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Vocabulary is well recognized as an essential component of reading proficiency (Beck & McKeown, 1991; Carroll, 1993; Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997; Daneman, 1988; Hirsch, 2003; Perfetti, 1994) with correlations between vocabulary and reading comprehension assessments ranging from .6 to .7 (Anderson & Freebody, 1981). This is not surprising since it has been estimated that adequate reading comprehension depends on a person knowing between 90% and 95% of the words in a text (Hu & Nation, 2000). Students who will become proficient readers typically have larger vocabularies than struggling readers as early as preschool, and this advantage tends to grow over time (Graves, Brunetti, & Slater ,1982; Graves & Slater, 1987; Hart & Risley, 1995). Vocabulary development is a critical part of learning to read well and appears to be a significant aspect of the gap between competent and struggling readers.

Teaching vocabulary directly can help enhance vocabulary learning and reading comprehension (Beck & McKeown, 1991; Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986). However, Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2002) estimated that students can be explicitly taught only some 400 words per year in school. These 400 words can be of immense importance to those children who are behind and need to be brought to the point of understanding key words as fast as possible. But if we want all of our children to comprehend well, they must learn many more words each year. A 12th-grade student who scores well enough on the verbal portion of the SAT to get into a selective college knows between 60,000 and 100,000 words (Hirsch, 2003). That suggests that the high-achieving 12th-grader has learned over 5,000 words a year, a rate of some 15 words a day since age 2.

Depth of vocabulary and word learning skill. As word learning proceeds, meanings of words grow richer over time. Perfetti and Hart (2001a, 2001b) described word knowledge as a complex assemblage of representations that vary both in the information they contain and in the degree to which they have been fully specified (i.e., in terms of orthographic, phonemic, syntactic, and semantic quality) which they refer to as the lexical quality hypothesis.

Consistent with the lexical quality hypothesis, we expect that the normal course of development is one in which the meaning of a word is initially totally unknown and then gradually becomes more fully specified with continued experience. Durso and Shore (1991) presented evidence that word knowledge varies from total lack of knowledge, through varying degrees of partial knowledge, to complete knowledge. They pointed out that after the first few exposures to a word in context, people may have only implicit rather than explicit knowledge about those words, yet may demonstrate clear evidence of comprehension, such as knowing whether a word was used in a grammatically or semantically appropriate way.

A number of theorists have outlined stages of word meaning that similarly postulate differing degrees of depth of word knowledge. Dale and O'Rourke (1981, 1986) postulated four stages of word learning, ranging from Stage I, where the word is completely unknown, through Stage II (implicit word knowledge), Stage III (partial knowledge but mastery in some contexts) and Stage IV (full mastery across a range of uses). Stahl (1986) outlined a similar (three-stage) theory, which is applied by Brown, Frishkoff, and Eskenazi (2005) to the task of automatically generating questions designed to probe different aspects of vocabulary depth. Brown et al. primarily use WordNet semantic relationships, generating definition, synonym, antonym, hypernym, hyponym, and cloze questions. In their discussion, they characterize these tasks as primarily providing evidence for the middle level of Stahl's hierarchy.

The literature suggests that children rely on many skills to learn new words, including association (e.g., Merriman, 1999; Plunkett, Sinha, Møller, & Strandsby, 1992), social awareness of reference (Baldwin et al., 1996), inference about events that are not present (Gleitman, 1990), knowledge of syntax (Fisher, Gleitman, & Gleitman, 1991), and pragmatic inference (Clark, 2003), among others (Bloom, 2000). There are a number of existing models of word learning (Cottrell & Plunkett, 1994; Elman et al., 1996; Farkas & Li, 2002; Gasser & Smith, 1998; Gupta & MacWhinney, 1997; Landauer & Dumais, 1997; Li & Farkas, 2002; MacWhinney, 1987; Merriman, 1999; Miikkulainen, 1997; Niyogi, 2002; Plaut, 1999; Regier, 1996; Roy & Pentland, 2002; Schafer & Mareschal, 2001; Siskind, 1992; 1996; Tenenbaum & Xu, 2000; Thompson & Mooney, 2003; Yu, Ballard, & Aslin, 2003), but many of these studies focus on word learning in the early years, and not on vocabulary development in the period from Grades 4 through 12, when students acquire much of the vocabulary necessary to long-term success in academic and career settings. Biemiller (2003a, 2003b, 2003c, 2005, 2006) and Biemiller and Slonim (2001) presented considerable evidence that core vocabulary is acquired in a predictable sequence, that students are responsive to vocabulary instruction, and thus that systematic instruction in vocabulary is both practicable and effective. However, the explosion of vocabulary that happens in the later grades after students begin to read widely goes well beyond the critical vocabulary set most easily targeted for instruction, and involves not only so-called Tier II words, but also large sets of topic- and subject- specific words and word meanings that integrate closely with the acquisition of specialized knowledge within each domain (Beck et al., 2002).

The ability to learn the meanings of words through reading is thus arguably a critical vocabulary development skill (Beck et al., 2002; Nagy & Scott, 2000; Sternberg & Powell, 1983), though one more likely to help first- rather than second-language students (Laufer & Hulstijn, 2001). Moreover, differences between written and spoken language indicate that inference from written texts might be important for vocabulary development. Written language is lexically richer than spoken language and may, therefore, provide a greater number of learning opportunities than are available in spoken contexts (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997). Avid readers encounter considerably more words each year than their less well-read peers (Anderson, Wilson, & Fielding, 1988), and measures of 9- to 11-year-olds’ exposure to print predicts significant growth in vocabulary (Echols, West, Stanovich, & Zehr, 1996). Practice at reading is likely to lead to more efficient access to word meaning. Regular reading can also provide repeated opportunities to acquire, refine, and consolidate vocabulary knowledge through inference from written texts (Beck, McKeown, & McCaslin, 1983; Carroll & White, 1973; Fukkink, Henk, & De Glopper, 2001; Graves, 1986; Nagy, Anderson, & Herman, 1987; Schatz & Baldwin, 1986). In fact, programs of instruction in learning word meanings by inference from written texts meet with relative success (Fukkink & de Glopper, 1998) and can benefit even poor readers (Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986).

However, even high-performing 12th-graders do not learn 15 words all at once per day, but rather by accruing bits of word knowledge for each of the thousands of words encountered every day (Nagy & Scott, 2000). While significant knowledge can be acquired from just a few exposures through so-called fast mapping strategies (Carey, 1978; Heibeck & Markman, 1987; Oetting, Rice, & Swank, 1995; Rice, Buhr, & Nemeth, 1990), one does not just learn a word’s meaning and then have the word. More likely, he or she knows these words with varying degrees of complexity and precision. One gradually learns the word’s denotations and connotations and its modes of use little by little over a variety of language experiences (Nagy & Scott, 2000). That is, growth of word knowledge appears to be slow and incremental, with most vocabulary growth resulting from massive immersion in the world of language and knowledge.

Breadth of vocabulary. The usual conception of vocabulary breadth is a simple estimate of the size of someone’s vocabulary. For this purpose, a variety of word frequency indices have been developed (Breland & Jenkins, 1997; Breland, Jones, & Jenkins, 1994; Carroll, 1970, 1971, 1976; Zeno, Ivens, Millard, & Duvvuri, 1995). This assumption runs into serious difficulties for estimating breadth in general. The flaw in this strategy is that the use of unmodified word frequencies presupposes that words are used uniformly, without variations in frequency due to topic, genre, or social variables. While the standard frequency index originated by Carroll (1971) maked an effort to measure word dispersion across genres and uses that measure to correct the frequency index, it still treats equal difficulty for equally frequent words as the norm and not the exception. But words are not, in fact, distributed evenly across texts, and there are strong interdependencies among sets of correlated words. While there are important sets of words that are widely distributed across a broad range of topics (Tier I and Tier II words, cf., Beck et al., 2002), a very large part of the vocabulary required by an educated adult has strong topical connections (Tier III words). This fact has major implications for measuring vocabulary knowledge, and for the ways in which vocabulary is learned or taught.

The vocabulary to which students are exposed has implicit prerequisites, in that there are other words students need to know, if they are to integrate the new vocabulary into their existing stock of words. Such prerequisite relationships logically explain many word frequency differences (for instance, we may reasonably expect hunt to be more frequent than predator), but if two words have disjoint prerequisites, their relative frequencies may vary across corpora (cf., Gernsbacher, 1984; Zevin & Seidenberg, 2002). For instance, one must know what a dinosaur is to know the meaning of tyrannosaurus, and one must know what a bridge is to know the meaning of abutment, but the relative frequency of tyrannosaurus and abutment in a corpus is a function of how many texts in the corpus concern themselves with ancient animals rather than with civil engineering. Thus a detailed picture of the growth and development of vocabulary must chart not only the increasing number of words learned, and the increasing richness of word knowledge, but the differential expansion of vocabulary knowledge into specific domains, dependent in part upon world knowledge.

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