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Technology and Vocabulary Development in the Schools.

Computer technology is pervasive in all aspects of modern life, including education. Each year finds more computers in public school classrooms and more schools online (National Center for Educational Statistics, 1998). Educational software is becoming commonplace as instructional material, and the vast network of the World Wide Web is providing ever-growing resources for students and teachers that far exceed the holdings of the best school libraries. This article will focus on the use of computer technology in one particular aspect of the school curriculum, the teaching of vocabulary. Suggestions will be made for the use of software, the Internet, and word processing in fostering vocabulary development.

Incidental Acquisition of Vocabulary

While research has not yet determined exactly how one acquires a vocabulary, a strong case can be made for the importance of incidental learning, that is, the daily exposure to oral and written language in real-life situations. The belief that life's context accounts for a great deal of vocabulary acquisition can be traced back to Huey (1908) and Thorndike (1917). Research has confirmed the role that incidental exposure to words contributes to vocabulary growth (Jenkins, Stein & Wysocki, 1984; Nagy, Anderson & Herman, 1987).

If wide reading is a factor in vocabulary acquisition, then it becomes necessary for the learner to have accessibility to a wide range of reading material. It would be impossible to rely on the class textbooks that a child might read in the course of a school year. They expose children to relatively few words, and the texts are often written with a consciously controlled vocabulary. Even the additional reading opportunities found in the books of school or classroom libraries provide only a limited selection. However, the presence of the World Wide Web offers a virtually unlimited source of reading material, even if we eliminate web materials that may be too advanced for young students. Moreover, the range of topics represented on the web ensures that every student will be able to read material for which he or she has an active interest.

Another type of exposure to natural use of language is through writing. Such opportunities for repeated exposure to a word are important since acquisition of word knowledge falls on a continuum from total lack of knowledge, to a vague sense of what the word means when it appears in a supportive context, to a rich understanding of the word with the ability to use it comfortably in speaking and writing (Calfee & Drum, 1986: Dale, 1965). As a child incorporates a word into a piece of writing, often using it more than once, his/her familiarity and confidence with that word strengthens.

While writing has always contributed to vocabulary development, computer technology in the form of word processing capabilities has enabled children to write with greater ease and interest. They can write a draft, save it in a computer file, and retrieve and revise it with the greatest of ease. They have the satisfaction of seeing their completed work "published" in a professional-looking form.

A feature of many word processing programs is a dictionary and/or thesaurus. This enables students to check on the definition of a word that they are using. The dictionary is helpful for students who want to use a word but are not completely sure of its meaning. The thesaurus function will help a student who is seeking a more precise substitution for a current word.

Intentional Learning

While a case can be made for incidental acquisition of vocabulary, a number of researchers also have established the value of intentional learning where the teacher identifies particular words for students to master. Beck, Perfetti and McKeown (1982) showed the value of intentional learning by providing direct instruction in a specific body of vocabulary words to elementary grade students who not only mastered the definitions but applied these new words to increase their text comprehension. Similar results have been obtained by others (Adams, 1990; Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986).

Computer technology also has a place in intentional learning of vocabulary by serving as a multipurpose tool for direct instruction. When students have a classroom computer account, they can maintain their own vocabulary file. The file contains any vocabulary word that the teacher would choose for the whole class. Commonly, these words would be based on a class unit of study. In addition, each student would maintain a personal vocabulary list with words that have particular meaning for that student. These words could be drawn from a variety of sources, e.g., the student's reading and writing or words and terms the student hears throughout the course of the day. Often this individual vocabulary set takes on the form of a personal dictionary.

Direct instruction is facilitated if the student is involved in active processing of the words under study ("target words") (Good & McCaslin, 1993; McKeown, Beck, Omanson & Pople, 1985). Active processing often involves study of more than one word at a time so that students can work out the relationships among words. One such technique is semantic mapping (Johnson & Pearson, 1984). Here the student arranges the words under study into an array that represents their relationship. Lines connect related words so that there is a general appearance of a road map, or to use another synonym for this technique - a web. Figure 1 shows an example of a semantic map created by a student in the process of studying the blood vessels, while focusing on the various types of blood vessels, the student also demonstrates awareness of how blood vessels relate to the larger circulatory system (See Figure 1).


While semantic maps have proven to be very helpful in mastering a specific set of vocabulary terms, constructing the map involves thinking and rethinking, writing and crossing out. An electronic version allows students to create their maps on the monitor and modify the placement of a word or a line relationship between words with the click of a mouse. One such program that allows students to create semantic maps and other graphic variations such as tree diagrams and outlines is called "Inspiration." It is available on CDROM from Inspiration Software, Inc.

Another strategy that involves active processing is semantic feature analysis (Pittelman, Heimlich, Berglund & French, 1991). A grid is created with target words listed on the left-hand column (e.g., woodpecker, penguin, kiwi) and possible characteristics across the top row (e.g., fly, swim, lay eggs). The student's task would be to place a check on each grid intersection when the named characteristic is descriptive of the named term (e.g., penguins/swim). While students are responsible for completing the activity, the teacher must design it. Features found in most word processing programs for creating a table can easily allow the teacher to do this. The empty table becomes the grid and can be adjusted to a wide combination of rows and columns. The teacher also has the option of saving a blank grid of a particular size that he or she commonly uses.

Another teaching strategy that has a proven track record is that of pre-teaching key vocabulary and concepts before students begin an assigned reading. (Beck, et al., 1982; Kameenui, Carnine & Freschi, 1982). This approach allows students to focus their attention on the teacher's priorities and at the same time develop a background of information that will enable them to read the text with greater comprehension. While pre-teaching sometimes takes the form of the teacher presenting students with a list of words and their definitions, such an approach does not foster active learning. However, by utilizing a web search engine, students can find rich and varied information about the target word or term. In addition to a definition, the student can frequently find examples and discussions presented, not only in print medium, but also incorporating photographs, diagrams, and audio and video clips.

Of course, the student who is reading from the Internet often has the advantage of hypertext links. These are words and terms that have been identified as important by the author. They appear in the electronic text in another color or in bold type. By clicking on these words, the student instantly sees a definition or is linked to another site which includes an explanation of the target term.

The dictionary is another instrument of intentional learning. For centuries, people have used this resource to locate the meaning of a word. However, readers (both children and adults) have often been reluctant to put down the book they have been reading and take their dictionary off the shelf in order to look up a word. Technology now has made the dictionary more accessible and consequently more likely to be used.

A number of dictionaries have been developed for computer installation. Such a system enables the student to look up a word without leaving the computer screen where he or she is reading or writing. The American Heritage Children's Dictionary is intended for children ages 7-12. It has 37,000 entries and includes pictures, sounds, and animations. It also has a scrolling index to prompt misspelled search entries.

In addition to children's dictionaries that may be purchased in CDROM format and installed on a computer, the Web offers an array of dictionaries. Little Explorers <> has 1137 illustrated entries. Each word is used in an example sentence and most entries are linked to a related web site. The Newbury House Online Dictionary <> includes 40,000 entries and a database of 50,000 items. The Web page, Kids on the Web: Homework Tools <> not only includes a Webster's Dictionary, but also Roget's Thesaurus and a dictionary of acronyms and abbreviations. For older students, a Web site at Bucknell University maintains an index of links of specialized dictionaries <>. There are 65 categories, including such areas as art, biology, and sports. Any of the dictionary Websites can be bookmarked for rapid reference.

As efficient and "user-friendly" as online dictionaries may be, the hypertext nature of digital writing has a feature which may be even more desirable. Hypertexts, whether written for children or adults, have a hypertext link capacity. The author of the work can identify words from the text for which some readers may need a definition or a clarification. These words are highlighted, and when the reader moves the cursor over the word and clicks on it, a prepared definition appears, or the reader is instantly linked to another site that helps to explain the target word. Some samples from actual Web sites or CD ROMs follow with the hot button italicized.

?? "A koala is nocturnal."

?? "The Sultana was a steamship with the capacity to carry several hundred passengers."

Short of printing the definition right on the text, this is the quickest way for students to get a definition for a word that may be puzzling them. At the same time, readers who may not need a definition provided can read through with no visual interference.


Computer technology has provided several opportunities for expanding and enriching students' vocabulary. Ultimately it is the teacher who selects and develops instructional approaches. Don Leu (1999) has described a concept which he calls "envisionment." "Envisionment takes place when teachers and children imagine new possibilities for literacy and learning, transform existing technologies to construct this vision, and then share their work with others" (p. 636). As technology accelerates the pace of change in schools, fellow teachers have become the best source for teaching ideas, and the Internet is the most efficient way to share them. This article concludes with a sampling of Web addresses that teachers might use to learn about vocabulary envisionments from peers and to pass on their own envisionments to others.

?? SCORE Cyberguides: <>

?? EDs Spotlight on Effective Practice: <>

?? Teachers Helping Teachers: <>

?? Teachers Net: <>


Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Champaign-Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Center for the Study of Reading.

Beck, I.L., Perfetti, C.A. & McDeown, M.G. (1982). Effects of long-term vocabulary instruction on lexical access and reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 74, 506-521.

Calfee, R.C. & Drum, P.A. (1986).Research on teaching reading. In M. C. Wittrock (Ed.). Handbook on research on teaching (3rd ed., pp.804-849). New York, Macmillan.

Dale, E. (1965). Vocabulary measurement: Techniques and major findings. Elementary English, 42. 895-901, 948.

Good, T.L. & McCaslin, M.M. (1992). Teaching effectiveness. In M.C. Alkin, (ed.), Encyclopedia of educational research, (6th ed vo. 4, pp. 1373-1388). New York: Macmillan.

Huey, E.B. (1908). The psychology and pedagogy of reading. New York: Macmillan.

Jenkins, A.R., Stein, M. & Wysocki, K. (1984).Learning vocabulary through reading. American Educational Research Journal, 21, 767-787.

Johnson, D.D. & Pearson, P.D. (1984). Teaching reading vocabulary (2nd ed.). New York: Holt.

Kameenui, E.J., Carnine, D.W. & Freschi, R. (1982). Effects of text construction and instructional procedures for teaching word meanings on comprehension and recall. Reading Research Quarterly, 17. 367-388.

Leu, D.J., Karchmer, R.A., & Leu, D. (1999). The Miss Rumphius effect: Envisionments for literacy and learning that transform the Internet. The Reading Teacher. 52(6). 636-642.

McKeown, M.G., Beck, I.L., Omanson, R.C. & Pople, M.T. (1985). Some effects of the nature and frequency of vocabulary instruction on the knowledge and use of words. Reading Research Quarterly, 20. 522-535.

Nagy, W.E., Anderson, R.C. & Herman, P.A. (1987). Learning word meanings from contexts during normal reading. American Educational Research Journal, 24. 237-270.

National Center for Educational Research (1998). The Conditions of Education, 1998. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

Pittelman, S.D., Heimlich, J.E., Berglund, R.L. & French, M.P. (1991). Semantic feature analysis. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Stahl, S.A. & Fairbanks, M.M. (1986). The effects of vocabulary instruction: A model-based meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 56. 72-110.

Thorndike, E. L. (1917). Reading and reasoning: A study of mistakes in paragraph reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 8. 323-332.

Arthur E. Smith is Associate Professor in the Department of Education & Human Development at State University of New York College at Brockport. <>.
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Author:Smith, Arthur E.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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