For children to meaningfully increase their knowledge of vocabulary, direct instruction is essential. Research shows that reading alone is not enough.


“Missed opportunities for vocabulary learning”

Nearly everything that a child needs to know in order to flourish academically can be found in books – reading is absolutely the key to knowledge. But there’s little point in children reading something they don’t understand.

A study by MSL Swanborn and Kees de Glopper found that left to read alone, the average child will spontaneously ‘work out’ the meanings of just 15% of the unfamiliar words they encounter.[1] Reading the same text again increases this to around 27%. Provide written definitions of tricky words, and most children will learn about 37% of unknown vocabulary.[2]

To put that into perspective, a study by Carver found that in a typical 12,000 word children’s book, there will be 240 new words, of which an unsupported child will learn just 36 at the first time of reading.[3] The rest will remain a mystery, limiting that child’s understanding and enjoyment of the story. Such approaches to reading are missed opportunities for extremely productive vocabulary learning.

“Vital need for direct vocabulary instruction”

The solution? Numerous experts have pointed to the vital need for direct vocabulary instruction both at school and at home.[4]

As Andrew Biemiller suggests, the two central pillars to literacy learning are phonics and vocabulary – and yet it’s phonics that has generally received all the attention.[5] The consequence of this is that many children are capable of “sounding out” the new words they come across, but are much less prepared to understand them.

And once children have developed the ability to convert the letters on a page into recognizable words, they are suddenly deemed to be competent readers despite no clear teaching of what words actually mean. As Biemiller puts it, “vocabulary is the ‘missing link’ in reading/language instruction”; phonics alone has minimal impact on children’s reading comprehension.[6]

Thankfully, the powers that be are beginning to take notice of this discrepancy. In an action plan outlined in December 2017, the UK government committed to improving vocabulary learning, acknowledging its status as “the other fundamental building block of literacy”.[7]

The report pointed to the cross-curricular benefits of improving vocabulary, noting that children who experience early language difficulties are six times less likely to reach the expected level in English by age 11 and even less likely to achieve the minimum standard in maths.

To prevent this “word gap” from opening, the Department for Education aims to help foster “a love of words, rhymes, and stories” both at home and at school. But how would that work?

“Complement your child’s reading with focused vocabulary guidance”

For comprehensive vocabulary development, experts recommend a versatile approach that involves combining reading with the direct teaching of important individual words. In fact, research suggests that up to the age of ten, 80% of words children learn are acquired as a result of direct explanation, rather than just ‘figuring it out’ while reading.[8] For parents, that means taking advantage of any opportunity to read quality, vocabulary-rich books with your child, asking questions and talking about any challenging new vocabulary.

Complement your child’s reading with focused vocabulary guidance, and you can help foster a love of literature that will enhance their learning and enrich their lives forever.


  1. Swanborn, M.S.L. and de Glopper, K. (1999) Incidental Word Learning while Reading: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research. 69 (3), pp. 261-85.
  2. Biemiller, A. and Boote, C. (2006) An Effective Method for Building Meaning Vocabulary in Primary Grades. Journal of Educational Psychology. 98, pp. 44-62.
  3. Carver, R. (1994). Percentage of unknown vocabulary words in text as a function of the relative difficulty of the text: implications for instruction. Journal of Reading Behavior. 26 (4), pp. 413-437.
  4. Davies, M. and Gardner, D. (2014) A New Academic Vocabulary List. Applied Linguistics. 35 (3), pp. 305-327.
  5. Biemiller, A. (2001) Teaching Vocabulary: Early, Direct, and Sequential. American Educator. 25 (1), pp. 24-28.
  6. Biemiller, A. (1999) Language and reading success. Cambridge, Mass.: Brookline Books.
  7. United Kingdom, Department for Education (2017) Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential: A plan for improving social mobility through education. UK: APS Group. (Cm9541).
  8. Beck, I., McKeown, M. and Kucan, L. (2002) Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guildford Press.
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