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Children Can Learn 860 Words Per Year (That's 2 Words a Day!)

Bobby is a six-year-old boy with a hearing loss in Ms. Juanita’s first grade class. He has about a two year delay in his receptive vocabulary. Ms. Juanita wants to know how many words she can expect Bobby to learn this year and how many words she can directly teach him on a weekly basis. Sometimes she shows Bobby a picture of a target word once or twice and he doesn't learn it. Does she need to increase the amount of times Bobby experiences the word for him to learn it? What should Ms. Juanita do?

Ms. Juanita can:

  • Target 2 words per day  (about 10 per week) to help close the gap in Bobby’s vocabulary
  • Increase the number of times Bobby experiences the target word (to around 12 times!)
  • Increase the number of contexts in which Bobby experiences the target words
  • Incorporate storybook reading or extension activities outside of school that include the target words
  • Engage Bobby with the target words by:
    1. Asking Bobby open-ended questions where he has to use the target word
    2. Giving examples or non-examples
    3. Providing fill in the blank or finishing idea activities
    4. Extending or distancing the words to Bobby’s own life
    5. Giving Bobby choices for answers if he has trouble coming up with the target word

Building Blocks of Vocabulary Learning

Related Research

Big Idea: DHH children lack extensive vocabulary knowledge, which affects their reading ability, across the school years.

Fact #1: DHH children frequently lag behind their typically hearing peers in vocabulary breadth and depth across ages.

  • Hearing toddlers know on average 573 words at 2.5 years (Fenson et al., 1994). In contrast, DHH children between 1.5 and 4.5 years had only one-fifth the vocabulary of their hearing peers. That equates to an average of 47 different words for DHH children and 241 for hearing children around four years of age (Nicholas & Geers, 2003).
  • By the time they enter kindergarten, children with typical hearing have heard between 13 and 45 million words (Hart & Risley, 1995). This is important because their receptive vocabulary at the beginning of first grade predicts their reading ability at the end of 3rd grade (Sénéchal, LeFevre, Thomas, & Daley, 1998) and 11th grade (Cunningham, & Stanovich, 1997). Children who start school with smaller vocabularies expand their vocabularies at a slower rate than children who begin with larger vocabularies (Hart & Risley, 1995).
  • Typically hearing students have learned an average of 6,000 root word meanings by the end of 2nd grade (Biemiller, 2005) and acquire an additional 1,000 word meanings a year. By the time a student enters middle school, she knows close to 10,000 words, can explain what they mean, and can use them productively in sentences. In contrast, a 10-year-old DHH student may understand only 30% of the 2,000 most frequently used words used in controlled vocabulary text (Walter, 1978).

Fact #2: DHH children need repetitive, explicit instruction for word learning.

  • Children who spend an average of 25 minutes of reading daily are exposed to 20,000 unfamiliar words per year. However, the best vocabulary instruction can only address around several hundred per year.

Students learn words from a single exposure in context only 5-10% of the time. Up to 12 exposures may be necessary to develop deep understanding of a new word (Nagy, Anderson, & Herman, 1987; Shu, Anderson, & Zhang, 1995), and students who struggle with reading may need additional opportunities (Roberts, Torgesen, Boradman, & Scammacca, 2009).


Biemiller, A. (2005). Size and sequence in vocabulary development: Implications for choosing words for primary grade vocabulary instruction. In E. H. Heivert & M. L. Kamil (Eds.), Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bringing research to practice (pp. 232-242). Mahwah, NH: Erlbaum.  Although proficiency in vocabulary has long been recognized as basic to reading proficiency, there has been a paucity of research on vocabulary teaching and learning over the last two decades. Recognizing this, the U.S. Department of Education recently sponsored a Focus on Vocabulary conference that attracted the best-known and most active researchers in the vocabulary field. This book is the outgrowth of that conference. It presents scientific evidence from leading research programs that address persistent issues regarding the role of vocabulary in text comprehension. Part I examines how vocabulary is learned; Part II presents instructional interventions that enhance vocabulary; and Part III looks at which words to choose for vocabulary instruction.

Cunningham, A. E., & Stanovich, K, E. (1997). Early reading acquisition and its relation to reading experience and ability 10 years later. Developmental Psychology, 33, 934-945.  A group of lst-graders who were administered a battery of reading tasks in a previous study were followed up as 1 lth graders. Ten years later, they were administered measures of exposure to print, reading comprehension, vocabulary, and general knowledge. First-grade reading ability was a strong predictor of all of the 1 lth-grade outcomes and remained so even when measures of cognitive ability were partialed out.

Fenson, L., Dale, P. S., Reznick, J. S., Bates, E., Thal, D. J., & Pethick, S. J. (1994). Variability in early communicative development. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 59(5) (Serial No. 242).  Data from parent reports on 1,803 children-derived from a normative study of the MacArthur Communicative Development Inventories (CDIs)-are used to describe the typical course and the extent of variability in major features of communicative development between 8 and 30 months of age. The two instruments, one designed for 8-16-month-old infants, the other for 16-30-month-old toddlers, are both reliable and valid, confirming the value of parent reports that are based on contemporary behavior and a recognition format.

Hart, B., & Risley, R. T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.  This study of ordinary families and how they talk to their very young children is no ordinary study at all. Betty Hart and Todd Risley wanted to know why, despite best efforts in preschool programs to equalize opportunity, children from low-income homes remain well behind their more economically advantaged peers years later in school. Their painstaking study began by recording each month - for 2-1/2 years - one full hour of every word spoken at home between parent and child in 42 families, categorized as professional, working class, or welfare families. Years of coding and analyzing every utterance in 1,318 transcripts followed. Rare is a database of this quality.

Nagy, W., Anderson, R. C., & Herman, P. (1987). Learning word meanings from context during normal reading. American Educational Research Journal, 24, 237-270.  This study investigated incidental learning of word meanings from context during normal reading. A total of 352 students in third, fifth, and seventh grades read either expository or narrative passages selected from grade-level textbooks, and after six days were tested on their knowledge of difficult words from the passages. Small but reliable gains in knowledge of words from the passages read were found at all grade and ability levels.

Nicholas, J. G., & Geers, A. E. (2003). Hearing status, language modality, and young children’s communicative and linguistic behavior. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. 8(4), 422-437.  This study examined early pragmatic skill development in a group of 38 children with severe or profound hearing loss between 1 and 4 years of age who were enrolled in a simultaneous communication (SC) approach to language learning. Both their use of intentionally communicative acts and their use of language were studied in an analysis of 30-min play sessions between a child and the primary caregiver.

Roberts, G., Torgesen, J. K., Boradman, A., & Scammacca, N. (2009). Evidence-based strategies for reading instruction of older students with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 23(2), 63-69.  Over a quarter of 8th-grade students and more than one-third of 4th graders do not read well enough to understand important concepts and acquire new knowledge from grade-level text. For students with learning disabilities, the numbers are more troubling. This article describes features of evidence-based instruction for students who continue to struggle with reading in late elementary, middle, and high school. Recommendations are organized into 5 areas that are critical to the reading improvement of older struggling readers: (1) word study, (2) fluency, (3) vocabulary, (4) comprehension, and (5) motivation.

Sénéchal, M., LeFevre, J., Thomas, E., Daley, K. (1998). Differential effects of home literacy experiences on the development of oral and written language. Reading Research Quarterly, 32, 96-116.  Examines whether storybook exposure and the amount of teaching in reading and writing skills reported by middle-class parents were related to oral language skills and written language skills of kindergarten children. Shows that storybook exposure explained statistically significant unique variance in children's oral language skills but not in their written language skills.

Shu, H., Anderson, R. C., & Zhang, H. (1995). Incidental learning of word meanings while reading: A Chinese and American cross-cultural study. Reading Research Quarterly, 30(1), 76-95.  Children's natural learning of word meanings while reading was investigated in a study involving 447 American and Chinese children in third and fifth grades. The children read one of two cross-translated stories and then completed a test on the difficult words in both the story they read and the one they did not read. The results showed significant incidental learning of word meanings in both grades in both countries.

Walter, G. G. (1978). Lexical abilities of hearing and hearing-impaired children. American Annals of the Deaf, 123, 976-982.  The ability to understand English words in print was tested in 376 normal and hearing impaired students (ages 10-14 years).