The complexity of words makes vocabulary development a multi-faceted process that presents challenges to early childhood educators, offers benefits to young learners, and must be supported through evidence-based strategies. All students, regardless of socio-economic status or background, need to make significant gains in receptive and expressive vocabulary at home and at school each year in order to support their growth in literacy. Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and those students who speak English as a second language are particularly at risk of failing to make proficient vocabulary gains. The most effective way for early childhood educators to enhance the vocabulary development of all students is to implement evidence-based strategies for teaching vocabulary. A key finding in the research is that young children need to be actively engaged in vocabulary development if they are to remember new words and begin to grasp the multiple, nuanced meanings of words. Other effective vocabulary instruction practices include meaningful repetition; combining the enactive, iconic, and symbolic modes; and reading aloud in a dialogic style. In light of the trend in the research data that links the child’s vocabulary level to gains in reading comprehension, early childhood educators have a special obligation to teach vocabulary more effectively.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Armbruster, B. B., Lehr, F., & Osborn, J. (2003). Put reading first (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.
August, D., Carlo, M., Dressler, C., & Snow, C. (2005). The critical role of vocabulary development for English language learners. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 20(1), 50–57.
Baumann, J., Kame’enui, E., & Ash, G. (2003). Research on vocabulary instruction: Voltaire redux. In J. Flood, D. Lapp, J. Squire, & J. Jensen (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (2nd ed., pp. 752–785). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (2007). Increasing low-income children’s oral vocabulary repertoires through rich and focused instruction. Elementary School Journal, 107(3), 251–271.
Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G. & Kucan, L. (2005). Choosing words to teach. In E. H. Hiebert & M. L. Kamil (Eds.), Teaching and learning vocabulary. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Beck, I. L., Perfetti, C. A., & McKeown, M. G. (1982). The effects of long-term vocabulary instruction on lexical access and reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 74(4), 506–521.
Bergman, O. (2005). Wait for me! Reader control of narration rate in talking books. Available: www.readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF=bergman/index.html.
Biemiller, A. (2003). Vocabulary: Needed if more children are to read well. Reading Psychology, 24(3/4), 323.
Biemiller, A. (2004). Teaching vocabulary in the primary grades. In J. F. Baumann & E. J. Kame’enui (Eds.), Vocabulary Instruction: Research to practice (pp. 28–40). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Biemiller, A., & Boote, C. (2006). An effective method for building meaning vocabulary in primary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 44–62.
Blachowicz, C. L. Z., & Fisher, P. (2000). Vocabulary Processes. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. III, pp. 503–523). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. J. (2006). Tools of the mind: The Vygotskian approach to early childhood education (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Brabham, E. G., & Lynch-Brown, C. (2002). Effects of teachers’ reading aloud styles on vocabulary acquisitions and comprehension of students in early elementary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(3), 465–473.
Brett, A., Rothlein, L., & Hurley, M. (1996). Vocabulary acquisition from listening to stories and explanations of target words. The Elementary School Journal, 96(4), 415–422.
Bruner, J. S. (2004). The process of education (rev. ed. ed.). Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.
Byrnes, J. P., & Wasik, B. A. (2009). Language and literacy development: What educators need to know. New York, NY: Guilford.
Cárdenas-Hagan, E., Carlson, C., & Pollard-Durodola, S. D. (2007). The cross-linguistic transfer of early literacy skills: The role of initial L1 and L2 skills and language of instruction. Language Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 38(3), 249–259.
Christ, T., & Wang, X. C. (2010). Bridging the vocabulary gap: What the research tells us about vocabulary instruction in early childhood. Young Children, 65(4), 83–91.
Collins, M. F. (2005). ESL preschoolers’ English vocabulary acquisition from storybook reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 40(4), 406–408.
Coyne, M. D., McCoach, B., & Kapp, S. (2007). Vocabulary intervention for kindergarten students: Comparing extended instruction to embedded instruction and incidental exposure. Learning Disability Quarterly, 30(2), 74–88.
Coyne, M. D., Simmons, D. C., & Kame’enui, E. J. (2004a). Vocabulary instruction for young children at-risk of experiencing reading difficulties. In J. F. Baumann & E. J. Kame’enui (Eds.), Vocabulary instruction: Research to practice (pp. 41–58). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Coyne, M. D., Simmons, D. C., Kame’euni, E. J., & Stoolmiller, M. (2004b). Teaching vocabulary during shared storybook reading: An examination of differential effects. Exceptionality, 12(3), 145–162.
Cunningham, A., & Stanovich, K. (1997). Early reading acquisition and its relation to reading experience and ability 10 years later. Developmental Psychology, 33(6), 934–945.
Dickinson, D. K., & Tabors, P. O. (2002). Fostering language and literacy in classrooms and homes. Young Children, 57(2), 10–18.
Dunn, L., Beach, S. A., & Kontos, S. (1994). Quality of the literacy environment in day care and children’s development. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 9(1), 24–34.
Fenson, L., Dale, P., Reznick, J., Bates, E., Thal, D., & Pethick, J. (1994). Variability in early communication development. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 59(5, #242).
Hakuta, K., Butler, Y. G., & Witt, D. (2000). How long does it take English learners to attain proficiency? Santa Barbara, CA: University of California, Linguistic Minority Research Institute.
Hargrave, A. C., & Senechal, M. (2000). A book reading intervention with preschool children who have limited vocabularies: The benefits of regular reading and dialogic reading. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 15(1), 75–90.
Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
Hayes, D., & Ahrens, M. (1988). Vocabulary simplification for children. Journal of Child Language, 15, 457–472.
Hemphill, L., & Tivnan, T. (2008). The importance of early vocabulary for literacy achievement in high-poverty schools. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 13(4), 426–451.
Hiebert, E. H., & Kamil, M. L. (2005). Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bringing research to practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Holum, A., & Gahala, J. (2001). Critical issue: Using technology to enhance literacy instruction. New York, NY: North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.
Jensen, E. (2006). Enriching the brain: How to maximize every learner’s potential. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Juel, C., Biancarosa, G., Coker, D., & Deffes, R. (2003). Walking with Rosie: A cautionary tale of early reading instruction. Educational Leadership, 60(7), 12–18.
Justice, L., Meier, J., & Walpole, S. (2005). Learning new words from storybooks: An efficacy study with at-risk kindergartners. Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 36(3), 17–32.
Lonigan, C. J. (2007). Vocabulary development and the development of phonological awareness skills in preschool children. In R. K. Wagner, A. E. Muse, & K. R. Tannenbaum (Eds.), Vocabulary acquisition: Implications for reading comprehension (pp. 15–31). New York, NY: Guilford.
Manning, M. (2005). Reading aloud. Teaching PreK–8, 35, 80–82.
Marulis, L. M., & Neuman, S. B. (2010). The effects of vocabulary intervention on young children’s word learning: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 80(3), 300–335.
McConnell, S. (1993). Talking drawings: A strategy for assisting learners. Journal of Reading, 36(4), 260–269.
McVicker, C. J. (2007). Young readers respond: The importance of child participation in emerging literacy. Young Children, 62(3), 18–22.
Mediatore, K. (2003). Reading with your ears. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 42(4), 318–323.
Murkoff, H., Eisenberg, A., & Hathaway, S. (2003). What to expect the first year. New York, NY: Workman Publishing.
Nagy, W. E., & Scott, J. A. (2000). Vocabulary processes. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. III, pp. 269–284). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Nation, S. P., Long, M. H., & Richards, J. C. (2007). Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: U.K. Cambridge University Press.
Neuman, S., & Dwyer, J. (2009). Missing in action: Vocabulary instruction in Pre-K. The Reading Teacher, 62(5), 384–392.
Paquette, K. R., Fello, S. E., & Jalongo, M. R. (2007). The talking drawings strategy: Using primary children’s illustrations and oral language to improve comprehension of expository text. Early Childhood Education Journal, 35(1), 65–73.
Parker, E., & Pardini, T. (2006). The words came down! English language learners read, write, and talk across the curriculum. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
Pearson, P., Hiebert, E., & Kamil, M. (2007). Vocabulary assessment: What we know and what we need to learn. Reading Research Quarterly, 42(2), 282–296.
Penno, J. F., Wilkinson, I. A., & Moore, D. W. (2002). Vocabulary acquisition from teacher explanation and repeated listening to stories: Do they overcome the Matthew Effect? Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(1), 23–33.
Qi, C. H., Kaiser, A. P., Milan, S., & Hancock, T. (2006). Language performance of low-income African American and European American preschool children on the PPVT-III. Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 37(1), 5–16.
Restrepo, M., Schwanenflugel, P., Blake, J., Neuharth-Pritchett, S., Cramer, S., & Ruston, H. (2006). Performance on the PPVT-III and the EVT: Applicability of the measures with African American and European American preschool children. Language, Speech & Hearing Services in Schools, 37(1), 17–27.
Saracho, B., & Spodek, O. N. (2006). Handbook of research on the education of young children. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Schwanenflugel, P. J., Hamilton, C. E., Bradley, B. A., Ruston, H. P., Neuharth-Pritchett, S., & Restrepo, M. A. (2005). Classroom practices for vocabulary enhancement in prekindergarten: Lessons from PAVEd for Success. In E. H. Hiebert & M. L. Kamil (Eds.), Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bringing research to practice (pp. 155–178). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Senechal, M., Thomas, E., & Monker, J. (1995). Individual differences in 4-year-old children’s acquisition of vocabulary during storybook reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 87(2), 218–229.
Sharif, I., Ozuah, P. O., Dinkevich, E. I., & Mulvihill, M. (2003). Impact of a brief literacy intervention on urban preschoolers. Early Childhood Education Journal, 30(3), 177–180.
Soundy, C. S., & Stout, N. L. (2002). Pillow talk: Fostering the emotional and language needs of young children. Young Children, 57(2), 20–24.
Stahl, S. A. (2003). How words are learned incrementally over multiple exposures. American Education, 27, 28–29.
Stahl, S. A., & Fairbanks, M. M. (1986). The effects of vocabulary instruction: A model-based meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 56(2), 72–110.
Stahl, S. A., & Nagy, W. E. (2006). Teaching word meanings. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Stahl, S. A., & Stahl, K. A. D. (2004). Word wizards all! In J. F. Baumann & E. J. Kame’enui (Eds.), Vocabulary instruction: Research to practice (pp. 59–80). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Tabors, P. O. (2008). One child, two languages: A guide for early childhood educators of children learning English as a second language. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
Tabors, P. O., & Snow, C. E. (2001). Young bilingual children and early literacy development. In S. B. Neuman & D. K. Dickson (Eds.), Handbook of early literacy research (pp. 159–178). New York, NY: Guilford.
Vandergrift, L. (2006). Second language listening: Listening ability or language proficiency? The Modern Language Journal, 90(1), 6–18.
Wasik, B., Bond, M., & Hindman, A. (2006). The effects of a language and literacy intervention on Head Start children and teachers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 63–74.
Wasik, B., Karweit, N., Bond, M., Burns Woodruff, L., Jaeger, G., & Adee, S. (2000). Early learning in CRESPAR. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 5(1/2), 93.
Weizman, Z. O., & Snow, C. E. (2001). Lexical input as related to children’s vocabulary acquisition: Effects of sophisticated exposure and support for meaning. Developmental Psychology, 37(2), 265–279.
Welsch, J. G. (2008). Playing within and beyond the story: Encouraging book-related pretend play. The Reading Teacher, 62(2), 138–148.
Children’s Books and Media
Bix, D. (2006). Buddy unchained. Edina, MN: Gryphon Press.
Graham, B. (2001). “Let’s get a pup!” said Kate. Boston, MA: Candlewick Press.
Martha Speaks (2010). Pound Dog Clip #1. Available: bluesplayer.co.uk/Martha+Speaks.
Simont, M. (2001). The stray dog. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
About this article
Cite this article
Jalongo, M.R., Sobolak, M.J. Supporting Young Children’s Vocabulary Growth: The Challenges, the Benefits, and Evidence-Based Strategies. Early Childhood Educ J 38, 421–429 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-010-0433-x
- Vocabulary instruction
- Receptive vocabulary
- Expressive vocabulary
- Early literacy
- Research-based strategies
- Diverse learners