Vocabulary and Comprehension

Vocabulary and comprehension: It's a truth universally acknowledged that students with larger vocabularies are also much better at reading. (Apologies to Jane Austin readers!)

This is an important point. Understanding a written passage is so much more than just reading the words; understanding, or comprehension, is directly linked to a child's vocabulary knowledge.

It has been argued that reading comprehension relies heavily on vocabulary knowledge and also metalinguistic awareness. This is because when a child learns a new word (adding the word to his vocabulary) he makes use of his metalinguistic awareness skills.

Let me explain.

Metalinguistic awareness has been defined as 'the ability to objectify language and dissect it as an arbitrary linguistic code independent of meaning.'Roth, F.P., Speece, D.L., & Cooper, D.H. (2002)

Ok, let's look at that definition in some detail, and work out what it actually means. The construction of the sentence is formal English, and the language chosen is quite complex. So it will take some work to break down its parts and comprehend its meaning.

To start with, 'the ability to objectify language,' refers to being able to examine language, or the way we use spoken and written language. The term 'objectify' could also mean to use conscious thought to think about the structure of language. To 'dissect' refers to the ability to examine the parts of language. 'Arbitrary linguistic code,' probably refers to the ability to inquire and investigate the unlimited ways that language can be constructed to communicate an idea, or ideas.

Vocabulary and Comprehension cont...

Simply by analyzing the construction of the above definition we are actually using our metalinguistic awareness skills. If we were to read the above definition at a shallow level only, we could scarce understand its meaning; it's just too complex.

What do I mean?

Well, firstly, the language is unfamiliar; its construction is highly technical and peppered with words such as 'arbitrary,' 'objectify' and 'dissect.'

These are not common words, unless you're a research psychologist and used to reading and writing similarly technical words.

I had to consult a dictionary to find the the exact meaning of the words, 'dissect,' 'objectify' and 'arbitrary.' I have come across the words before, but must confess, the use of those words in the context of metalinguistic awareness puzzled me.

By consulting a dictionary and examining the meaning of each word I was able to break the sentence down into fragments. I was thus able to deconstruct the passage and unlock its code. This is despite, at first glance, the language of the passage being largely indecipherable.

Vocabulary and Comprehension cont...

This is an example of metalinguistic awareness in use. It was my metalinguistic awareness skills that enabled me to examine the unfamiliar text (the metalinguistic awareness definition) and understand its meaning. Also, the words 'arbitrary' and 'objectify' and their meaning have been added to my mental dictionary, my lexicon. My vocabulary and comprehension knowledge have thus been slightly increased.

This is a pretty good example of how we use metalinguistic awareness. As we can see from the above example, it has a vital role in aiding comprehension and building vocabulary knowledge.

The good news is metalinguistic awareness is a skill that can be taught. The focus is on shaping the student's ability to consciously attend to the construction of unfamiliar language, and work out its meaning.

Children who have this skill in spades are generally good readers, have large vocabularies, and have good comprehension skills. When they do come across a new word they have the skills to understand the meaning of the word. They either use the context of the passage, or they consult a dictionary - and know how to use one.

Children who don't have good metalinguistic awareness skills, are consequently prevented from unlocking the code of difficult or new language. And so they will often skate right on past difficult text, oblivious to its meaning.

They may decode the words reasonably well, but not attend to the passage's meaning - reading failure is often the result.

Reading failure occurs, not because students can't read the words, but because they can't comprehend the meaning of the passage, and don't have the strategies to construct meaning from unfamiliar text.

By not attending to the meaning of difficult words students often fail to acquire new and difficult words, and thus fail to add to and build their vocabularies.

Their vocabularies remain poor, which is compounded when they read other new and difficult material.

And the cycle continues.

This cycle becomes most noticeable by the time the child reaches grade 4. He/she may be proficient at decoding but has difficulty comprehending what he/she reads.

The problem becomes worse when more decontextualized language is encountered, which becomes more prevalent as the child moves through his/her school years.

For more information about vocabulary and comprehension and the effect of context please follow this link here.

To read more about reading comprehension problems please follow this link.


Fletcher, J.M., Lyon, G.R, Fuchs, L.S., & Barnes, M.A. (2007) Learning Disabilities: From Identification to Intervention. The Guilford Press

Roth, F.P., Speece, D.L., & Cooper, D.H. (2002). A longitudinal analysis of the connection between oral language and early reading. Journal of Educational Research, 95, 259 272.

Wagner, R.K Muse, A.E & Tannenbaum, K.R. (2007)Vocabulary Acquisition: Implications for Reading Comprehension. The Guilford Press

Content Updated 8/11

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