There generally seems to be a bidirectional relationship between reading and vocabulary in that children who read a lot have more opportunities to come across new vocabulary, and children who have a broader vocabulary are more willing to engage often with more complex texts which, in turn, exposes them to further vocabulary.
But what happens in the case of children with dyslexia for whom reading can be challenging and, as such, it is less available as a means of vocabulary development? Fortunately, the difficulty these children have with reading doesn’t mean that they are doomed to suffer from an impoverished vocabulary throughout their lives; all it means is that, in those cases, explicit vocabulary instruction is even more crucial than it is for children without dyslexia.
Explicit vocabulary instruction consists of child-friendly definitions, rich context, and activities that promote a deeper and more accurate comprehension of the meaning of a new word. Converging research evidence shows that this method generally yields significantly better results than reading alone (Beck & McKeown 2007; Biemiller & Boote 2006; Coyne et al. 2010; Marulis & Neuman, 2010), but there’s also experimental evidence indicating that explicit vocabulary teaching that focuses on the meaning of words is particularly effective with dyslexic children (Reiss 2010).
One of the benefits of explicit instruction is that it gives children the opportunity to associate a word with rich enough information to comprehend what it means deeply and accurately. It also increases metalinguistic awareness which means that children become more conscious about how language works and how they interact with it; by extension, they gradually become more competent at inferring the meaning of unknown words by themselves (Coyne et al., 2010).
Of course, comprehending the meaning of a new word is only part of the story; in order for the acquisition of a new word to be completed, children also need to be able to memorise and recall it. This can be another challenge for children with dyslexia due to the working-memory limitations they often suffer from.
Indeed, because they find it difficult to keep a large amount of information in their working memory, a lot of this information will also fail to enter their long-term memory. Thus, even though effective educational methods should encourage learning and memorising in general, for children with dyslexia the emphasis on memorization is even more crucial.
Explicit vocabulary instruction does exactly this: it provides rich content that engages children’s attention and requires their active participation in ways that enhance learning and memorization of new words much more effectively than incidental, passive word learning (Loftus-Rattan and Mitchell, 2016).
Beck, I., McKeown, M. (2007). Increasing Young Low-Income Children’s Oral Vocabulary Repertoires through Rich and Focused Instruction. The Elementary School Journal, 107(3), 251-271.
Biemiller, A. and Boote, C. (2006) An Effective Method for Building Meaning Vocabulary in Primary Grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 44-62.
Coyne, M., McCoach, B., Loftus, S., Zipoli Jr., R., Ruby, M., Crevecoeur, Y., & Kapp, S. (2010) Direct and Extended Vocabulary Instruction in Kindergarten: Investigating Transfer Effects. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness 3(2), 93-120.
Loftus-Rattan, S., Mitchell, A. (2016). Direct Vocabulary Instruction in Preschool: A Comparison of Extended Instruction, Embedded Instruction, and Incidental Exposure. The Elementary School Journal. 116(3), 391-410.
Marulis, L., & Neuman, S. (2010). The Effects of Vocabulary Intervention on Young Children’s Word Learning: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 80(3), 300-335.
Reiss, E. (2010). Evaluating the effectiveness of a tier 2 vocabulary intervention on the writing and spelling of elementary students with dyslexia: A formative case study (MA Thesis. University of Toronto).