Vocabulary acquisition is crucial to academic development and a foundation of vocabulary knowledge must be in place early in order for children to perform successfully in school. Learning as a language-based activity is fundamentally reliant on vocabulary knowledge especially in a classroom setting. At a time when vocabulary acquisition is at its height, school-aged children require access to a rich body of word knowledge to succeed in basic skills areas and a specialised vocabulary to learn specific content area material.
Vocabulary knowledge is also a crucial factor in the school success of English as a second language learners (Carlo, August, & Snow, 2005). One of the strongest correlates in the discrepancy between the reading performance of native English speakers and that of ESL speakers is English vocabulary knowledge despite many ESL speakers having a large vocabulary in their native language (Goldenburg, Rezaei, & Fletcher, 2005).
There are multiple factors contributing to different rates of vocabulary growth such as biological factors, which accounts for general language deficits and memory deficits (Biemiller & Slonim, 2001). There is also a strong relationship between environmental indicators such as socioeconomic status and vocabulary knowledge. This indicates that home factors may contribute to a student’s vocabulary knowledge (Biemiller & Slonim, 2001).
Table of Contents
- The Nature of Vocabulary Acquisition
- Findings from the Education Sector
- Intervention to Increase Vocabulary
- Semantic Feature Analysis
- Theory behind Semantic Feature Analysis
- Research behind Semantic Feature Analysis
During their early school years students learn on average approximately 3000 words per year or 8 words per day. However this number varies greatly with some students learning only 1 or 2 per day. Becker (1977) was one of the first to highlight the importance of vocabulary development through findings of the link between vocabulary size and the academic achievement of disadvantaged students. Through this Becker argued that vocabulary deficiencies were the primary cause of academic failure in disadvantaged students from Years 3-12 and the gap between students with poor versus rich vocabularies continues to widen through the school years and beyond. Therefore early differences in vocabulary knowledge have strong implications on a student’s long-term educational success.
There is a large body of evidence indicating that most children acquire vocabulary in largely the same order. The existence of empirical vocabulary norms indicate that some words are acquired later than others with high correlations between mean scores for words obtained at different school years (Biemiller and Slonim, 2001). The hierarchy is ordered by children’s vocabulary levels rather than their grade level and a range of words known well and words being acquired to those little known can be clearly identified with these ranges being sequential. An estimated 2,000-3,000 root words is therefore being learnt at any given point in vocabulary acquisition meaning it is possible to construct a vocabulary curriculum for school use.
There has been evidence indicating that children who learn more words encounter more words and as a consequence receive more explanations of word meanings. This suggests that direct vocabulary instruction in schools would aid the development of adequate vocabulary through systematic exposure to new words daily combined with adequate explanation of these words and opportunities for their use. Due to the sequential nature of vocabulary acquisition, root words are within the first to be acquired before year 2 with non root words following. This highlights the necessity for other types of vocabulary instruction (e.g., using affixes, word family approaches, and direct instruction on how to inference) especially in grades 3 and above (Biemiller and Slonim, 2001).
Hart and Risley (1995) observed large differences associated with word learning opportunities in the preschool and early school years. After year 2 those children who have fallen behind may actually add root word vocabulary faster than the children with greater vocabulary, however they only reached the median for year 2 children by year 5 (Biemiller & Slonim, 2001). Therefore even though children seem to acquire new vocabulary at similar rates at school those with early vocabulary limitations have difficulty catching up, as they have to acquire vocabulary at above-average rates. This highlights the importance of supporting more rapid vocabulary growth in the early years so that children have the ability to comprehend grade level texts determined by the vocabulary load of those texts in later primary years (Chall & Conard, 1991; Chall & Dale, 1995).
It has long been argued that most vocabulary acquisition results from literacy and wide reading rather than from direct instruction (Sternberg, 1987). However a great deal of vocabulary acquisition occurs before children learn to read books, in particular ones that introduce unfamiliar vocabulary (Becker, 1977). Morrison, Williams, and Massetti (1998) also report that vocabulary acquisition in kindergarten and year 1 has little influence from school experience. Thus vocabulary needs to be explicitly targeted in Speech therapy or within the curriculum to enhance reading/language instruction in the school system.
There is a strong explicit relationship between reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge and although causal direction is not clearly understood, there is evidence that it is largely reciprocal (Biemiller and Slonim, 2001). Recent teaching trends have seen an increased emphasis on phonetics instruction to ensure educational progress and although children learn to read with increased phonics instruction, there had not been proportionate gains in reading comprehension (Pinnell et al., 1994). If children have mastered phonics but don’t comprehend well then the words they need to know in order to understand what they’re reading i.e. vocabulary is what is missing. This further highlights the need for explicit vocabulary instruction.
Evidence also suggests that up to as late as grade 5, a substantial majority of new root words are acquired as a result of direct explanation, either as a result of the child’s request or instruction, usually by a teacher (Biemiller, 1999) rather than by inference while reading, as in the later school years. Therefore explanations of word meanings should be used throughout at least the primary school years.
Overall, research findings suggest that there is no one best way to teach vocabulary. Instead the use of a variety of techniques that include multiple exposures to unknown word meanings is more successful (Baker et al., 1995). Nearly all strategies of increasing vocabulary knowledge result in greater learning than during the typical opportunities for vocabulary acquisition (Biemiller and Slonim, 2001). These methods include semantic mapping and semantic features analysis procedures, the keyword method, and computer-assisted instruction.
Knowing a word means more than knowing the definition of a word (Scott & Nagy, 1997). Research has shown that when students are directly involved in constructing meaning they learn vocabulary more effectively as opposed to memorising definitions or synonyms. Techniques that incorporate a student’s own perspective to create interactions, which clarifies target vocabulary gradually such as those using webbing combine direct teaching and incidental learning in one exercise are effective tools (Smith, 1997). Most of the above mentioned factor for this however Semantic Feature analysis does so in a way that can be incorporated in Individual therapy, group therapy and within the classroom in an interactive and financially and time effective manner.
Semantic feature analysis can be directed by a speech pathologist or by the teacher in a classroom activity after some instruction from a Speech Pathologist. Due to the prerequisite skills necessary this activity is applicable for early primary pre-reading and reading students. Semantic feature analysis consists of a selected vocabulary word list targeted at a pace appropriate for the delivery model. Each word chosen is grouped according to certain features with the aid of a chart that graphically depicts similarities and differences among features of different words (Schwartz & Raphael, 1985).
The activity should begin with an introduction about learning new words by using strategies to determine word meanings and how word meanings are essential in understanding texts. The instructor (Speech Pathologist/Teacher) presents the novel word to the class by writing it in the centre of the board. The instructor then presents the first question “What is it?” The instructor must explain that in order to answer this question you need a very general word. For the example with the target word “computer”, category such as” machine” can be used. Students then raise their hands and give their input to answer the question. Next, the instructor discusses the question “what is it like?” The answer to this question should give details about the target word telling us things about it and how it differs from other machines. The student can use details such as properties like being able to play games on it. Finally, the instructor raises the question “What are some examples?” Students then provide answers to this question such as a MacBook or PC.
There is a strong theory underpinning semantic feature analysis known as schema theory. This theory revolves around the idea that knowledge is organised into units known as schemata. Schemata include information as to how knowledge is used (Rummelhart, 1980). As students accumulate new information, these new concepts become linked and organised depending on their relationship with pre-existing schema. Scaffolding is a key component of effective vocabulary instruction and schema development and allows information to transition from known to unknown knowledge. These links between old and new information form best when the existing knowledge is stable, clearly distinguishable from pre-existing knowledge, and directly relevant to the new knowledge (Ausubel, 1963). Semantic feature analysis works to expand various conceptual categories of schema, through questioning and self-questioning strategies (Anders & Bos, 1986).
Schwartz and Raphael (1985) stated that this list of three questions helps students visualise and understand relationships between familiar and less familiar terms while brings the meaning of an unknown term into focus through the generation of analogies and examples. In semantic feature analysis learners are actively involved in the generation of word meanings as opposed to passive receptors of information. Creating semantic association in an individual or setting as students brainstorm lists of words associated with a familiar word. This allows them to pooling their existing vocabulary knowledge in discussion of the less familiar words on the list. They are able to integrate their prior knowledge with new information while at the same time building semantically related categories of words and concepts (Bransford, Brown, & Corking, 1999). The instructional component provides both definitional and contextual information surrounding the words to be learned while simultaneously allowing for multiple exposures and opportunities to use them. Structuring the activity in a mapping format allows the target words on the list to be grouped into categories and arranged visually so that relationships between the words becomes clearer (Smith, 1997).
There have been numerous studies investigating the effectiveness of semantic feature analysis in vocabulary development. Semantic feature analysis has been shown to be a more effective vocabulary building strategy than contextual analysis strategy. Intermediate grade students in the Semantic Feature analysis group outperforming students taught the same words through the commonly used contextual analysis method on short and long-term measures (Johnson, Toms-Bronowski & Pittelman, 1982). Semantic feature analysis has been shown to be effective in small groups or in a whole class setting. Semantic Feature Analysis is also equally effective when used with poor readers, learning disabled students, disabled readers and culturally diverse populations (Pitterman, Levin and Johnson, 1985). The majority of studies surrounding Semantic feature analysis seem to indicate that it is an effective strategy for vocabulary development with additional evidence supporting its efficacy in promoting passage comprehension among diverse population of students differing in age, ethnic background and reading ability.
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