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The Role of Vocabulary Instruction in Adult Basic Education

Volume 6: Chapter Three
Mary E. Curtis

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In Chapter Three, Mary E. Curtis reviews theory and practice related to vocabulary learning among adult literacy learners. As she notes, vocabulary has long been recognized as a key factor in reading comprehension and as one of the most significant variables in the reading success of minority language learners, yet few studies have focused specifically on vocabulary acquisition and instruction for adults. Consequently, Curtis draws on research in K-12 and second language acquisition to fill in gaps in knowledge.

Curtis begins the chapter by presenting four current hypotheses that pertain to the link between vocabulary and reading comprehension. Two of these hypotheses suggest a causal connection between vocabulary and reading comprehension, while the other two relate these elements, respectively, to background knowledge and overall language proficiency. The author notes how all four theories are applicable at different stages of reading development and points out ways that these theories relate to current instructional practices. Curtis next reviews what research has revealed about sources of vocabulary acquisition (context; morphology, or word parts; and word definitions) and points out several implications for instruction. She next discusses the nature of vocabulary, specifically the depth and breadth of individual vocabulary, and how these affect additional acquisition of new words. Drawing on research, she describes a number of effective approaches to vocabulary instruction, including direct instruction in word meanings, highlighting distinctions among word meanings, promoting student awareness of and interest in words and their meaning, and engaging students in wide and varied reading.

Curtis closes the chapter with a set of recommendations. For future research, she suggests building on existing K-12 research to better understand the relevance of existing hypotheses to adult learners. She also calls for research to: clarify the cumulative effects of reading difficulties on adultsí vocabulary learning; investigate the impact of social class and language differences on vocabulary and reading comprehension; develop improved tools for identifying ABE literacy learner vocabulary needs and assessing their progress; and explore the role of technology in vocabulary instruction. In the area of policy, Curtis calls for more emphasis on vocabulary in assessment and professional development to disseminate the findings of research on vocabulary. Finally, for practice, while the limited research suggests no definitive conclusions, she does recommend a multi-stage approach to vocabulary instruction and a focus on the creation of meaningful contexts that make connections to what adult learners already know.

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Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL