Sunday, June 12, 2011

Five-Day Plan for Developing Breadth of Vocabulary via Storybook Reading

This post builds on the prior post, which described how to use storybook reading to build depth of word knowledge. The upcoming third -- and final-- post in the storybook-reading series will describe how to use a method called "Dialogic Reading" to promote language, knowledge, and vocabulary (see published post by Jaci Urbani, Ph.D.).

Today, I describe a research-tested method for using storybooks to develop breadth of word knowledge so young children might learn many meanings relatively quickly, but not deeply. At the least, children need to be able to recognize a word when they hear it and understand its most common and least abstract meaning. Learning many meanings quickly but fairly superficially is an important goal, especially when the students know drastically fewer words than their peers. Children must rapidly develop a broad vocabulary, learning many meanings partially, yet well enough to get the gist of a variety of texts. (Sounds awfully tricky, but the brain was born for this! Language comes naturally to most of us and will flourish if carefully fostered in a word-rich learning environment.)

To learn more about the difference between partial knowledge and more complete mastery of word meanings in elementary grades, see Words Worth Teaching: Closing the Vocabulary Gap (Biemiller, 2010). This book is also an excellent resource when considering which words to teach (and see Fisher and Frey’s post on word selection).

Five-day plan for teaching vocabulary via storybook reading: This plan is based on Biemiller and Boote (2006) and on recent conversations with Dr. Biemiller. The goal is to teach many word meanings quickly and superficially. Thirty minutes per day were allocated for each lesson. Students were taught about 25-30 word meanings per week.

This plan is only a guide. Various factors need be considered, including the grade level and verbal proficiency of the students, the complexity of the target words, and the appeal of the story itself (who wants to hear a boring story four times?). As to that, Biemiller and Boote found that repeating the same story four times resulted in a larger effect size in kindergarten, compared to second grade.

At any rate, here is the basic five-day plan:

Day 1: If necessary, preteach one or two key concepts to enable comprehension of the story. For example, Biemiller and Boote (2006) pretaught circus before reading Clifford at the Circus. Prior to reading the story, 30% of the kindergartners were unfamiliar with the concept. Afterwards, 100% of them demonstrated an understanding of circus.

Read the story once without stopping. Then ask some basic comprehension questions, but do not teach any word meanings.

Day 2: Read the story again, stopping to briefly explain about 7-10 words. New comprehension questions are raised after reading. Word meanings taught that day are reviewed again after reading.

Day 3: Read the story again, stopping to briefly explain about 7-10 more words. New comprehension questions are raised after reading. Word meanings taught that day are reviewed again after reading. (Based on study 2 by Biemiller and Boote, and recent conversations with Biemiller, I suggest teachers briefly review all taught words.)

Day 4: Read the story again, stopping to briefly explain about 7-10 more words. New comprehension questions are raised after reading. Word meanings taught that day are reviewed again after reading.

Day 5: Briefly review all word meanings learned thus far. Informally assess learning. Provide each word in a different context (not context lifted from the story), perhaps asking students to respond with their thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Look for partial understanding of the meaning.

Interpreting your assessment results: Expect students to remember only about one-third to one-half of the words taught, at most, even if the meanings are reviewed cumulatively. In the second part of the study by Biemiller and Boote (2006), the teachers recommended adding more review to the methodology. Biemiller and Boote agreed with the modified procedure, so the teachers folded more review into the lessons. Thus, children learned and remembered about one-half of the words that were unknown to them, according to the pretest, on average. However, in other studies, children have learned and remembered only about one third of the taught words--sometimes not even that many.

Validate children for a job well done if they learn and remember only one-third to one-half of the words taught, because even in fairly optimal research conditions, the average child does not perform better.

Days 6 to… Revisit words in subsequent weeks and months, in varied context. Biemiller and Boote (2006) have found that retention of learned vocabulary was even greater six weeks after instruction. Why was retention greater six weeks later, when typically we forget things over time? Was the initial instruction successful enough so the children could continue to add to their lexical understanding through new context they encountered? Did the teachers continue to use the words in meaningful context? We do not know why the average child knew more meanings six weeks later, but this is certainly a happy finding!

Below, I provide an excerpt from Biemiller and Boote (2006). They discuss how many times to read a book, by grade level, and how each new reading provides another opportunity to learn more word meanings.
How Many Times Should Texts Be Reread?
In Grades 1 and 2, the percentage of meanings learned was about the same when books were read twice as when books were read four times (Study 1). (In kindergarten, reading books several times was more effective and is generally welcomed by children.) However, more word meanings can be taught in a week if the same book is read four times rather than two times. This is because different word meanings are taught on each of three readings rather than one. … The present method was effective, but the issue of repeated reading procedures requires more research. (p. 55)

Book selection: It is important to begin by selecting a suitable and captivating book. Suggestions for selecting books are discussed in the prior post and in Preschool: Where the Wild Words Are.  Biemiller and Boote (2006) used the following books, recommended by the classroom teachers and the school librarian.

There Is More, Much More (Alexander, 1987)
Mud (Ray, 1996)
Something From Nothing (Gilman, 1992)
Clifford at the Circus (Bridwell, 1985)
Jillian Jiggs (Gilman, 1977)

Grade 1
Going Down the Road (Schertle, 1995)
The Seashore Book (Zolotow, 1992)
The Tree That Grew to the Moon (Fernandes, 1994)
Julian (Khalsa, 1989)

Grade 2
Drac and the Gremlin (Baillie & Tanner, 1991)
Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse (Lionni, 1969)
Brenda and Edward (Kovalski, 1984)
The Chicken Cat (McLellan, 2000)


Biemiller, A. (2010). Words worth teaching: Closing the vocabulary gap. Columbus, OH: SRA/McGraw-Hill.

Biemiller, A. & Boote, C. (2006). An effective method for building meaning vocabulary in primary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98 (1), 44-62.


  1. Susan: I just LOVE your blog. The one 2 weeks before was phenomenal and this one is great. I like that they have practical ideas. In reading both of these blogs, I felt hopeful and full of ideas to do with my 4 yr old; but I was left with the question of what best to do with my 4th and 6th grader as my read out louds to them are long chapter books, not as suitable to re read because of the length of the books. I welcome your ideas. Thanks much.

  2. I love this day-by-day guide! Thank You! I want to use this with the teachers at my school next year.

  3. Thanks Rosa and Rebecca! Rosa, if you are reading chapter books at home with your 4th and 6th graders, you are already doing quite well! Re-reading books appears to be most effective in primary grades (this was found by Biemiller and Boote, 2006). I agree with you; I would not advise repeatedly reading a chapter book. A great deal of learning occurs through the conversations you have--discussing interesting words and phrases, the characters, setting, plot, drawing inferences, etc. You could occasionally re-read brief excerpts that you especially like, and you might also model how go back and re-read sections to clarify your understanding of the plot, the characters, the setting, etc. Just some thoughts!

  4. Hi Susan,
    I agree with Rosa--I LOVE your blog! There have been so many posts I would have liked to have commented on, but free time has not been my friend.
    Just wondered... have you ever considered adding a "Share This" feature on your blog to make it easier for others to share? Your stuff is just too good NOT to share! (Note: I will share this post on Twitter, it just takes a few extra steps.)

  5. Julie, we appreciate the feedback! Glad to know the posts are useful. As for the SHARE THIS button, I will look into finding the code for it. Good idea!

  6. Next step.... to get you on Twitter. :)

  7. OK, Julie. I have added a bunch of Share buttons to the footer of each post. J

    1. Now the "share this" footer has disappeared. Technology!


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