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Vocabulary And Reading Comprehension Section - ...



A moment of introspection about Jabberwocky indicates that the relationship between reading comprehension and vocabulary is likely to be rich, interactive and complex. On the one hand, it is clear that vocabulary is needed for comprehension. Without doubt, our lack of knowledge concerning the meaning of individual words impedes our understanding. At the same time, however, it is equally clear that we can construct some meaning from the text, despite the fact that many of the words are nonsense. In turn, this constructed meaning provides an emerging context that helps us construe possible meanings to some of the individual words.




Vocabulary and Reading Comprehension Section - ...



These introspections are consistent with a very large number of studies that have observed a close relationship between reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge. Across the age span, individuals with better vocabulary knowledge tend to show advanced reading comprehension relative to peers with less well-developed vocabulary knowledge. Reviewing this evidence, Tannenbaum, Torgesen and Wagner (2006) reported that the correlation between reading comprehension and vocabulary varied between approximately .3 to .8. The correlation strengthens as children get older (Torgesen et al., 1997) and factors such as test format and the dimension of word knowledge being assessed also impact on the magnitude of the correlation. Limitations in vocabulary knowledge have been suggested to be a putative cause of reading comprehension failure (e.g., Cromley & Azevedo, 2007) and many interventions for poor reading comprehension involve strategies designed to increase vocabulary knowledge (e.g., Beck, 1982). This aim of this chapter is to explore the links between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension, with particular reference to children identified as having specific deficits in reading comprehension. Before discussing this group of children in some detail, it is useful to review two general (and inter-related) issues. First, why might reading comprehension and vocabulary be associated and second, which aspects of the reading comprehension process might be most closely related to vocabulary knowledge?


It is very clear that reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge are closely associated. What is less clear is how this association is best interpreted. One interpretation sees individual differences in reading ability being responsible for individual differences in vocabulary knowledge. According to this view, children learn the meaning of new words via reading, amongst other strategies. Consequently, better readers will develop larger vocabularies over time, whereas poor readers, who read less, lack print exposure and this serves to hamper vocabulary development (e.g., Cunningham & Stanovich, 1991, 1997; Nagy & Anderson, 1984; Nagy & Scott, 2000). An alternative view sees individual differences in vocabulary knowledge being responsible for individual differences in reading comprehension. On this view, if children have limited vocabulary knowledge, or if they are unable to access word meanings rapidly and efficiently, this will be detrimental to their reading comprehension (e.g., Beck, Perfetti & McKeown, 1982; Daneman & Green, 1986). Longitudinal studies provide evidence to support both of these explanations with vocabulary knowledge predicting growth in reading comprehension and reading comprehension itself predicting growth in vocabulary knowledge (e.g., de Jong & vander Leij, 2002; Muter, Hulme, Snowling, & Stevenson, 2004; Seigneuric & Ehrlich, 2005).


An additional possibility is that vocabulary and reading are related because they share common processes. Vocabulary growth requires the development of mappings between the semantic meaning of a word and its phonological form (McGreggor, 2004) and in a similar vein, reading depends upon the development of mappings between semantic, phonological and orthographic units of representation (Plaut, Seidenberg, McClelland & Patterson, 1996; Perfetti, 2007). Within this view, specific underlying processes may be impaired in poor readers and it is these weaknesses that lead to both poor reading and to poor vocabulary. For example, Sternberg and Powell (1983) suggested that the relationship between reading comprehension, vocabulary and general intelligence may be mediated by the ability to acquire new information from context. Domain general cognitive skills such as working memory may also serve to mediate the relationship between vocabulary and reading comprehension.


Reading comprehension is a complex skill (Kintsch & Rawson, 2005; Perfetti, Landi & Oakhill, 2005). Readers need to recognize or decipher individual words, access their meanings and interpret grammatical structure. Rarely is a text completely literal: readers need to draw on general knowledge and an appreciation of pragmatic factors in order to understand the intended message. Successful reading demands that readers construct a coherent and integrated mental representation of the text, rich in referential relations (e.g., Gernsbacher, 1990; Kintsch, 1998; van der Broek, 1994).


It is helpful to think about reading comprehension as comprising two sets of component parts, one concerned with recognising printed words, and one concerned with understanding the message that the print conveys (e.g., Hoover & Gough, 1990). From this perspective it is possible to ask whether vocabulary shares its association with reading comprehension via word-level reading, comprehension-level processes, or both. Ricketts, Nation and Bishop (2007) investigated this question by assessing vocabulary knowledge and component reading skills in a group of 8-9-year old children. They found that vocabulary was important for both aspects of reading. In terms of word-level reading, vocabulary knowledge was most associated with reading words rather than nonwords, particularly words with irregular or unusual print-sound correspondences. Vocabulary also showed a moderate-to-strong correlation with reading comprehension and regression analyses revealed that vocabulary knowledge accounted for a large portion of unique variance (17.8%) in reading comprehension, even after variance associated with chronological age, nonverbal IQ and word-level reading was controlled.


Many children who have difficulties understanding written text will also have difficulty reading the words in the text (e.g., Pefetti, 1985). However, given that the correlation between word reading and reading comprehension is far from perfect (for example, Juel, Griffith & Gough (1986) report correlations of .74 and .69 for first- and second-grade children), it is not that rare to find children who perform adequately in one component but not the other. The focus of the remainder of this chapter will be on children who appear to show selective impairments of reading comprehension. That is, their word reading accuracy is within the normal range for their age, but their comprehension of what is read is substantially below average. Studies of such children allow us to explore the relationship between comprehension processes and vocabulary in a relatively clean way, independent of the processes that might be related to individual differences in word reading ability.


Oakhill and colleagues (Oakhill, 1994; Yuill & Oakhill, 1991) were the first to describe children who obtained normal-for-age text reading accuracy, but showed impaired reading comprehension. At a simple level of description level, these children (who will be referred to in this chapter as poor comprehenders) read accurately but have specific difficulty understanding what they read. Typically, poor comprehenders are rare in clinically-referred samples of children with reading difficulties (e.g., Leach, Scarborough, & Rescorla, 2003; Shankweiler, Lundquist, Katz et al., 1999). However, this is probably a reflection of referral bias. Also, the nature of finding children with specific comprehension difficulties will be tightly constrained by the nature of the reading comprehension test used to select and define groups (e.g., Keenan, 2006). Repeatedly, we find that when populations of 7-10 year old children have been screened in the UK, approximately 10% can be classified as poor comprehenders (Nation & Snowling, 1997; Stothard & Hulme, 1992; Yuill & Oakhill, 1991). A similar profile of poor reading is also seen in adulthood (Perfetti, Wlotko, & Hart, 2005; Landi & Perfetti, 2007) and has been reported in children learning to read languages other than English (e.g., Cornoldi, de Beni, & Pazzaglia, 1996; De Beni, Palladino, Pazzaglia & Cornoldi, 1998; Mergherbi & Erlich, 2005).


Context provides a powerful cue to discovering the meaning of new words. Indeed, given the number of words that children acquire, and the speed with which they learn them, something other than direct learning must be taking place. There is good evidence that young children draw on a variety of contextual cues to support vocabulary learning (Bloom, 2000; Tomasello, 2003). Once children begin to learn to read, text provides many opportunities for vocabulary development and it is known that reading provides a more effective context for learning new words than oral conversation (Nagy & Anderson, 1984). A single encounter with a new word in text can be enough to allow its meaning to be inferred and learned (Nagy, Herman & Anderson, 1985), although mutiple encounters in different contexts are likely to be needed too, if readers are to develop a full appreciation of the range of nuances in meaning a word may have (Nagy & Scott, 2000).


Perfetti et al. (2005) investigated individual differences in learning the meanings of new words in college students who differed in reading comprehension skill. Skilled and less-skilled comprehenders were provided with definitions for very rare and previously unfamiliar words such as gloaming and flexion. Learning was assessed via a meaning judgement task. Less-skilled comprehenders made significantly more errors suggesting that they learned the new words less well than skilled comprehenders. In addition, Perfetti et al. examined ERP responses to the newly acquired words. Skilled comprehenders showed a greater familiarity response (indexed as a P600 marker of episodic memory) to new words, and a different N400 response showing that they were more sensitive to the meaning of the newly acquired words than less-skilled comprehenders. 041b061a72


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