Type JournalArticle
Date 1993-03
Number 570
Tags nonfiction, language learning, extensive reading, vocabulary, 75 in 2019
Journal Center for the Study of Reading Technical Report

The Vocabulary Conundrum

The best available estimate is that children learn 2,000 or 3,000 new words a year throughout the school years, or perhaps even as many as 4,000 to 6,000 if proper words, multiple meanings, and idioms are included. Yet, research suggests that in the typical classroom, direct instruction is provided on only about 300 words during the course of a school year, and of these perhaps 200 are learned well enough for students to check correct answers on a multiple-choice test.

It has been estimated that if all categories of reading are included, the median fifth grader spends somewhere around 25 minutes a day actually reading. This number is certainly lower than would be desired, but it translates into about a million words of text covered in a year. Assuming that at least 2% of the words this fifth grader reads are unfamiliar (a conservative assumption), that amounts to 20,000 new words. If 1 in 20 of these is learned, we have accounted for at least 1,000 words a year, a sizable fraction of the average child's annual vocabulary growth. An avid reader might spend an hour or two a day reading, and thus cover four or more times as much text. The rate of learning from context for self-selected text is likely to be closer to 1 unfamiliar word in 10 than 1 in 20. For children who do a fair amount of independent reading, then, natural learning could easily lead to the acquisition of 5,000 to 10,000 words a year, and thus account for the bulk of their annual vocabulary growth.

This argument--falsely--assumes that the 2% of novel words are also unique words--extremely unlikely. And if 1 in 20 words encountered is learned, it will be, most probably, the ones repeated most often.

Of course, children do in fact learn many new words each year, so the conclusion must be reached somehow. It seems more likely that, as the authors argue, the rate of learning is higher than 1 in 20, especially for self-selected text. But there's no citation for the figure of 1 in 10 that they give, so it's hard to evaluate this.


Research has often underestimated the vocabulary resources of the English language and, hence, the size of students' vocabularies and the rate of their vocabulary growth, by failing to take into account words that would not typically be thought of as general vocabulary, but that are nevertheless essential to text comprehension. These words include proper names, words with multiple meanings, idioms, and compounds and derivatives (e.g., shiftless) whose meanings are not fully predictable from the meanings of their parts. A synthesis of research on vocabulary growth suggests that the average student learns from 2,000 to 3,000 words per year, and that many students learn at twice that rate. Even an average rate of vocabulary growth is possible only if students learn large numbers of words incidentally, as they are exposed to new words while reading. Although the likelihood of learning any particular word from context is relatively low, a moderate level of daily reading can lead to gains of several thousand words per year, a rate of learning beyond the reach of any vocabulary-building approach that attempts to cover words one at a time. A fundamental weakness of conventional approaches to vocabulary building, then,is that they simply cannot cover a sufficient volume of words without exceeding reasonable limits on time. A second weakness of conventional approaches to vocabulary instruction lies in the limitations of definitions. Although definitions play an important role in most vocabulary instruction, educators tend seriously to underestimate (a) the difference between knowing a definition and knowing a word, (b) the shortcomings of many of the definitions found in glossaries and school dictionaries, and (c) the difficulty that students have interpreting definitions. Vocabulary instruction that promotes word consciousness, a sense of curiosity about word meanings, appreciation of nuances of meaning,independence in word analysis, and wide, regular reading appears to be superior to conventional instruction.

Name Role
Richard C. Anderson Author
William E. Nagy Author