Vocabulary Development

    Many individuals with learning differences, problems and disabilities have weak language skills which directly impact their vocabulary development. A limited vocabulary often equals a limited education and a limited career.

    John came to the Center for Alternative Learning for an assessment of his reading skills. John had just completed one semester of college but had received only average grades despite great effort on his part. The assessment revealed that John’s vocabulary was far below what would be expected for his age and high school grades. His ambiguous understanding of many words and his complete misunderstanding of other words not only reduced his reading comprehension but also his ability to fully understand the content of his classes. John needed to increase his vocabulary to be successful in college. He needed to engage in a systematic and regular study of vocabulary.

    Most of us take vocabulary for granted since we learn words and their meaning as we grow. By the time we are in our teens, we usually know enough words to function in school and society. Most individuals who can read and have at least a high school education would consider their vocabulary adequate. Adequate meaning that the person can understand oral communication, express one’s thoughts in speech and is able to comprehend common reading material. But many individuals with learning differences have weak vocabularies.

    The reasons why these individuals have weak vocabularies are often complex and overlapping, but here are a few of the common reasons for weak vocabularies. The person 1) lives in an environment where higher level vocabularies are not used, 2) has a lower education level because the person either did not complete school or the education was of poor quality, 3) attended special education classes in which lower level vocabulary was used in class and in textbooks, 4) does not read much or has a reading problem, 5) does not pay attention to words, 6) has an auditory perception problem which makes it difficult to hear the subtle differences in words, 7) does not have a good understanding of the structure of language including parts of speech and word parts, prefixes, suffixes and word roots.

    During the course of a year, most of the adults who are not enrolled in formal education do not add many words to their active vocabularies. They might learn the names of new things they encounter but not learn many new adjectives, adverbs or verbs. Yes, when reading many people encounter new words and understand the meaning in context, but they do not use those word in conversation or in writing. Usually not. It takes more than understanding the meaning of a word in context to fully add it to your vocabulary. It is easy to add a word to your receptive vocabulary (listening and reading), but it takes more work or study to add a word to your expressive vocabulary (speaking and writing).

    To understand vocabulary development, note the

following diagram. The two columns represent the

amount of words two individuals know. There are

more words in the English language than we need

to know. Just think of the words professionals, e.g.

physicians, lawyers, engineers, anthropologists, etc.,

use in their areas of specialties; the combination of

all those areas of specialties equal lots of words. We

can compare the column of words that an average

person would have to the column of words of a

person who has a weak vocabulary. It includes many

words which are fully known, other words which

are ambiguous (not fully or precisely understood) and

a large number of words which are unknown.

    Systematic Regular Study: A person’s vocabulary can be increased by the systematic and regular study of words. The systematic study of words requires that a person has a system that works for that person. Regular means different things to different people; it might mean daily to one person, while to another it means weekly. It is obvious that the more frequent the regular study is, the more effective the vocabulary development will be. However, if a person tries to have the regular study of words five times a day but cannot maintain it, then it is less effective than once a day if that regularity can be maintained. Some individuals need help to engage in regular study. That assistance can come from a tutor, family member or a friend, but it should be noted that unsolicited assistance is often rejected.

    Setting Up A System A system of vocabulary development should have at least the following components: a method for word collection, a place for the words that are collected and space for definitions. Additional components for a vocabulary study system would include: identification of parts of speech, space for writing a sentence for each of the definitions of the words, space for synonyms and antonyms, a space for spelling and pronunciation clues, space for mnemonics, illustrations or diagrams and a space for related words. Individuals can set up a system themselves or the person can use a system that has been set up by someone else. The Vocabulary Workbook which I have developed is an example of a complex system which is designed to include all of the items listed above.

    Working The System Once the system is in place it has to be worked. On a regular basis, the person needs to collect words, review those words, and use the words in speech and writing. This is where the regular part of vocabulary development comes in. Each day the person should review the words and definitions. This is the only way that I know that will help to increase one’s vocabulary. As a person, who has a weakness in language because of a learning difference, working on learning a third language, I can personally attest to the fact that only the systematic and regular study of words has enabled me to become bilingual and encouraged me to attempt a third language.