Advances in Vocabulary Instruction: Can We Bridge the Word Gap? : Topics in Language Disorders

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Issue Editor Foreword

Advances in Vocabulary Instruction: Can We Bridge the Word Gap?

Editor(s): Goldstein, Howard PhD, Issue Co-Editors; Kelley, Elizabeth S. PhD, Issue Co-Editors

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doi: 10.1097/TLD.0000000000000299
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The acquisition of vocabulary is a lifelong venture. Language is constantly changing and undertaking the learning of over 170,000 words in current usage (OED, 1989) can be overwhelming. Yet, the size of one's vocabulary relates to one's world knowledge, one's linguistic proficiency, and perhaps one's spelling bee prowess. This journey through our literate world starts in infancy. Hart and Risley (1995) featured vocabulary when making us aware of “meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children.” Their findings of large disparities in vocabulary exposure in American households led investigators to seek opportune experiences that would prepare children for successfully navigating our literate world. Language-rich interactions with infants and toddlers can take place in the home and in childcare settings. We also can pursue opportunities in early childhood classrooms in hopes of reducing the observed disparities in the vocabulary repertoires of American youth to help them maximize their human potential.

A substantial body of work exists to inform the design and delivery of effective vocabulary instruction, but additional work is needed to address the challenges of effective vocabulary instruction and intervention in home, classroom, and community settings. Beck and her colleagues outlined procedures for robust vocabulary instruction (Beck et al., 2013) that guided much of the research in this area. A meta-analysis by Marulis and Neuman (2010) examined the effects of vocabulary intervention on pre-K and kindergarten children. Despite overall large effects, interventions were not sufficiently powerful to close the gap in vocabulary knowledge between at-risk children from middle-/upper-income homes and those from low-income households. Further, Marulis and Neuman reported that effects of vocabulary interventions were the strongest when delivered by research staff or trained teachers and less successful when delivered by childcare providers. Other researchers have emphasized these same challenges. For instance, Dickinson (2011) described the need for interventions that can produce substantial gains in the early academic achievement of at-risk children and highlighted the difficulty in changing teacher practices thought to facilitate language learning. Our own research has sought to develop effective vocabulary intervention procedures that paraeducators, childcare providers, and certified teachers can easily deliver with high fidelity in real-world classroom settings. Our approach has been to reduce the demands placed on adults; the primary instruction is delivered via recorded stories with embedded vocabulary lessons and adults are responsible for monitoring and encouraging small groups of at-risk children (Goldstein et al., 2016). More recently, we have incorporated ways to augment learning through review and practice at school and at home (Kelley et al., 2020; Madsen et al., 2022).

Our goal for this issue was to explore how other investigators have advanced our understanding of vocabulary intervention. Each of these articles moves our understanding forward in key areas: How might various media contribute to word learning? How might we facilitate vocabulary learning in classrooms? What conversational strategies do teachers use to promote vocabulary learning and to what effect? Are there long-term effects from teaching academic vocabulary to preschoolers and kindergartners?

The first two articles in this issue explore the use of media in vocabulary learning. Neuman et al. observe that a vast array of media sources, such as pictures, dynamic images, print, and sound in books and screen media, could contribute to incidental word learning. Comparisons of different media formats (e.g., storybooks vs. digital media) have not produced clear evidence that different media are better for learning. Neuman and her colleagues suggest a synergy among media contexts that could aid in child engagement and in the depth of their learning. The authors make an interesting distinction between ostensive cues (i.e., definitions, multiple exemplars, and repetition) and attention-directing cues (that signal importance rather than meaning). Educational media producers rely on the latter about 2½ times as often and eye-tracking data show significant effects on children's attention. Another interesting result discussed is the superior learning associated with participatory over narrative or expository contexts, indicating that opportunities for active responding by children seem key to vocabulary learning.

In the next article, Phillips et al. provide an interesting example of how exposure to vocabulary across media can shape and reinforce learning. Rather than using storybooks to introduce new vocabulary, Phillips and her colleagues used selected educational video segments drawn from public television programs. Preschool teachers were provided scripted interactive games to review and practice the new vocabulary words in daily lessons. This approach addresses some of the common challenges in early childhood classrooms (e.g., limited expertise of educational staff, lack of preparation time, and insufficient intensity of instruction); teachers were not responsible for the substantial effort that went into selecting the words to teach, identifying the video vignettes for introducing selected words, and preparing scripted extension activity lessons. This study demonstrates the potential of an innovative, multicomponent intervention that incorporates media as an instructional context.

In the next two articles, the authors take a fine-grained approach to understanding the contributions of teachers in classroom-based vocabulary interventions. Hadley and her colleagues introduced words using book reading, but the intervention also included play situations that incorporated games, music, and sociodramatic play. Teachers were provided with soft-scripted lessons that emphasized specific strategies for instruction. Rather than broad measures of implementation fidelity, Hadley et al. explored the utility of more precise measures of adherence to examine teachers' use of specific strategies (especially open-ended questions) in instruction. They found that context influenced teacher behavior; implementation fidelity was better for book reading contexts than play contexts. They also found that teachers were better at teacher-focused than child-focused strategies, perhaps due to a reluctance to cede control of conversation and introduce more unpredictability into interactions.

Wasik and colleagues provide additional insight into teacher behavior during vocabulary instruction. Teacher–child conversations during book reading were examined to describe how teachers respond to children's answers and engage in back-and-forth conversations. Teachers' conversational feedback strategies increased as a result of professional development and were related to both global measures of classroom quality and children's vocabulary learning. Like Hadley et al., Wasik et al. found differences in teachers' use of specific teaching strategies (e.g., teachers more frequently provided information than expansions). One striking result is the extent to which teacher and child behaviors were coordinated; the correlation in their conversational turns was 0.98. This study demonstrates how fine-grained analyses of implementation can inform understanding of the strategies most responsible for child learning.

In the last online-only article, Coyne and colleagues address a critical gap in what we know about long-term effects of vocabulary intervention. Given the substantial time, effort, and resources required to teach vocabulary, we need to know whether children retain their learning. Many studies of vocabulary intervention demonstrate immediate treatment effects; few have examined what children retain months or years later. Having demonstrated learning of academic vocabulary words with two cohorts of kindergartners, Coyne and his colleagues continued testing those children in the first and second grades. Despite an initial decrement at the beginning of the first grade, retention stabilized at an impressive level through the second grade. At-risk children in the treatment group outperformed not-at-risk children in comparison classrooms, providing evidence that vocabulary intervention can bridge gaps in vocabulary knowledge. However, effects shown for targeted vocabulary were not reflected in measures of general vocabulary knowledge (i.e., PPVT). This study provides compelling evidence of sustained, durable effects of vocabulary intervention. This article is published online and available on the journal's website.

Anecdotally, we know that intense study of words can yield remarkable results. Contenders for the Scripps National Spelling Bee championship may represent the epitome of what can be accomplished. Yet, developing effective and feasible ways to accelerate vocabulary development in young children remains elusive. We continue to struggle with what vocabulary to teach, how to measure learning, and determining how, when, and how often to entice children into engaging learning opportunities. The authors of this issue point out a variety of contexts and strategies that can enrich the learning experiences of young children. Each of the authors has developed unique interventions that seem to represent some common directions for advancing our knowledge. The contexts for teaching are expanding beyond book reading—varied media inputs using diverse strategies, educational videos to introduce words, interactive games and play scenarios to broaden use of new vocabulary, and prolonged conversational interchanges to shape and reinforce learning. Along with producing stronger and persisting outcomes, investigators are striving to elucidate what mechanisms explain learning or lack thereof. Clearly, bridging the word gap needs to be conducted over years rather than months to produce desired effects. We hope that this issue will inspire readers to ponder these important issues and contribute to ongoing advances in vocabulary intervention.

—Howard Goldstein, PhD

—Elizabeth S. Kelley, PhD
Issue Co-Editors


Beck I. L., McKeown M. G., Kucan L. (2013). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.
Dickinson D. (2011). Teachers' language practices and academic outcomes of preschool children. Science, 333(6045), 964–967.
Goldstein H., Kelley E., Greenwood C., McCune L., Carta J., Atwater J., Guerrero G., McCarthy T., Schneider N., Spencer T. (2016). Embedded instruction improves vocabulary learning during automated storybook reading among high-risk preschoolers. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 59(3), 484–500.
Hart B., Risley T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Brookes.
Kelley E. S., Barker R. M., Peters-Sanders L., Madsen K., Seven Y., Soto X., Olsen W., Hull K., Goldstein H. (2020). Feasible implementation strategies for improving vocabulary knowledge of high-risk preschoolers: Results from a cluster-randomized trial. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 63(12), 4000–4017.
Madsen K. M., Peters-Sanders L., Kelley E. S., Barker R. M., Seven Y., Olsen W. L., Soto-Boykin X., Goldstein H. (2022). Optimizing vocabulary instruction for preschool children. Journal of Early Intervention. Advance online publication.
Marulis L. M., Neuman S. B. (2010). The effects of vocabulary intervention on young children's word learning: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 80(3), 300–335.
OED (1989). Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.
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