Comprehension VS Vocabulary – What does that mean?

When signing up for The 90 Minute Challenge teachers have told me they struggle with finding the time to spend 90 minutes a week on vocabulary. This is what I hear most often:

In my reading program I have a pacing calendar or other demands placed on me that do not make room for more time with vocabulary.

I’d like to address this challenge with what might be a paradigm shift for you or if not for you, for your administration.

At first glance, it would seem that asking teachers to spend less time on comprehension and more on vocabulary sounds like asking a runner to spend less time on training and more time on exercise. The two approaches are working towards the same goal. In the one case, a self-sufficient reader, in the other a strong athlete.

So why am I suggesting it? Because “teaching comprehension” has become synonymous with “doing reading activities” in many schools and in the process learning is getting lost.

Timothy Shanahan, a distinguished leader in literacy, puts it more eloquently.

…schools are dedicated to promoting particular activities and practices—not to teaching children. There are particular activities these principals and teachers want to see in classrooms, and they are not particularly focused on what they are supposed to be engaged in: teaching children to read. 

               Instead of focusing like-a-laser on what they want kids to know, to be able to do, to be, they are promoting favorite classroom activities. Instead of thinking about how to get kids to a particular outcome, they are wondering if they can somehow align the required activities with useful outcomes.

I remember when the “new” reading comprehension strategies arrived at our school. I was excited. A nice concrete list of things to practice felt so good to a frustrated reading teacher: main idea, prediction, summarizing, inferencing, compare and contrast, etc.

I quickly got caught up in the practice of teaching activities around these skills and how to answer certain related question types. Each of my students had a checklist and I had one on the wall. It morphed into coverage, rather than learning and took on a formulaic nature. It took a few years for me to recognize that all that drill and practice rarely helped my struggling students become independent readers.

Only my strong readers where able to transfer the skills I taught them to unfamiliar reading situations.

This was in part because reading comprehension is intimately dependent on knowledge. Strong readers typically enter school with a broad knowledge base and are able to apply “formulas” for reading comprehension without being baffled by the content and vocabulary of each reading selection.

I had to step back and reexamine my teaching with the help of research. Two key elements repeatedly came up in my search for how to build competent readers:

  1. The importance of building a broad knowledge base with a focus on word knowledge.

When children are offered coherent, cumulative knowledge from preschool on, reading proficiency is the result…schools themselves should become highly effective and efficient imparters of language in all its aspects: vocabulary, syntax, knowledge, etc.

  1. The importance of challenging students to think deeply in order to comprehend.
    As pointed out in the very first phrase of the very first of the 32 Common Core literacy anchor standards, CCR.1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it…

Is it possible your curriculum is focused more on reading activities and not enough on thinking? Many of our most well know curricula are “reading activity” heavy.

Is it reasonable to spend less time on comprehension and more time on word learning? I am suggesting that by utilizing word learning processes that require deep thinking you are not giving up time for learning to read.

Effective approaches to word learning ask the learner to think deeply and understand how and why the word adds meaning to a context. Combine the building of a word knowledge base with deep thinking and you have a winning approach for building readers through the learning of new words.

Here’s what I hope you take away from this:

By going deeper (and spending more time) with word learning you are building comprehension, not taking time away from it.

Click here to join The 90 Minute Challenge 2018

For effective approaches to word learning browse through my blogs at

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *