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Review of  Teaching Word Meanings

Reviewer: Emily Duvall
Book Title: Teaching Word Meanings
Book Author: Steven A. Stahl William E. Nagy
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 18.191

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AUTHOR: Stahl, Steven A.; Nagy, William E.
TITLE: Teaching Word Meanings
SERIES: Literacy Teaching Series
PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
YEAR: 2006

Emily Duvall, College of Education, The Pennsylvania State University


This text focuses on the teaching of vocabulary from a pragmatic yet
theoretically grounded approach to understanding how students learn word
meanings as well as how teachers can strategically decide when to invest in
particular types of vocabulary development and what that might look like in
application. The authors systematically advance a teaching methodology
intended to promote long term change in students through the purposeful
teaching of 'word consciousness' as a life-long approach to valuing word
discovery and meaning apprehension.

Suitable for teacher education programs, including pre-service teaching
methods classes, this text is also useful for practicing teachers who are
continuing to develop their knowledge and understanding of literacy
learning and development.

This is another volume in the Literacy Teaching Series, texts that are
described by the publishers as 'written by leading scholars and linked by a
social constructivist perspective'. They are intended to be used as core or
supplemental texts in language and literacy education curricula.


The book is divided into three parts with multiple chapters in each and it
is important to understand what the book is not about as much as what it is
about. As authors Stahl and Nagy tell us in the Preface, this is a text on
vocabulary instruction, but it does not focus on children's acquisition of
sight vocabulary; this is a text that considers the importance of
vocabulary to reading and writing, but it does not focus on the mechanics
of decoding; this text includes instructional activities, but does not
support nor provide activities that are meant to be passively received by
students; this is a text oriented towards spending limited amounts of
strategically planned instructional time to contribute to students'
vocabulary growth and independent learning not a campaign to press teachers
into devoting increasing amounts of teaching time to vocabulary. As this is
meant as a teaching text I have attached a lengthy Chapter Highlights
section at the end of the review that details each chapter.

PART I: The Lay of the Land provides the groundwork for understanding the
importance of a large vocabulary (chapter 1), how vocabulary is connected
to reading comprehension (chapter 2), the difficulties inherent in
vocabulary instruction (chapter 3), and the authors' response to the
questions that they have raised which outlines their strategic approach to
developing students' vocabulary repertoires (chapter 4).

PART II: Teaching Specific Words builds on the plan introduced at the end
of the last section by focusing on types of words and instruction,
including: words that are used frequently in many written genres that
students may not have encountered orally (chapter 5), words that require
building new conceptual understandings through intensive instruction
(chapter 6), essential high frequency words that teachers need to make sure
all students know (chapter 7), and how to seamlessly incorporate
discussions about words and ideas as a natural part of the classroom
(chapter 8).

PART III: Independent Word Learning puts the focus of instruction on the
goal of encouraging the individual to be a life-long word learner by
explaining how teachers can boost students' exposure to rich language
(chapter 9), ways to increase the motivation to acquire vocabulary that
promotes student 'word consciousness' (chapter 10), word learning
strategies that emphasize word parts (chapter 11), word learning strategies
that emphasize context (chapter 12), and word learning strategies that
emphasize definitions and dictionary use (chapter 13). The concluding
chapter of the section (and the book) is a table that summarizes links
between instructional approaches and types of words (chapter 14).


Teaching Word Meanings offers a unique contribution to teacher
understandings of how and when to teach what kinds of vocabulary as it is
primarily a framework for developing teacher thinking about word meanings,
instructional approaches, and classroom time as well as a resource for
advancing student vocabulary acquisition. Stahl and Nagy include
research-based discussions and descriptions of strategies and activities
and give consideration to student diversity, but they offer more: a
coherent way for teachers to construct and apply their knowledge with
purpose. As a result, Teaching Word Meanings differs substantially from
texts that put the emphasis on activities and students, as in word study or
word solver approaches (e.g. Words Their Way, Word Matters, Word Solvers),
by focusing more on teacher thinking and planning in order to bring about
desired change in their students. Thus Stahl and Nagy offer us a larger
picture of what it is to teach children about word meanings by providing a
well-reasoned, coherent context for many of the activities and
instructional strategies offered in vocabulary texts.

As a special education teacher as well as an instructor of teaching methods
for reading and language arts at the elementary level I was immediately
drawn to Stahl and Nagy's succinct yet comprehensive approach to what seems
to be a very doable method of incorporating more purposeful vocabulary
instruction into the classroom. As a teacher educator, I found the
vocabulary growth pyramid to be a simplified and clear vision of a
research-based, strategic approach to teaching that pre-service as well as
experienced teachers could understand and visualize in operation. The
pyramid itself is not only a useful graphic organizer for planning
purposes, but could also serve as an evaluation template for teachers to
begin to analyze where they currently put their energy with regard to time
for vocabulary development planning and subsequent classroom
implementation. This could provide a gateway into formulating a process of
classroom change in terms of vocabulary instruction, but more so in the way
thinking about words can be understood as the central and unifying element
of literacy practices in general.

Nonetheless, the text does bear questioning, for example:

In Chapter 3, Problems and Complexities, one of the discussions, on core
words in print, seems to go beyond consideration of what the least amount
of words or the most commonly found words might include and appears to
continue E. D. Hirsch's practice of accepting that there is a particular
minimum that must to be acquired in order to be literate. Indeed, the
authors state that ''the vocabulary of written English is like a foreign
language to many children'' and that this can't be addressed by simply
''relying on our shared experiences of communication'' (45-6). It begs the
question: who decides what the core set of words should be and how do they
decide? Stahl and Nagy give the impression that teachers can and should
make these decisions however the authors also emphasize the complexity of
vocabulary development, reinforcing over and over the sheer numbers and
variety of words children need to know. This may result in a kind of
inertia as teachers are given to feel capable on the one hand yet
intimidated on the other.

Also troubling is the authors' argument that ''because an author of a
written text is not usually present (and may, in fact, be dead), written
language needs to be more explicit and less dependent on shared knowledge''
(46). I would suggest that it behooves us as teachers to consider not
simply whether the author should be the final authority, but to question
whether the author can ever be the final authority when it comes to
understanding text. In this instance, Stahl and Nagy's assertion smacks of
the romantic reconstructivism of Schleiermacher, which Gadamer suggests is
a futile effort at understanding resulting in ''no more than handing on a
dead meaning'' (Gadamer, 167), and I would suggest that readers be attentive
to the implications of such statements in so far as it implies a one right
way to understand text.

Politically speaking, one of the more interesting reads in the text is in
the chapter 9 segment, 'Wide Reading'. It is a tricky section which seems
to both accept the general results of the National Reading Panel (NRP)
study that ''providing more reading time does not automatically result in
gains in vocabulary growth'' (128), while also offering research studies to
suggest that the limitations of the methodology used for investigating the
relationship between reading and vocabulary, particularly sustained silent
reading (SSR), may have lead to the particular conclusions found in the
report. Stahl and Nagy do include a brief retort to the NRP by suggesting
that other kinds of research, such as correlational studies, might have
offered more insight when it comes to discussing the effects of such
instructional practices as SSR noting, however, how difficult it is to
investigate such procedures. Ultimately the authors resort to stating that
''common sense suggests that children should have some time during the day
to read books of their own choosing, if only for motivational purposes''
(130), watering down the strength of the research they have presented and
undermining their argument with the NRP study. Anyone who has read Cole's
''Reading the naked truth: Literacy, legislation, and lies'' might wonder at
this maneuvering as Stahl and Nagy seem to be trying to play both sides of
the field by accepting what many view as a very politically motivated study
but also promoting a framework for teaching that suggests teacher judgment
is vital to student development.

On a more meticulous level, in chapter 8, Talk About Words, Stahl and Nagy
use examples of dialogue to represent the kind of conversation being
recommended as offering ways of expanding and developing children's
vocabulary. However, some of the dialogue is quite misleading. In the
picture walk example, during the discussion of 'orbit' (p. 114), the
teacher promotes the use of a chunking technique to examine and decode the
word she has just read yet her intent is to focus on the meaning. Looking
for small words, in the case of orbit, does not connect to the meaning, and
the strategies at play in the lesson are disconnected rather than
integrated. Furthermore, this rift is not addressed with students (as far
as we know). While Stahl and Nagy use the example to demonstrate ways that
meaning can be explicitly taught in conversation about a text, the dialogue
also reveals ways that teachers can mislead by not addressing how
strategies can work together or may work separately for different purposes.
A few pages later, in the talk around words example, the authors use a
conversation between a parent and child as an example of how parents and
teachers can expand on what a child already knows through collaborative
dialoguing. However, what the example actually demonstrates is the adult
jumping in too early for ''the parent then supplied the answer she would
expect (and the child would be able to give)…'' (Stahl & Nagy quoting Hart &
Risley, 1999). In other words, the adult overtakes the child and without
more incremental prompting or coaching we can never know whether the child
did indeed have and would have been able to articulate more in-depth
knowledge. As a result the adult remains in the position of 'teller' rather
than coach. In this instance, Stahl and Nagy might have done well to
consider including a short discussion of Vygotsky's zone of proximal
development and how to move forward with the child in a collaborative yet
incremental way that presses the child to do more (Vygotsky, 1978). The
example might have found better use as a demonstration of approximation
with suggestions offered as to how a teacher or parent might adjust the
conversation to develop their ability to lead rather than tell. Indeed, as
Stahl and Nagy include consideration of the difficulties that teachers have
with changing their ways of instruction and interaction it is important to
be sure to offer clear cut examples. Both of these particular conversation
samples seem to beg for analysis as non-examples.

Also questionable are some of statements included in the text without
benefit of any backing, such as: ''Effective teachers can cajole children to
read books that will engage them as well as develop their reading
abilities'' (130) and ''…so there is no reason to see literate English as
being in competition with other languages or dialects. If the student feels
that he or she is being forced to make a choice between the language of
home and the language of school, the language of school is ultimately very
likely to be the loser'' (138).

Thus, while I would advocate considering the volume as a complementary text
to methods classes in language and literacy education as it may help
demystify types of words, clarify purpose in teaching vocabulary and offer
important strategies for implementing vocabulary instruction in the reading
and writing classroom, I would also caution that not everything be taken at
face value. Furthermore, while elements of Deweyian constructivism seem to
underpin the approach in terms of reflection, development over time, social
interaction, and life long learning, the text should not be mistaken as a
plan for developing inquiry-based vocabulary instruction. The method still
relies very much on transmission however it is moderated by the inclusion
of discussion and interaction as central to student learning as well as
encouraging student agency through the acquisition of strategies to be used

Teaching Word Meanings could also be a valuable resource for schools
seeking to develop a comprehensive approach to vocabulary development. And
while pre-service teachers and experienced teachers alike may initially
feel somewhat overwhelmed by the conceptual framework and the variety of
strategies that Stahl and Nagy build into the growth pyramid, the
research-to-practice approach of the text helps to develop insight into the
way the methodology builds upon itself and the way the instructional
activities could be naturalized and layered in the classroom. Overall,
praxis could surely be more thorough if, as Stahl and Nagy suggest,
teachers develop a deeper awareness of vocabulary as word meanings and word


Dufresene, M. (2002). Word solvers: Making sense of letters & sounds.
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Bear, D.R., Invernizzi,M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F., eds. (2003).
Words their way: Word study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling
instruction. 3rd ed. Prentice Hall.

Coles, G. (2003). Reading the naked truth: Literacy, legislation, and lies.
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fox, B.J. (2000). Word identification strategies: Phonics from a new
perspective. 3rd edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill Prentice

Gadamer, H-G. (1960/2004). Truth and method. 2nd revised ed. New York, NY:

Henry, M.K.(2003). Unlocking literacy: Effective decoding & spelling
instruction. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Pinnell, G.S. & Fountas, I.C. (1998). Word matters: Teaching phonics and
spelling in the reading/writing classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher
psychological process. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, E. Souberman,
eds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Chapter (1) The Importance of Vocabulary. Reiterating their understanding
of vocabulary as referring to word meanings rather than word recognition,
Stahl & Nagy use this brief chapter to introduce the reader to idea that
having a large vocabulary is important because it allows us to access and
demonstrate what we already understand, while also paving pathways for
increasing the depth and breadth in new understandings. They emphasize
research-based correlations between vocabulary knowledge and reading
comprehension (Anderson & Freebody, 1981) suggesting that ''it may overstate
the case to say that vocabulary knowledge is central to children's and
adults' success in school and in life, but not by much'' (p. 4).
Furthermore, they add that there is some evidence that suggests good school
experiences may have an ameliorating effect on early life experiences that
are inadequate and note that ''vocabulary knowledge is cumulative'' in its
benefits and that we know students can be taught word meanings (p. 6).
Stahl and Nagy appeal to educators to consider the importance of
incorporating vocabulary instruction in their classroom schedules and
include, among their arsenal of support, a recap of the infamous ''Matthew
effect'', Stanovich (1986), as well as a nod to the National Reading Panel
(2000) research.

Chapter (2) Vocabulary Knowledge, Reading Comprehension, and Readability.
Stahl and Nagy introduce the reader to the complexity of the relationship
between vocabulary and reading comprehension by suggesting that the
Anderson and Freebody (1981) ''instrumental hypothesis – the idea that it is
simply knowing more words that makes you a better reader'' (p. 10) - is too
simplistic an explanation. Instead, they offer five additional,
complementary hypotheses: 1 - the knowledge hypothesis: what we already
know is related to larger concepts that words represent and understandings
are formed in relation to these larger concepts; 2 - the aptitude
hypothesis: the correlation between reading and vocabulary knowledge is
''reflect[ed in] a more general underlying verbal aptitude'' (p. 11); 3 - the
metalinguistic hypothesis: the awareness of elements such as phonemes,
morphemes, words, and how words can have different meanings links
vocabulary to reading comprehension; 4 - the access hypothesis: the greater
the vocabulary, the greater the access to word meanings based on
automaticity and accuracy; 5 – the reciprocal hypothesis: a bigger
vocabulary increases reading comprehension which in turn increases
vocabulary acquisition (Matthew effect reversed). The authors also consider
readability or the relative difficulty of text vocabulary in terms of
considering overall text difficulty. They discuss issues related to the
factors that are usually considered in judgments about text readability
such as word difficulty based on mechanistic elements (number of syllables,
frequency that a word is used) versus less tangible elements such as domain
knowledge and concept awareness.

Chapter (3) Problems and Complexities. In this chapter the authors
problematize vocabulary learning, identifying and addressing three
obstacles to productive vocabulary growth: 1 -- children need to learn a
large number of words; 2 -- a vocabulary of 'literate English' can be quite
foreign to native as well as non-native speakers; 3 -- being able to define
a word does not guarantee word knowledge and usability. In their review of
the research relative to word knowledge Stahl & Nagy emphasize that
children cannot learn all the words they need through instruction,
particularly instruction of individual words alone. They suggest that
children need to develop the ability to learn words on their own, that
direct vocabulary instruction must be varied according to the level of need
relative to particular kinds of words, particular contexts and usage, and
that instruction should consider the conceptual complexity (or not) of
words. In other words, ''if one cannot teach all the words that children
need, then one must make good decisions about what should be taught'' (p.45).

Chapter (4) A Comprehensive Approach to Vocabulary Learning. Modifying the
work of Michael Graves (2000) Stahl and Nagy introduce three broad
instructional approaches to vocabulary development that form the foundation
for the balance of the text: ''teaching specific words, immersion in rich
language, developing generative vocabulary knowledge'' (p.48). They suggest
that individual word instruction, while insufficient on its own, can still
be part of the process of vocabulary development when not limited to
ineffective, traditional methods of instruction. They emphasize
opportunities for rich language exposure through reading, including read
alouds, and engagements with oral language both of which should involve
''talk slightly above children's heads, but in a way that engages them
rather than losing them'' (p.49). In addition, Stahl and Nagy distinguish
two aspects of generative word knowledge: word consciousness, a form of
language awareness that some children come by naturally, and word-learning
strategies that can be taught. The highlight of the chapter is the authors'
'vocabulary growth pyramid', which orients the reader to ''the need for both
variety and proportion in vocabulary instruction [wherein] the three levels
of the pyramid reflect different amounts of time and effort per word that
are appropriate for both different kinds of words and different purposes.''
The pyramid model emphasizes that the bulk of classroom time be spent on
Level I, the instructional practices relative to developing generative word
knowledge, with less time spent on Level II, the instructional practices
that go hand in hand with rich language immersion, and the least amount of
classroom time on the intensive instruction at Level III, the individual
word level.

Chapter (5) Teaching Words for Ownership. This chapter focuses on the
teaching strategies that are used at top of the vocabulary growth pyramid
for essential words that may require an in-depth approach to promoting
understanding in order for children to 'own' them or use them well in
particular literacy contexts. Stahl and Nagy provide explicit ideas for
instructors that revolve around three characteristics for word ownership
development: definitional and contextual information, active participation
of students in learning, and multiple, varied instructional engagements.
Here the authors stress the importance of word selection when investing in
high levels of teacher planning and student time.

Chapter (6) Teaching Concepts. In this chapter, Stahl and Nagy
differentiate between words that represent concepts that may be more
readily understood by children due to prior experience versus those that
involve more complex concepts requiring more intensive background
instruction. They stress that teaching complex concepts must include the
identification of critical word attributes, providing the category the
concept belongs to, and generating examples and non examples connected to
the concept. The authors provide a variety of visual mapping techniques as
teaching tools that both highlight and explicitly address the manifold
nature of complex concepts. Included are a four square approach (based on
the work of Eeds & Cockrum, 1985), varieties of semantic mapping, Venn
diagrams and semantic feature analysis.

Chapter (7) Teaching High-Frequency Words. Stahl and Nagy identify three
categories of high-frequency words for thorough instruction: high-utility
literate vocabulary, key content area vocabulary, and high-frequency words.
Instructional strategies applicable to the first two categories are
discussed in chapters 5 and 6 with high-frequency words, words that are
recognized and understood on sight, the focus of this brief chapter. Stahl
and Nagy type high-frequency words as function words (they perform a
syntactic function) or content words and, true to the scope of the text,
the authors focus on instruction connected with the content word type. They
suggest that utility, as well as frequency, should define those words that
are more worthy of in-depth instruction as well as those with more nebulous
or multiple meanings. They include discussions based on research in the
field in terms of techniques to support the development of swift
recognition such as echo reading versus repeated reading. In addition, they
note that English language learners may need more explicit instruction to
develop understanding, as well as recognition, of high-frequency words.

Chapter (8) Talking About Words. This chapter focuses on ways to
deliberately develop depth in orally based instructional engagements about
word meanings through cognitively challenging discussions with children in
the context of story reading. Based largely on the work of Beck & McKeown
(2001) and McKeown & Beck (2001) in 'Text Talk', Stahl and Nagy promote the
use of open-ended questions to encourage more dialogic teacher-student
practices rather than teacher-telling methods. The authors also include
discussion of research-based approaches for encouraging young and/or
struggling readers, such as the 'picture walk' (Clay, 1991, 1993; Fountas &
Pinnel, 1996; Stahl, 2003) and more-in depth review of the language or
'type of talk' that is cognitively challenging (DeTemple & Snow,2003;
Taylor et al, 2000).

Chapter (9) Exposure to Rich Language. Stahl and Nagy promote two pronged
approach to providing rich language exposure and advocate not only talk
around texts but also contend that including time for independent, wide
reading that is appropriate to a student's level of comprehension, is even
more important. Based on research that examines the effects of exposure to
different sources of print, the authors suggest that teachers include
regular time for independent reading that provides children with frequent
opportunities to read a variety of texts, rendering more contact with
different words. Critically, Stahl and Nagy consider the failure of the
National Reading Panel study (2000) to find positive effects from silent
sustained reading (SSR) and argue against the limitations of the study in
terms of the scope of the research considered. To wit, the author's review
a broad swathe of research on the topic of independent reading and suggest
that rather than dispensing with SSR, the practice needs to be more closely
monitored by teachers so that students are reading books in a suitable
readability range and are using the time to read different texts for
different purposes. In addition, suitable, just right ''Goldilocks'' words
are also important in oral discussions with children and Stahl and Nagy
discuss ways to structure oral language activities that target vocabulary
growth for children, including the content of the discussions that promote
new language usage.

Chapter (10) Promoting Word Consciousness. This chapter includes an
extensive array of instructional methods for incorporating activities that
can promote word consciousness as an ongoing classroom practice. The
activities are purposeful and yet fun, incorporating humor (e.g. puns,
homographs, hink pinks) as well as history (e.g. based in mythology,
eponyms, borrowed words from other languages), dictionary use as well as
more whimsical ways of word detection.

Chapter (11) Teaching Word Learning Strategies: Word Parts. This brief
chapter highlights word parts as a significant word strategy that good word
solvers use when they run across words they don't know. The authors suggest
that teachers not only explicitly teach word parts (e.g. prefixes,
suffixes, roots) but also teach how the parts function together by using
graphic representations and modeling ways of using the information before
providing guided practice leading to students' ability to apply the
strategies independently. The authors useful reference tables including a
list of the most frequently used affixes in printed school English,
prefixes and roots derived form Greek and Latin number words, common
relational prefixes derived from Greek and Latin, and a long list of
various other prefixes and roots.

Chapter (12) Teaching Word Learning Strategies: Context. In this chapter,
Stahl and Nagy consider the usefulness of context as a strategy for word
solving, noting that there is no research that supports context as a
strategy that children will use independently. That is, children need to be
told to use context to derive word meaning. In addition, the authors point
out that context can even mislead and suggest, instead, that the focus be
placed more on comprehension of the text. They advocate approaches such as
Palincsar & Brown's reciprocal reading (1984) and Klinger & Vaughn's
collaborative strategic reading (1999). Both invite students to monitor
their comprehension and the latter includes an explicit step-by-step
strategy for tackling unknown words or ''clunks''. The work of Goerss, Beck &
McKeown (1999) is also considered as it promotes an interactive process
that supports student engagement while pressing students to deliberate and
reason about word meaning in the context of the larger text.

Chapter (13) Teaching Word Learning Strategies: Definitions. How best to
employ dictionaries and the difference between a dictionary definition of a
word versus our understanding of word meanings are highlighted in this
chapter. Again, Stahl and Nagy suggest a supporting roll for dictionaries
rather than dictionaries as the starting point for understanding words.
They revisit the role of context and of word parts as they influence our
understandings of word meanings in terms of how words are used and suggest
that students be taught to ''triangulate'' word information using context,
word parts and dictionaries to construct comprehensive word meanings.

Chapter (14) Conclusion: Matching Instructional Approaches to Students. The
final chapter of the text provides a summary of categories of words and how
to teach them. The typology of words include: high-frequency words,
high-utility general vocabulary, important content-area vocabulary, words
requiring some explanation, words that provide opportunities to demonstrate
or practice word learning strategies, words that illustrate the power and
beauty of effective word choice in writing, and words that don't need to be
taught. Ways to identify these categories as well as best teaching
practices are listed.

Emily Duvall, a former special education teacher, is a doctoral candidate
in the College of Education at The Pennsylvania State University, the
department of language and literacy education. Her research interest is in
the potential offered by a dynamic assessment version of high stakes
reading tests for elementary children with learning disabilities in order
to satisfy multiple stakeholder needs. Ms. Duvall's theoretical framework
is in the development of democratic-hermeneutic activity theory which
focuses on the work of Vygotsky, Gadamer and Dewey and the possibility of
marrying sociocultural theory with hermeneutics to consider the ethical
frames of teaching and learning in neoliberal times. Other academic
interests include the historical and critical analysis of special education
policy, the pedagogical application of Gardner's theory of multiple
intelligences to curricular design and development for children with dual
exceptionalities, and authentic reading and writing experiences for
pre-service teachers. Ms. Duvall currently teaches instructional methods
classes in elementary reading, writing and language arts for preservice

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