Toward a Theory of Word Selection

Authored by: William E. Nagy , Elfrieda H. Hiebert

Handbook of Reading Research

Print publication date:  October  2010
Online publication date:  March  2011

Print ISBN: 9780805853421
eBook ISBN: 9780203840412
Adobe ISBN: 9781136891427


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Which words should a teacher teach? There is general agreement that some vocabulary must be taught (NICHD, 2000), but there are far too many potentially unfamiliar words in the texts used in schools to teach them all (Nagy & Anderson, 1984). This gap between the number of words not known and the number that can be taught is further exacerbated by factors such as the time-intensive nature of high-quality vocabulary instruction (Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986), the existence of huge individual differences in vocabulary size (Hart & Risley, 1995), and the linguistic and socioeconomic diversity of the American student population (Douglas-Hall, Chau, & Koball, 2006). For the students whose exposure to academic language occurs almost exclusively in the school context, the instructional choices that are made from the tens of thousands of words in English will determine the extent to which these students acquire the vocabulary of academic texts. It is essential for educators and policy-makers to have a principled basis for identifying the words that should be targeted for vocabulary instruction. (Note that by vocabulary instruction we are referring to teaching word meanings —not to helping students with words already in their oral vocabularies that they might find difficult to decode.)

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