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A descriptive study on the use of materials in vocabulary lessons.

Vocabulary knowledge is important because it is highly correlated with content area learning. Strategies for vocabulary instruction recommend using new words in multiple contexts as key to learning. To date, the term multiple contexts emphasizes written contexts, not three-dimensional concrete material contexts. This article describes the results of 507 observations of vocabulary lessons in K-3 classrooms to determine how often concrete materials were used to augment learning. The results of this descriptive study showed that teachers' use of concrete materials was greatest for mathematics and science lessons and lowest for language arts lessons. The use of concrete materials also varied among the districts' accreditation levels. Districts with the lowest accreditation levels also had the lowest number of lessons that included concrete materials.

Keywords: appropriate practices, vocabulary, materials, teaching aids, elementary


In the ebb and flow of topics that interest education researchers, the importance of vocabulary on reading achievement and how it is taught is once again a hot topic (Cassidy & Cassidy, 2010/2011). Perhaps spurred by Hart and Risley's (1995) landmark research that documented large differences in vocabulary exposure among low, middle, and high socioeconomic groups by age 3, educators have responded to the challenge to find or develop strategies that would close these early word gaps among population groups. Hart and Risley (2003) referred to the gaps in vocabulary exposure as "the early catastrophe." The early catastrophe, caused by what they found to be a 30-rnillion-word gap between students who come from homes with extensive oral language exposure and homes with minimal language exposure, grows exponentially as the students advance through Grades K-12. "By age three, some children were so hopelessly behind in total language experience and resultant total vocabulary size that no later preschool or school intervention could catch them up" (Risley & Hart, 2006, p. 88). Stanovich (2000) labeled this phenomenon the Matthew effect, whereby the "rich get richer and the poor get poorer." Words beget new words. They become hooks that catch new words; new words, in turn, become hooks for learning even more words, and vocabulary learning trajectories widen. Because the size of a student's receptive vocabulary by age 3 is correlated with future reading achievement (Hart & Risley, 1995, 2003; National Reading Panel [NRP], 2000; Risley & Hart, 2006), the Matthew effect explains the seemingly intractable reading achievement gap between White, Black, and Hispanic students (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2009).

Biemiller (2005) not only corroborated Hart and Risley's earlier findings, but also found that, unfortunately, little is being done to teach vocabulary in the primary grades. He found that young children are explicitly taught only 100 to 200 new words per year; furthermore, the children with small lexicons added words more slowly than those with larger lexicons. In primary classrooms where word learning is not emphasized through planned repeated exposures, the rate of learning is lower. For example, a child exposed to a new word one time only has a 15% chance of learning it (Nagy, 2005).

The shift from early informal vocabulary learning in the home environment to formal vocabulary learning in the K-3 classrooms warranted research into the types of materials that K-3 teachers used to build on early word learning. Specifically, we wanted to know whether the early word learning, accompanied by concrete materials, gestures, and real-world experiences, continued from the home into the classroom.

Children come to school to learn what is difficult to learn indirectly through informal interactions with language in their environment. Their learning at school is characterized by direct, purposeful instruction by the teacher. Pinker (2002) explained the complexities of the mind and its relationship to education this way: "Education is a technology that tries to make up for what the human mind is innately bad at" (p. 222). Although children's minds are programmed to enable them to learn to walk and talk with relative ease and no formal instruction, their brains are not wired for learning to read and write. Learning to read and write the words that enable them to receive and communicate information about their world must be taught in a long and often-laborious process (Lyon, 1998). Therefore, direct, purposeful vocabulary instruction in school stands in stark contrast to earlier word learning, often gleaned informally through oral word exposure and exchanges in the child's home environment. Hart and Risley (1995) called the talk between parent and child the "social dance" of language, whereby infants and children learn words through chitchat, purposeful talk, storytelling, read-alouds, songs, conversation, and other forms of oral language that take place in the child's environment. This early exposure to words is the critical first step toward vocabulary building. The next critical step involves systematic, explicit vocabulary instruction in school on words not learned through conversation.


The size of children's receptive vocabularies is difficult to measure, but Stahl and Nagy (2006) estimated that children acquire 2,000 to 3,000 new words a year. Graves (2009) provided a holistic picture of word learning when he estimated that entering 1st-grade students previously exposed to large numbers of words have an oral vocabulary of 10,000 words and leave school with 50,000 words in their oral and reading vocabularies. This is a slightly higher estimate than Stahl and Nagy's, most likely due to tracking children from advantaged backgrounds. Biemiller (2012) found that when root words are taught explicitly and the derivations of the words are encountered informally, students acquire substantially more words each year. Teachers have essentially 36 weeks of school to teach new words. Researchers vary somewhat in the number of words teachers should teach each week. The range is from 10 to 20 words a week, broken down into two to four words per day (Biemiller, 2004). This means that teachers can only directly teach the meaning of roughly 360 to 720 words in a school year. Obviously, students learn far fewer words directly through planned vocabulary lessons than they pick up informally, yet these words, when carefully chosen, unlock the meaning of the literature and content area texts they are required to read and learn each day (Bravo & Cervetti, 2008; Harmon, Wood, & Hedrick, 2008).

Although effective principles for classroom vocabulary instruction, such as multiple exposures to words through multiple contexts, have been identified by leading researchers (Blachowicz & Fisher, 2002; Bravo & Cervetti, 2008; Graves, 2009; Kamil, 2004; NRP, 2000; Pearson, Hiebert, & Kamil, 2007; Schmitt, 2000; Snow, Griffin, & Burns, 2005), we found few recommendations for the specific materials teachers should use to implement effective practice. Marzano (2004) suggested that teachers use a combination of linguistic and nonlinguistic materials that have students create mental images, draw pictures, organize information on graphic organizers, and dramatize word meaning. However, these nonlinguistic representations stop short of the inclusion of concrete materials that would enable students to employ multiple senses as they learn a word's meaning. Concrete materials, used as a context for word learning, have the potential to facilitate multiple interactions and discussions by students. As Pearson et al. (2007) stated, "The more contexts in which a word is encountered, the greater likelihood that its meaning will be acquired, or more precisely, the greater the likelihood that a precise, nuanced, and even sophisticated meaning will be acquired" (p. 290).


We conducted a descriptive study of 507 observations of vocabulary lessons in more than 150 K-3 classrooms to document the materials that language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies teachers used to teach the meaning of new vocabulary. We specifically wanted to learn whether teachers included concrete materials in their vocabulary lessons. We used a hierarchy (Figure 1) to organize the types of materials that could be used according to their authenticity and concreteness. At the top of the hierarchy are real-world examples often found in the classroom, on the school grounds, and in the environment around the school. This hierarchy, based on the work of Edgar Dale's (1954) Cone of Experience, has been updated to include materials used by today's teachers.

For instance, if the word under consideration is frog, the use of the highest level in the hierarchy, Level 6, would require the class to travel to a nearby creek or stream and actually look at a frog in its native habitat. If this is not a realistic option, then the fifth level, the artifact, would be to bring a frog into the classroom and set it up in a terrarium. At the fourth level of the hierarchy, students would see a model of a frog, perhaps life-sized, with identifying marks as to the various organs or have students demonstrate the movement of frogs. At Level 3, students would see or create pictures of frogs. At Level 2, students would read descriptions of frogs, what their habits are, and so on. Finally, at Level 1, students would receive oral information about frogs.
FIGURE 1 Hierarchy of materials used in vocabulary instruction.

Level # Description

Level 1: Oral descriptions or definitions of words

Level 2: Written descriptions or definitions of words

Level 3: Visuals or pictures. Pictures of real-world materials

Level 4: Representation: Models of real-world materials that
resemble artifacts in many, but not all, characteristics. Also
included at this level are representations of verbs, adjectives,
and some nouns by dramatic performance (e.g., acting angry,
pretending to cry, yelling)

Level 5: Artifacts from the real world: Living and nonliving
materials that are true artifacts, but have been removed from their
native location and brought to the classroom

Level 6: Real-world materials: Living and nonliving materials in
their native habitat

After observers documented the types of materials teachers used to teach word meaning, we matched them to the levels of the hierarchy based on whether they were real-world materials, artifacts from the real world, or representations of real-world materials. The types of materials teachers used varied among grades, content areas, and school accreditation levels.


We tested the reliability and validity of the observation instrument to capture the types of materials teachers in Grades K-3 used to teach new word meanings. Although the current study does not analyze teachers' specific methods, descriptions of teaching methods were included on the instrument, shown in Figure 2, to verify materials used in the lesson.

We piloted the instrument in one kindergarten and two 1st-grade classrooms. Four graduate students, enrolled in the master of arts program in curriculum and instruction at the University of Mississippi, also piloted the observation instrument by documenting the materials and methods from three K-2 videotaped vocabulary lessons taught by Anita Archer, an educational consultant and author. They completed a separate observation instrument for each lesson and at the conclusion of each lesson compared notes on the materials and methods they documented. To determine interrater reliability, we conducted an analysis of the completed observation instruments and found they were consistent except for the acknowledgment of drama as a material. Drama, in this study, is regarded as a representation of a word's meaning that can be conveyed through facial expressions, gestures, and pantomime. Questions arose over the teacher's enthusiastic utterances. We determined that changes in voice prosody, such as pitch, volume, stress, or rhythm, were not to be recorded as drama unless they conveyed the meaning of the word. Examples of words whose meaning could be conveyed through voice alone are "howling," "bawling," and "piercing." During the training sessions, the researchers instructed the observers to record drama as a representation. The analysis of the instruments used during 18 practice lessons showed that the instrument enabled the observers to document accurately the materials teachers included in vocabulary lessons.


Recruitment and Training

University graduate students were recruited through e-mails and through visits to all graduate classes in the department of curriculum and instruction at the University of Mississippi Oxford campus during the Fall 2009 and Spring 2010 semesters. Two doctoral students and two master's students were enrolled in an independent study course, for which they were required to conduct 102 observations in K-3 classrooms. Twelve other graduate students completed 9 hours of observation for a field experience requirement. All 16 participating graduate students went through a 1 1/2- to 2-hour small-group training session led by the researchers and were required to pass the Institutional Review Board (IRB) Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI) test for Human Subjects Research. The four students, enrolled in the independent study course, also went through a midpoint training session and individual meetings with the researcher to ensure they were upholding the integrity of the study. The 16 observers were given a training guide and were thoroughly briefed on the definition of vocabulary instruction as "teaching word meaning" to distinguish vocabulary instruction from sight word, spelling, and phonics lessons. Before going out into the classrooms, the graduate student observers practiced using the observation instrument by documenting the use of materials and methods from the Anita Archer (2008) videos of K-2 classrooms. Our analysis of those training sessions indicated that interrater reliability was very high; the only lingering difference in raters concerned the use of drama as a "representation." Of our 16 observers and three lessons each, independent agreement was reached on 93.75% of the training observations.

Even though this is a study of the material teachers used during vocabulary lessons, observers also were asked to document the methods teachers used. This step provided the valuable contextual information necessary to clarify whether the observers documented a true vocabulary lesson that emphasized word meaning instead of a sight word, spelling, or phonics lesson. It also provided a foil to divert teachers' attention. We feared that if teachers learned we were only documenting the materials they used, they would try to impress us by bringing in materials not ordinarily used on the days they were to be observed.

District and School Population Selection

School districts in northern Mississippi were selected from the professional development sites used by the department of curriculum and instruction for student teaching placements. Other districts were added at the request of the graduate student observers. This selection of districts provided a range of schools that pulled from high, middle, and low socioeconomic-level student populations, and encompassing seven Mississippi Department of Education Accountability Levels that ranged from "failing" to "star" schools (Mississippi Department of Education, 2010), as shown in Table 1. We secured consent to place observers in 11 districts, 19 public schools, and one private school, totaling 537 observations.


From a master list of consenting districts, schools, and teachers, the observers scheduled their own observations with individual consenting teachers. Teachers were given a written description of the study and assurance that their names would not be used in the dissemination of the results of the study. The researchers cross-checked the observers' choice of schools and teachers to ensure that observations only took place when written consent had been given. Observations began in 2009 and ended in 2010, with most of the observations taking place during the Spring 2010 semester. To obtain a broad vision of materials use, teachers were observed 3 times, once each during reading, mathematics, and science or social studies lessons. The only planned exception to this series of observations was when teachers did not teach science or social studies. In these cases, the third observation consisted of another reading or mathematics lesson. Observers documented information for an entire vocabulary lesson, up to one hour. Scheduling vocabulary lessons proved to be a difficult task for the observers, because many K-3 teachers incorporated vocabulary into their lessons as needed rather than having a planned time for vocabulary instruction. This accounts for the 30 observations that yielded no results in classrooms where no specific vocabulary instruction occurred during an hour of observation.


The raw data showed that fewer than one third of the vocabulary lessons employed levels of the hierarchy higher than Level 3, visuals (two-dimensional images). The percentage of lessons in which higher levels of materials were used varied according to the subject matter. For instance, in language arts lessons, 24 of 265 (9.1%) contained concrete materials (representations, artifacts, or real world) to enhance the learning. On the other hand, 58 of 136 (42.6%) mathematics lessons and 24 of 91 (26.4%) of the science lessons used concrete materials.

Images obtained from the Internet, posters, and books can be useful in vocabulary instruction but are not considered concrete materials in the current study. However, the percentages change when images (visuals - Level 3) are aggregated with concrete materials to reflect those lessons in which materials other than words were used to acquaint students with the target vocabulary words. We observed 62 (23.4%) language arts lessons in which the highest level in the hierarchy was visuals, Level 3 or higher. However, in mathematics and the sciences, the percentages were 63.2% and 54.9%, respectively. It is clear from the data that mathematics and science subjects lent themselves more readily to the use of images and concrete materials. But in language arts lessons, an overwhelming 76.6% of the time, we observed the process of trying to teach words with words. Table 2 shows these details.

Table 3 makes it clear that subject matter has a strong impact on the use of materials. As stated above, it is especially significant that the concrete materials were used the least in language arts lessons, 9.1% of the time, and most often in mathematics lessons, 42.6%. Concrete materials were used in science lessons 26.4% of the time.

In addition to the dependencies on subject matter and grade level, the use of concrete materials also was a function of the accountability/accreditation levels of the school districts. Table 4 shows these dependencies. It indicates that of the 441 language arts and content area lessons that could be categorized by accountability level, 85 utilized the highest three levels of the hierarchy (real world, artifacts, representations).

Note that only 441 lessons (out of 537) are shown in Table 4, because several school districts' accountability levels were not known at the time of this writing.

Table 5 shows that high-performing districts used the higher three levels of the hierarchy 34.5% of the time, and that percentage declined with descending accountability levels. School districts marked with an "at risk of failure" accountability level used the higher three levels of the hierarchy in 11.8% of the observed lessons.

With a large sample size of 507 observations of vocabulary instruction, we believe that these percentages are close to their true values, especially in this region of the United States. If anything, we should suspect that the percentages for the use of higher level materials may be too high, because it is somewhat likely that some teachers became aware of what our observers were looking for. A few of the observers commented that the teachers said they had planned special vocabulary lessons on the days they were scheduled to visit the classroom. On the other hand, we saw no differences between early observations and later ones.

Extending the Concept of Multiple Contexts as a Theory of Practice

Through this study we were able to create a theory of practice that lends specificity to the term multiple contexts (NRP, 2000) by labeling the contexts according to their proximal and distal relationship to the students. The inclusion of concrete materials, used as a proximal context for word learning, has the potential for enabling students to make memorable connections between newly discovered learning and their prior knowledge (Schwanenflugel, Stahl, & McFalls, 1997). Hochberg (2007), in his discourse on perceptual learning, noted that simply exploring an object visually is not enough to discern its properties. External and internal properties, such as texture, density, mass, and temperature, cannot be conveyed through sight alone. Students' actions on objects yield needed information to flesh out a word's meaning that is further understood when students subsume new learning with previously held beliefs. Looking through the lens of cognitive psychology, the proximal and distal relationship between the materials and the students plays a vital role in the quality of the contexts for word learning (Dunn, 1993). Proximal materials, those closest to the students, enable them to engage with the actual artifacts that words represent, rather than abstract definitions and descriptions. Furthermore, the combination of a student's initial word knowledge with proximal materials may stimulate more durable comprehensive meanings than oral and written definitions and descriptions alone. Concrete materials provide yet another context for learning.

Our next step will be to determine whether, in fact, the use of materials in high levels of the hierarchy actually promotes learning in a significant way. After all, we cannot rule out the possibility that the use of materials in high levels of the hierarchy makes no difference in student learning and retention. We value teachers' instructional time and do not want to recommend, or even to suggest, a strategy that has not been proven to work. When teachers choose to use class time to let children interact with materials, they have, by default, chosen not to involve them in a different strategy. Therefore, it is not our purpose at this point in our research to advocate the use of materials for teaching vocabulary. Our motivation for this study was simply to learn what materials were being used during vocabulary lessons.

Thus, we are currently involved in studying sixteen 2nd- and 3rd-grade classrooms and seven 5th-grade classrooms in this same region (northern Mississippi and western Alabama) to determine whether the inclusion of concrete materials and drama makes a significant difference in vocabulary learning.


In their earliest preschool years, children's language exposure and usage is contextualized, with the words used to communicate information coming from the children's immediate environment. These words are communicated through gestures, facial expressions, and pantomime (Nagy & Scott, 2000), as well as from the objects they represent. We found that words taught in K-3 classrooms lacked the contextual richness that accompanied initial word learning. Language arts vocabulary lessons in K-3 classrooms were devoid of concrete materials and drama 87% of the time. Science and mathematics lessons appear to lend themselves more readily to pictures, representations, artifacts, and real-world materials than do language arts lessons. Still, it is clear that there is room for increased use of those materials in all content areas. Furthermore, high-performing schools utilized concrete materials in their vocabulary lessons about three times more often than do low-performing schools.

Whether the failure of low-performing schools to utilize concrete materials is a factor in their low performance cannot be answered here, but the relationship between the accountability/accreditation levels and the use of concrete materials in vocabulary lessons marks a fertile area for future research.

One consideration about the use of materials needs to be discussed: Some words lend themselves more easily to real world/artifact/etc, than other words. Certainly, the example we used earlier, frogs, was an easy one for which to provide examples in all six levels of the hierarchy. It is

not so easy to describe good classroom examples for a word like "obligation." Furthermore, verbs require action to describe, and that's where the representation level will be often employed--to act out the action that the word implies. Moreover, with the use of imagination, verbs can fit nicely into the hierarchy. If the word is juggle, it should be easy to represent in the classroom, and the class could look for real-world examples. Adjectives may require the comparison of two nouns--one with the adjectival characteristic and the other without. For example, a "bright, sunny day" could be compared with a "day" to demonstrate the meanings of bright and sunny. Such real-world examples come easily to mind upon reflection.

The observers of 102 lessons noted that in science and mathematics lessons, vocabulary was not taught separately; rather, it was integrated with the teaching of facts. One observer wrote, "I noted that teachers only seemed concerned with teaching vocabulary during language arts or reading time. They do not focus on it in other areas of the curriculum."

Not only is the planned teaching of vocabulary not emphasized in the primary grades, but also little research has been reported on ways to promote vocabulary learning in Grades K-3 (Biemiller, 2004). One reason may be that assessing vocabulary for preliterate children and children with limited reading skills is difficult. Another reason is that over the past decade or so, vocabulary learning has been overshadowed by the research emphasis on phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and phonics.

A postobservation interview with a kindergarten teacher corroborated Biemiller's (2004) findings when she said, "The children are too young for formal vocabulary learning. I teach new words as the need arises." A 3rd-grade teacher, when asked about the use of concrete materials in vocabulary lessons, simply said, "I never thought of that." Sight-word recognition, decoding, and fluency are skills that may be emphasized over learning the meaning of words.

However, with a strong correlation between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension, we strongly recommend that teachers also focus on building children's receptive and expressive vocabularies. For young preliterate children, teachers must look for ways to supplement oral explanations. The use of concrete materials may be one way to involve children in structured and unstructured explorations with the materials the vocabulary words represent. We found it curious that we could find no suggested method for teaching vocabulary that advocated the use of concrete materials. Although not every word can be matched to a three-dimensional material or represented through facial expressions or drama, there are plenty that can.


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Kerry Holmes, Stacy V. Holmes, and Karley Watts

University of Mississippi, University, Mississippi

Submitted February 21, 2011; accepted April 1, 20111.

Address correspondence to Kerry Holmes, School of Education, University of Mississippi, Guyton Hall, University, MS 38677. E-mail:

DOI: 10.1080/02568543.2012.657747
Participation of Schools in the Study by Accreditation
(Accountability) Levels

Accountability levels      Number of districts in study

Star                                  0
High performing                       2
Successful                            3
Academic watch                        4
Low performing                        0
At risk of failing                    1
Failing                               0

Consolidated Data From Lessons of All Subject Matter

Level                 K             1             2

No vocabulary      6    4.3%     9    8.0%     3    2.8%
Oral               6    4.3%     4    3.5%     8    7.3%
Written           46   32.6%    64   56.6%    61   56.0%
Visuals           30   21.3%    15   13.3%    22   20.2%
Representation    19   13.5%    12   10.6%     9    8.3%
Artifacts         21   14.9%     5    4.4%     6    5.5%
Real world        13    9.2%     4    3.5%     0    0.0%
Totals           141           113           109

Level                 3            Total

No vocabulary     12    6.9%    30    5.6%
Oral               6    3.4%    24    4.5%
Written          103   59.2%   274   51.0%
Visuals           31   17.8%    98   18.2%
Representation     9    5.2%    49    9.1%
Artifacts         10    5.7%    42    7.8%
Real world         3    1.7%    20    3.7%
Totals           174           537

Use of Level in Hierarchy as a Function of Subject

Level            None       Arts      Mathematics     Science

No vocabulary     30      0             0            0
Oral               0     16    6.0%     3    2.2%    4    4.4%
Written            0    187   70.6%    47   34.6%   37   40.7%
Visuals            0     38   14.3%    28   20.6%   26   28.6%
Representation     0     17    6.4%    23   16.9%    6    6.6%
Artifacts          0      4    1.5%    25   18.4%   11   12.1%
Real world         0      3    1.1%    10    7.4%    7    7.7%
Totals            30    265           136           91

Level              science    Totals

No vocabulary     0             30
Oral              1    6.7%     24
Written           3   20.0%    274
Visuals           6   40.0%     98
Representation    3   20.0%     49
Artifacts         2   13.3%     42
Real world        0    0.0%     20
Totals           15            537

Percentages of Vocabulary Lessons at the Hierarchy Levels as a
Function of the Accountability/Accreditation Levels of the School

                         Accountability/accreditation levels

Hierarchy Level             HP          Succ          AcWt

No vocabulary lesson    5   17.2%    10    9.2%     6    3.6%
Oral                    0    0.0%     3    2.8%     6    3.6%
Written                 9   31.0%    39   35.8%   103   61.7%
Visuals                 5   17.2%    23   21.1%    27   16.2%
Representations         5   17.2%    13   11.9%    11    6.6%
Artifacts               5   17.2%    11   10.1%     9    5.4%
Real world              0    0.0%    10    9.2%     5    3.0%
Totals                 29           109           167

                       accreditation levels

Hierarchy Level           AROF       Totals

No vocabulary lesson     4    2.9%     25
Oral                    12    8.8%     21
Written                 84   61.8%    235
Visuals                 20   14.7%     75
Representations         11    8.1%     40
Artifacts                5    3.7%     30
Real world               0    0.0%     15
Totals                 136            441

Note. HP = high performing; Succ = successful; AcWt = academic watch;
AROF = at risk of failure.

Percentages of Vocabulary Lessons at the
Representation Level or Higher by
Accountability/Accreditation Level of School

Accountability/accreditation levels

High performing                       34.5%
Successful                            31.2%
Academic watch                        15.0%
At risk of failure                    11.8%
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Author:Holmes, Kerry; Holmes, Stacy V.; Watts, Karley
Publication:Journal of Research in Childhood Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2012
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