Sunday, May 23, 2010

Building Oral Vocabulary in Primary-Grade Students with Very Small Oral Vocabularies (Graves)

This post is courtesy of Dr. Michael Graves, Professor Emeritus of Literacy Education at the University of Minnesota. As a researcher, Mike has examined--and continues to examine--variables related to vocabulary development and instruction. His most recent books on vocabulary are written for teachers as well as researchers, including Teaching Individual Words: One Size Does Not Fit All (2009), and The Vocabulary Book (2006). To read about Mike's comprehensive plan for vocabulary instruction, detailed fully in The Vocabulary Book, see my post: Four Ply Vocabulary Plan.
Vocabulary has been my major scholarly interest for something like 30 years, and over that period of time we have learned a huge amount about teaching vocabulary (see, for example, Baumann, Kameénui, & Ash, 2000; Blachowicz & Fisher, 2000; Graves & Silverman, in press). Most of what we have learned, however, is about teaching reading vocabulary. Recently, we have come to recognize that some students come to school with very small oral vocabularies (Hart & Risley, 1995, 2001). While most students arrive at school with oral vocabularies of perhaps 10,000 words, some English learners and some children of poverty arrive knowing just a fraction of that number of words. Building oral vocabulary in students who enter school with very small oral vocabularies is tremendously important and vital to their becoming successful readers (Biemiller, 2009, DeTemple & Snow, 2004; Graves, 2009).

Two key questions we face in helping these children are "How do we teach them oral vocabulary? and "Which words do we teach them?"  In this blog, I address each of these in turn.
How Do We Teach Oral Vocabulary to Primary-Grade Students with Very Small Vocabularies?     
Both observations of mothers reading to their young children and studies with preschool and primary grade students have repeatedly revealed a successful pattern of reading aloud and build oral vocabulary that goes by the name of interactive oral reading or shared book reading (DeTemple & Snow, 2004). There are several versions of the technique, but one of the best documented is that described by Biemiller (2009). It consists of selecting a number of short books, each of which contain 20 or so words that are not likely to be in your students' oral vocabularies, and working with each book over a five day cycle like this one.
  • On day one, probably a Monday, read the book once without stopping to define any words.
  • On days two-four, read it three more times, each time briefly defining about six unknown words as they come up in the reading so that over the three days you define about 20 words.
  • On the fifth day, review each of the 20 or so words taught in a different context but with the same meaning.
As Biemiller notes and as I would emphasize, because these children need to add a large number of words to their oral vocabularies, this is a long term process, extending over several years for many students.
Mike Graves, Pa ai Beach

Which Words Should We Teach Primary-Grade Students with Very Small Oral Vocabularies?     

Here, I consider two different groups of students and suggest a different source of words for each of these two. The first group is students with extremely small oral vocabularies, probably fewer than 2,000 words. There are not many of these students in a single classroom, probably only 2-4 of them even in a class with quite a few newcomers and children of poverty. However, those students who do fall into this group desperately need our help. The most important words for these students to learn are those that occur most frequently, those that they will stumble across repeatedly as they are reading if they don't know them. 

My colleague Greg Sales and I (Sales & Graves, 2009) have identified a set of about 4,000 words that we term The First 4,000 Words and created a web-based program to teach them. These words make up about 80 percent of the words in a typical text. This list, which ranks the words by frequency, and a description of the web-based program for teaching them are available at The list is in pdf format and available for download. To give you an idea of the words the list contains, the five most frequent words on it are the, of, and, to, and a; five middle-frequency words on it are file, boots, reflect, custom, and background; and the five least frequent words on it are abuse, loving, generous, excessive, and arteries. As I just said, you are likely to have very few students in your class that don't already know these words, but for students who do not already know them learning them is crucial.

The second group of students who need special help with oral vocabulary consists of students who already know most of The First 4,000 Words but whose oral vocabularies are still far smaller than those of average students. This is a considerably larger number of students, and if you teach a class that includes a number of newcomers and children of poverty a significant number of students in your class may fall into this group. Fortunately, Biemiller (2009) has developed a list of words specifically designed for building oral vocabulary in these students. It is called Words Worth Teaching in Grades K-2 and includes about 2,000 words, most of which are less frequent than those on The First 4,000 Words.  Some of the words from this list, which is not sequenced by importance or frequency, are absorb, against, laboratory, language, stumble, and study. The complete list is available in Biemiller (2009).

In summary, the main message here is that while most students come to school with large oral vocabularies, other students—some English learners and some children of poverty—come with very small oral vocabularies, and these students need special help. A technique called Interactive Oral Reading has been shown to be an effective teaching tool, and Sales and Graves (2009) The First 4,000 Words and Biemiller's (2009) Words Worth Teaching in Grades K-2 provide appropriate words to teach.

I look forward to your comments and suggestions. 

Mike Graves

  • Baumann, J. F., Kame'enui, E. J., & Ash, G. E.  (2003).  Research on vocabulary instructing:  Voltaire redux.  In J. Flood, D. Lapp, J. R. Squire, & J. M. Jensen (Eds.), Handbook on research on teaching the English language arts (2nd ed., pp. 752-785.  Mahwah, NJ:  Erlbaum.
  • Biemiller, A.  (2009).  Words worth teaching.  Columbus, OH:  SRA/McGraw-Hill.
  • Blachowicz, C., & Fisher, P.  (2000).  Vocabulary.  In R. Barr, M. L. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, & P. D. Pearson (Eds.), The handbook of reading research, Vol. III.  New York:  Longman.
  • De Temple, J., & Snow, C. E.  (2004).  Learning words from books.  In A. van Kleeck, S. A. Stahl, and E. B. Bauer (Eds.), On reading books to children (pp. 16-36).  Mahwah, NJ:  Erlbaum.
  • Graves, M. F.  (2009).  Teaching individual words:  One size does not fit all.  New York:  Teachers College Press and IRA.
  • Graves, M. F., & Silverman, R.  (in press).  Interventions to enhance vocabulary development.  In R. Allington & A. McGill-Franzen (Eds.), Handbook of reading disabilities research.  Mahwah, NY:  Erlbaum.
  • Hart, B., & Risley, T. R.  (2003, Spring).  The early catastrophe:  The 30 million word gap.  American Educator, 27 (1), 4-9.
  • Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore: P. H. Brookes.
  • Sales, G. C., & Graves, M. F.  (2009).  Web-based pedagogy for fostering literacy by teaching basic vocabulary.  Information Technology, Education and Society, 9 (2). 5-30.


  1. Vocabulary development in our struggling readers (and all students!) is an important issue to educators these days. This overview of the issue PLUS specific suggestions is very helpful. Thanks, Michael.

  2. Michael, this post addresses questions educators frequently ask. Thank you.

    Question: What does the web-based program (First 4,000 Words) cost? Hard to locate that information.

  3. Michael and Susan, Thanks so much for inviting Michael to write this week's entry.... I assign your black and yellow book "The Vocabulary Book" to all my grad students because it does such an excellent job of translating the research into useful classroom adoption.

  4. For 15 years I was an elementary bilingual teacher for the Ector County Independent School District in Odessa, TX. I taught the Riverside Oral Language Transition Program developed by Dr. George Gonzales of Edinburg, TX. Many of my students were straight from Mexico and spoke no English. Dr. Gonzales had selected about 1,000 instructional word for each grade level (500 for each reader), for which he wrote kid-friendly sentence, and had an artist draw a simple line picture to illustrate the sentence. We taught the vocabulary using the cards with games, chants, and songs. Once the students had been introduced to the sentences (vocabulary in context), we would read the stories in the 1987 Riverside Basal Readers to the students. I was always amazed that the students could understand the oral stories, recalling the words they had a learned from the sentences/picture cards. I also taught a phonics component of my own on the side. By the end of single year, the students were able to read with understanding the stories in the readers. When I taught second grade, we accelerated the instruction and did two grade levels in one year. The students scored well on the 1987 Riverside Informal Reading Inventory. I was a true bilingual teacher in that I always made sure they could read and write Spanish along with the intensive English I was teaching them. Their Spanish literacy skills formed the solid foundation for their quick success in English. If any of my Spanish speaking students could not read Spanish, I taught them with Hilda Perera's La pata pita. My point is that the vocabulary in the 1987 Riverside Basal Reading series formed a PERFECT core vocabulary for students knowing no English. I regret that the Riverside Oral Language Transition program is no longer published. I know of nothing like it available today.

    Don Potter
    Odessa, TX

  5. I am interested in the school interactive vocabulary program titled, 4,000 First Words. I wish there was a program parents could access from home, not just if the school buys a license. A program similar to the home program Read Naturally offers. Children are into computers for sure.
    Excellent article that gives teachers explicit info on vocabulary;

  6. Anonymous5/26/2010

    I like the new look of the Vocabulogic blog and was happy to see the black background replaced with white; it's so much easier on the eyes.

  7. Anonymous5/26/2010

    This post reinforces the value of the printed page. Books hold an irreplaceable value in society, as does the internet, but not everyone has equal access, as many people, particularly senior citizens and those in rural areas and in low income brackets do not have access to the internet.
    I feel that we are remiss for our failure to strongly protest the demise of books, magazines and newspapers. An era is rapidly advancing when very little printed media will be available and this will certainly cause a drop in our retention span and our overall level of knowledge. Kudos to those who work to improve literacy in this country and abroad.

  8. Thanks for the feedback on the background color, Anonymous. Several people mentioned that white on black was a bit tough to read--so much dazzle.

    Joan, I was just as happy as you were, that Michael Graves agreed to contribute to Vocabulogic! I read his book, too (all three of them!).

  9. Michael Graves5/28/2010

    Dear Jan, Susan, and Joan,

    Thanks so much for the nice comments. They are much appreciated.


    Mike Graves

  10. Michael Graves5/28/2010

    Dear Don,

    Thanks for the comment. It sounds like Dr. Gonzales' list was a useful one for you. The value of The First 4,000 Word list is that it is empirically derived from a huge sample of representative text. These are the 4,000 most frequent English words, and they are thus the ones readers will come across in anything they read. While primary-grade materials will use only a subset of them, by the time kids get to third or fourth grade and in the trade books they may be reading even before this, they will need to know these words if they are to read with ease, fluency, and good comprehension.

    If you get a chance to look at the list at, I would be interested in how much overlap you see with the list you used.


    Mike Graves

  11. Michael Graves5/28/2010

    Dear Peggy,

    Thanks for the comment. Right now, licenses are as you noted only available for schools and districts. If you are interested in using the program at home, I suggest you contact Vicky Frank at She deals with issuing licenses for the program.


    Mike Graves

  12. Michael Graves5/28/2010

    Dear Anonymous,

    I too value books highly and hope they are around for a long long time.


    Mike Graves

  13. Michael Graves5/28/2010


    Currently 4KW licenses are available only for schools or districts. The cost for a school is $995 per year for an unlimited number of students, and the cost for a district is $895.50 per school. For further information, you can go to or email Vicky Frank at


    Mike Graves

  14. I recently published the notes I took at Dr. Gonzales lectures.

    Don Potter

  15. I enjoyed reading your informative and insightful article. It has informed my knowledge of practical and effective strategies that I can implement to promote the building of oral vocabulary knowledge in both our native born and ELL student learners who enter school with limited oral vocabularies. I will definitely incorporate the discussed techniques which outlined reading short books to support differentiation of oral vocabulary instruction based on individual students' oral vocabulary instructional needs. I am delighted that I read your article because I also just discovered the "must-have" First 4000 Words information. It is a comprehensive and wealthy vocabulary building knowledge resource that will positively impact my literacy and vocabulary teaching and learning.

    1. Thanks, Deloris. Good to know Michael's post is still making a difference, several years after publication.


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