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Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained: The Rewards of Advanced Decoding and Vocabulary Instruction

Manager of Professional Learning for Voyager Sopris Learning
Updated on
Modified on June 22, 2023
  • Literacy
  • Reading Intervention
  • Vocabulary

Content-area teachers know their subjects and love nothing better than to share their knowledge of literature, science, history, mathematics, health, art, or music—to name a few. Passion for a subject can be a motivating factor but can only go so far in getting students engaged and open to diving into content that may or may not interest upper-elementary and secondary students.

As we all know, beginning in fourth grade, students shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” This is a wonderful time for exploration. Content-area teachers expect students to be geared up and ready to “read to learn” every aspect of the content to be delivered. Even better, students can take advantage of the opportunity to become well-rounded individuals, building a variety of knowledge and discovery.

Unfortunately, there are obstacles that may impede this forward momentum into learning. For example, students’ ability to access content itself.


What could be the challenge? And how can we intervene to ensure students have a rewarding learning experience?

A short-term intervention like REWARDS® can provide long-term effects building student confidence as they warm up to the idea of “reading to learn.”

Let’s take a look into why such an intervention would be positively impactful. In a nutshell, academic language and content vocabulary account for student’s ability to access text with ease. There is a 50 percent to 60 percent variance for text comprehension based on vocabulary knowledge (Stahl & Nagy, 2006). What a daunting consideration for students unfamiliar with academic and content-specific words. At the same time, what an effective avenue to lead students to understanding the text they are required to read. We can conclude that vocabulary is most often the first barrier to entry into the world of plant and animal cells or civics and the role of government, not to mention the possibility of analyzing and writing about great works of art or literature. If a student’s skill level for independently pulling the written word from the page is not at grade level, there will be challenges, dislike, and even disdain for the very subject you wish for students to love; if not with as much passion, but a modicum of interest to add a valuable curve to the well-rounded knowledge base all students should have. Academic vocabulary and multisyllabic words abound in content-area subjects. Students are expected to quickly decode and apply meaning making skills to unfamiliar and domain-specific vocabulary. These are words that may not be widely used in oral conversation but will be encountered in content-area reading. In 20–25 lessons, REWARDS provides students skill-based knowledge for reading multisyllabic words and develops an expansion of knowledge of academic vocabulary used across all content areas.

We understand that from fifth grade on, average students encounter approximately 10,000 words a year they have never previously encountered in print (Nagy & Andersen, 1984). If this is the case for our average students, imagine the challenges for students reading below grade level. Another consideration is that most of these new words are longer words having two or more syllables (Cunningham, 1998). Most importantly, the longer words are often multisyllabic content words that carry the meaning of the passage even some of our average students struggle with.

What does that mean for instruction?

Five to 15 minutes of daily instruction or use of a program like REWARDS, which is dedicated to decoding academic and multisyllabic words and building word knowledge, will increase student confidence and improve learning for every student.

All students, at, below, or above level benefit from explicit instruction.

What does this explicit instruction look like?

(Archer, 2014)

Provide systematic instruction: Identify word parts such as prefixes, suffixes, and roots, and discuss their meaning. Say the word and ask students to repeat so that the teacher is not the only one in the room who can read the essential vocabulary for understanding the text. Remember upper-elementary and secondary students will not admit what they don’t know. So, it is better not to assume, but to confirm. Give a definition, provide a visual, and use the word in context multiple times, asking questions to determine if students have gained meaning from its use.

Elicit frequent responses: Ask students to not only repeat the word(s) but to use them in context. Encourage teacher-to-student and student-to-student interactions to vary the activity and keep students engaged. Consider choral responses for more difficult or unusual words to build confidence and automaticity so students will easily read the words within the text, allowing for a focus on meaning rather than using mental energy struggling to read unfamiliar words.

Carefully monitor responses and provide feedback: During choral, individual, and student-to-student interactions, listen and then quickly comment about what you heard as students interacted. With time and practice, students will work more diligently as they use the words in context.

Maintain a brisk pace: A brisk pace keeps students engaged and makes good use of time for the next level of content study.

Provide judicious practice: REWARDS includes frequent, repeated practice, which is key to student retention and developing a breadth and depth of word knowledge. We want students to be word conscious and focused on new learning. Practice timed reading of multisyllabic and academic vocabulary, partner reading, teacher-led or student-led reading, and, yes, even choral reading.

These strategies for explicit instruction may seem to be a time-consuming detour from the content you want and love to teach but consider it a warm up to the text students will be “reading to learn.” This detour will have the rewarding benefit of expanding academic and domain-specific vocabulary as students experience increased comprehension.

Give it a try! Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Pam is also the host of our EDVIEW 360 Podcast series; you can listen to her there.

About the Author
Pam Austin
Pam Austin
Manager of Professional Learning for Voyager Sopris Learning

Pam Austin has more than 30 years’ experience as an educator. After she rose through the classroom, school, and district levels of New Orleans Public Schools, her role expanded to nationwide instructional training and support as an implementation coordinator for intervention curriculum. This led to a position as senior product marketing manager for Lexia Learning: Voyager Sopris Learning, where she is currently director of product training and instructional technology. Pam considers herself to be a teacher who understands the challenges facing educators today, and a firm believer that “at-risk” students can learn and all teachers can hone their craft to make this happen.

Learn more about Pam Austin