The Role of Language Development, Phonics, Vocabulary, and ...

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The Role of Language Development, Phonics, Vocabulary, and Fluency in Comprehension Instruction

“Learning to read is one of the most important things children accomplish in elementary school because it is their foundation for most of their future academic endeavors. From the middle elementary years through the rest of their lives as students, children spend much of their time reading and learning information presented in text. The activity of reading to learn requires students to comprehend and recall the main ideas or themes presented……in text” (Stevens, Slavin, & Farnish, 1991, p. 8).

The National Reading Panel (2000) opens the section of its report on comprehension with the above quotation, emphasizing the importance of reading comprehension and the “developmental view that children must first learn how to recognize and relate print to oral language knowledge and to make this recognition automatic and fluent through practice” (p. 4-11). Comprehension is viewed as the “essence” of reading and necessary for academic and lifelong learning (Durkin, 1993).

Let’s review the various factors that contribute to developing comprehension. As you consider each element, understand that while each is necessary, none can stand alone if students are to construct meaning from what they read.

Language Development

Language development plays a crucial role in reading comprehension (Dickenson & Tabors, 2001; Hart & Risley, 1995). As children learn to read, they build on a foundation of language development that began at birth. Children need to have the opportunity and an environment to develop language and language structure as the foundation for reading comprehension. When children enter school, they need to be exposed to a language-rich classroom to develop the vocabulary and language structure needed for beginning reading and reading comprehension. These classrooms include rich discussions, thoughtful question-and-answer periods, and enjoyable and engaging activities connected to the learning environment. All of these help students move toward an understanding of what they read, an enjoyment of the text, a motivation to read independently, and to becoming “good” readers (Burns, Griffin, & Snow, 1999).


Children begin to develop the foundation for reading comprehension at birth through their language development. However, children do not acquire the specific skills that are needed to decode written words in the course of learning to speak. The decoding skills necessary for reading comprehension require explicit instruction in phonics. When reading connected text, readers must construct sentence meanings and retain them in memory as they move on to new sentences. Therefore, being able to decode words with minimal effort enables the reader to focus on the meaning of the words in the context of the passage being read (National Reading Panel, 2000).

Direct teaching of a set of letter-sound relationships in a clearly defined sequence with major sound/spelling relationships of both consonants and vowels reflects the process of systematic and explicit phonics instruction (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2001). Research data on phonics analyzed by the National Reading Panel (2000) supports the following conclusions:

• Systematic and explicit phonics instruction is more effective than nonsystematic instruction or no phonics instruction.

• Systematic and explicit phonics instruction significantly improves kindergarten and first-grade children’s word recognition and spelling.

• Systematic and explicit phonics instruction significantly improves children’s reading comprehension.

• Systematic and explicit phonics instruction is effective for children from various social and economic levels.

• Systematic and explicit phonics instruction is particularly beneficial for children who are having difficulty learning to read and who are at-risk for developing future reading problems.

• Systematic and explicit phonics instruction is most effective when introduced early.

• Phonics instruction is not an entire reading program for beginning readers.

Phonics should be taught for approximately two years. If phonics instruction is introduced early in kindergarten, it should be completed by the end of first grade for most students (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2001).


When language develops from language-rich classrooms, vocabulary-rich conversation, and experiences to build prior knowledge, children begin to acquire the vocabulary that is necessary for reading comprehension. In analyzing the research data on reading comprehension, the National Reading Panel (2000) found that the role of vocabulary and vocabulary instruction is critical to reading comprehension. Because language development is the foundation for the development of vocabulary, the more language experience the child has, the more vocabulary the child learns (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2001).

Vocabulary is important to reading comprehension. Readers need to know the meaning of the words they are reading in order to comprehend the text. Researchers often refer to four types of vocabulary (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2001):

• Listening vocabulary – the words we need to know to understand what we hear

• Speaking vocabulary – the words we use when speaking

• Reading vocabulary – the words we need to know to understand what we read

• Writing vocabulary – the words we use in writing

Vocabulary is learned both indirectly and directly. Children learn the meanings of most words indirectly, through everyday experiences with oral and written language in three ways (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2001):

• They engage daily in oral language by participating in conversations, hearing words repeated, and hearing adults use new and interesting words.

• They listen to adults read to them, having new words explained, having conversations about the book when finished reading, and relating information to prior knowledge.

• They read extensively on their own, considering new words they encounter when reading independently.

Some vocabulary can be taught directly. Teachers provide students with specific word instruction and with strategies for learning new words. Specific word instruction includes teaching specific words before reading (Beck, Perfetti, & McKeown, 1982), active engagement with vocabulary (Dole, Sloan, & Trathen, 1995), and repeated exposure to words (Brett, Rothlein, & Hurley, 1996). Students need to be provided with word learning strategies that include how to use the dictionary and other reference materials, how to use information about word parts to figure out meaning of words, and how to use context clues to determine word meanings (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2001).

Teachers need to decide what new vocabulary words should be taught since all unknown words cannot be taught. The focus should be on teaching three types of words (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2001):

• Important words--Words that are important for understanding the concepts

• Useful words--Words that students are likely to see and use again and again

• Difficult words--Words with multiple meanings or idiomatic expressions.

Teachers can help students develop vocabulary by fostering word consciousness--an awareness of and an interest in words, their meanings and their power. Readers who are word conscious know many words and learn them well. Readers develop word consciousness in several ways:

• Attending to the author’s choice of words

• Playing with words (e.g., puns and palindromes)

• Researching word origins

• Finding examples of word usage


Fluency provides the bridge between word recognition and comprehension. Teachers need to assess students’ oral reading to determine the students’ development in word recognition and fluency--two critical elements in overall reading success (National Reading Panel, 2000).

Assessing or observing reading is difficult since the process associated with reading takes place in the brain. Recent work by cognitive scientists using brain imaging technology has shown that certain areas of the brain become more active during reading (Wolfe, 2001). Although educators do not have the means to have images of the student’s brain when reading, a student’s oral reading does give a window into the reading process. By analyzing the quality of the student’s oral reading and any deviations from the text, the teacher can determine a student’s strengths and weaknesses in word recognition, fluency, and, to a lesser degree, comprehension. Teachers can make inferences regarding the strategies the student is using based on the number and type of mistakes the student makes (Rasinski, 2003).

Reading demands a certain level of accuracy in decoding words correctly in order to comprehend the meaning of the text successfully. The standard to indicate adequate decoding while reading a continuous text is 90-95% accuracy. This 90-95% accuracy is called the student’s instructional level, a level where the student can read the text but with the assistance of the teacher. A student reading at 96-100% level of accuracy is considered to be reading independently. If a student is reading below 90%, the text is generally considered too difficult for that child (Gillet & Temple, 2000).

A fluent reader is considered to have automatic decoding, expression, attention to conventions, and 96-100% reading accuracy so the focus can be on making connections among the ideas in a text and between these ideas and background knowledge (Rasinski, 2003). A less fluent reader must focus attention on decoding. Consequently, there is little attention left for comprehension (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2001).

Teaching reading fluency should begin when students are not automatic at recognizing the words in their text. The following are criteria to judge if a student needs fluency instruction (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2001):

• The student has a word recognition error rate of more than 10% in a text that he or she has not practiced.

• The student cannot read orally with expression.

• The student’s comprehension is poor for the text that he or she has read.

Teachers can help their students become more fluent by providing them with models of fluent reading and by having students repeatedly read passages as the teacher offers guidance. Also, students need to have opportunities to read books at their independent level along with reading instruction (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2001). The following are instructional suggestions from the National Reading Panel (2000) to help students increase their fluency in text reading:

• Model fluent reading, then have students reread the text on their own about four times to improve their fluency.

• Have students repeatedly read passages aloud with guidance.

• Provide text that is reasonably easy for students to read.

• Have students read aloud repeatedly, using methods such as

o Student-adult reading--Reading one-on-one with an adult, who provides a model of fluent reading, helps with word recognition, and provides feedback

o Choral reading--Reading aloud simultaneously in a group

o Tape-assisted reading--Reading aloud simultaneously or as an echo with an audio-taped model

o Partner reading--Reading aloud with a more fluent partner

o Readers’ theatre--Rehearsing and performing a dialogue-rich script derived from a book before an audience.

It is critical to remember that having students review and rehearse word lists until they are fluent in recognizing the words may improve their ability to recognize the words in isolation, but this ability may not transfer to recognizing the words in connected text. Developing reading fluency must be developed systematically using connected text.


Armbruster, B., Lehr, F., & Osborn, J. (2001). Put reading first: The research building blocks for teaching children to read. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy. Retrieved July 1, 2004 from

Beck, I. L., Perfetti, C. A., & McKeown, M. G. (1982). Effects of long-term vocabulary instruction on lexical access and reading comprehension. Journal of Education Psychology, 74(4), 506-521.

Brett, A., Rothlein, L., & Hurley, M. (1996). Vocabulary acquisition from listening to stories and explanations of target words. Elementary School Journal, 96(4), 415-422.

Burns, M. S., Griffin, P, & Snow, C. E. (Eds.). (1999). Starting out right: A guide to promoting children’s reading success. Washington, DC: The National Academy Press.

Dickinson, D., & Tabors, P. (Eds.). (2001). Beginning literacy with language. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Dole, J. A., Sloan, C., & Trathen, W. (1995). Teaching vocabulary within the context of literature. Journal of Reading, 38(6), 452-460.

Durkin, D. (1993). Teaching them to read (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Gillet, J. W., & Temple, C. (2000). Understanding reading problems (5th ed.). New York: Longman.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research and literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: Reports of the subgroups (NIH Publication No. 00-4754). Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Development.

Rasinski, T. V. (2003). The fluent reader: Oral reading strategies for building word recognition, fluency, and comprehension. New York: Scholastic Professional Books.

Stevens, R. J., Slavin, R. E., & Farnish, A. M. (1991). The effects of cooperative learning and instruction in reading comprehension strategies on main idea identification. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83(1), 8-16.

Wolfe, P. (2001). Brain matters: Translating research into classroom practice. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


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