Vocabulary is the KEY to unlocking Comprehension Skills!

February 22, 2021 No Comments

If we don’t start teaching vocabulary now, we may as well come face to face with the reality that the learning gap for American children will increase as other countries close in on us.

According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, only about a third of 4th graders are proficient in reading. When focusing on early childhood learning, the debate has been whether it is better to teach whole language or phonics. Whatever your belief, research shows that kids don’t always comprehend what they read.

There are some experts who state that there really are two different schools of thought regarding reading. One is phonics – decoding words by matching sounds to letters. The other is whole reading – learning through memorization of the word. Both ideas are directly taught in ELA/reading class. But kids who don’t have the vocabulary knowledge to read the passage, won’t understand the main idea.

“Wanting students to be able to ‘analyse, synthesise and evaluate’ information sounds like a reasonable goal,” writes Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. “But analysis, synthesis, and evaluation mean different things in different disciplines.”

“But the bigger problem is that critical thinking varies so much. “Critical thinking is needed when playing chess, designing a product, or planning strategy for a field hockey match,” Willingham wrote. “But there are no routine, reusable solutions for these problems.

Research Based Evidence

 Natalie Wexler, author of “The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System–and How to Fix It,” states that most ‘elementary schools teach reading comprehension as free-floating skills, detached from the content a child is reading. The teacher is focused on teaching students how to make inferences or find the main idea, regardless of the topic’. Researching the cognitive science of reading Wexler found that ” cognitive scientists have agreed for decades” that the most important element of reading comprehension is knowledge and vocabulary about the topic (Jill Barshay, The Hechinger Report)

An experiment cited mostly by researchers is about baseball. In this experiment researchers chose a topic that kids who may be average readers would know something about, baseball. General reading skills or knowledge of the topic was the main goal of the study.

“What they found was the kids who knew about baseball did very well, regardless of whether they tested as good or poor readers,” Wexler said. And even more telling, the kids who knew more about baseball, but had been identified as “poor” readers, performed better on the baseball-focused reading comprehension task than children who were deemed “good” readers, but who didn’t know much about baseball. Wexler says that study has been replicated in many other contexts.


In her research, Wexler also contends that the knowledge gap is directly related to the achievement gap in that it follows a growing income inequality. The gap looms wide even though the efforts to close it have increased, thus pointing to the evidence of the level of education of the parents. In general, wealthier parents are more likely to be highly educated.

Students who aren’t given content-rich curriculum will continue to pass onto high school with an academic achievement gap. Fortunately, there are schools working on implementing content-rich curriculum. How does your district measure up in content-rich curriculum?

Lisa Anderson

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I'm a 20+ year veteran of teaching! My experience has led me to teach students in rural to urban schools and loved every minute! From teaching kids to teaching adults to mentoring teachers (and some administrators), it is a blessing to help move learning forward! I love my career! Read More

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