Books and other reading materials are composed of words. Good readers already know most of the words they come across in what they read. In fact, for students who are good readers, the contents of their oral vocabularies tend to exceed what they’ll find in most texts they read at school. When good readers decode a word, it will usually match a word in their oral vocabulary. They will be unlikely to get stuck trying to figure out how to say the word or what it means.
Students’ oral vocabularies are very important for learning to read. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to expect students to understand reading passages that include words they don’t know. Decoding isn’t much help in this case.
Struggling readers often won’t know some of the words they run into in school reading selections. Even if they can sound out a word, they might not know what the word means. Knowing most of the words we read is important for reading fluency. This enables us to read quickly and smoothly enough to understand most of the phrases and sentences we encounter. Students who don’t know a lot of the words in a passage will have to stop and puzzle over the meaning of many words. They may lose track of the overall meaning of the whole passage.
Where Our Vocabulary Comes From
Our oral vocabularies grow from our experiences. We learn most words long before we can read them. But people have different experiences.
Differences in people’s experiences result in differences in their vocabularies. For example, the word “touchdown” would have no meaning to you if you’d never seen a football game or been told about one. The word “jealous” wouldn’t mean anything to you if you’ve never heard it used to describe a feeling prompted by a situation you can understand.
Where we live and what we do in our daily lives provide us with many of the words we know. A student who lives in the city will most likely know words such as “subway,” “high-rise,” and “gridlock.” A student who lives on a commercial farm will most likely know words such as “no-till,” “silage,” and “aerator.” The books we read and the people we talk to also teach us different words. A student who reads about dinosaurs will have a different vocabulary from a student who reads about sports. This difference is a good thing. Reading is one way we explore our interests and discover meaning in our lives. And when we do that, our vocabularies grow and change.