Test,” the “Woodcock–Johnson-III Diagnostic Reading Battery,” and the “Oral Written Language Scales.” Variables included in the data analyses were child (age, age at implant, and language skills) and mother factors (facilitative language techniques) and children's phonological awareness and reading standard scores. Results indicate that children's early expressive oral language skills and mothers’ use of a higher level facilitative language technique (open-ended question) during storybook reading, although related, each contributed uniquely to children's literacy skills. Individual analyses revealed that the children with expressive standard scores below 70 at Time 1 also performed below average (<85) on phonological awareness and total reading tasks 3 years later. Guidelines for professionals are provided to support literacy skills in young children with cochlear implants.

Dickinson, D.K., Golinkoff, R.M., & Hirsh-Pacek, K. (2010). Speaking out for language: Why language is central to reading development. Educational Researcher, 39 (4), 305-310.  Although the National Early Literacy Panel report provides an important distillation of research, the manner in which the data are reported underrepresents the importance of language. Unlike other predictors with moderate associations with later reading, language exerts pervasive and indirect influences that are not described by the effect sizes used in the meta-analysis. Also, unlike code-related skills that develop rapidly during the years studied, language develops over an extended time span. Because it is relatively difficult to devise interventions that dramatically alter children’s language abilities, the authors of this response are concerned that schools will target themore malleable code-based skills. They warn against such a move.

Easterbrooks, S.R., Lederberg, A.R., Miller, E.M., Bergeron, J.P., & Connor, C.M. (2008). Emergent literacy skills during early childhood in children with hearing loss: Strengths and weaknesses. Volta Review, 108(2), 91-114.  The difficulties for students with hearing loss in gaining proficient literacy skills are well documented. However, studies describing the nature and variability of emergent literacy skills for students with hearing loss or the rate at which progress occurs at young ages are limited. We assessed emergent literacy skills and outcomes at the beginning and end of a school year for 44 young children (mean age = 5.2 years) who are deaf and hard of hearing and who had some speech perception skills. These children generally showed gains similar to their peers with typical hearing in knowledge of letter names and common written words, but lagged in phonological awareness skills. Correlational analyses suggest that these skills were systematically related to the children's literacy development, similar to what has been found in children with typical hearing. The results show that children participating in this study progressed on some phonological awareness skills (alliteration, blending, and elision) but not on others (rhyming, syllable segmentation). This article discusses the relevance of the findings for an emergent literacy curriculum.

Juel, C. (2006). The impact of early school experiences on initial reading. In D.K. Dickinson & S.B. Neuman (Eds.), Handbook of early literacy (pp. 410-426). Guildford.  Current research increasingly highlights the role of early literacy in young children's development--and informs practices and policies that promote success among diverse learners. This handbook presents cutting-edge knowledge on all aspects of literacy learning in the early years.

Kyle, F.E. & Harris, M. (2011). Longitudinal patterns of emerging literacy in beginning deaf and hearing readers. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 16(3), 289-304.  The emerging reading and spelling abilities of 24 deaf and 23 hearing beginning readers were followed over two years. The deaf children varied in their language backgrounds and preferred mode of communication. All children were given a range of literacy, cognitive and language-based tasks every 12 months. Deaf and hearing children made similar progress in literacy in the beginning stages of reading development, and then their trajectories began to diverge. The longitudinal correlates of beginning reading in the deaf children were earlier vocabulary, letter-sound knowledge, and speechreading. Earlier phonological awareness was not a longitudinal correlate of reading ability once earlier reading levels were controlled. Only letter name knowledge was longitudinally related to spelling ability. Speechreading was also a strong longitudinal correlate of reading and spelling in the hearing children. The findings suggested that deaf and hearing children utilize slightly different reading strategies over the first two years of schooling.

National Reading Panel Report (2000). Retrieved on July 18, 2011.  The Summary Report is an ideal resource for anyone who wants to understand the purpose, methodology, and results of the National Reading Panel's findings on reading instruction research.  This 35-page report explains the origin of the Panel and its congressional charge. It succinctly describes the research methodology used and the findings of each of the Panel subgroups: (1) Alphabetics, (2) Fluency, (3) Comprehension, (4) Teacher Education and Reading Instruction, and (5) Computer Technology and Reading Instruction. This report also offers insightful information provided by Panel members on reading instruction topics that may require further exploration.  This report is an excellent resource for parents, teachers, administrators, or anyone interested in learning about reading instruction research.