The primary purpose of this study was to assess the effects of
contextually-based multiple meaning (i.e., words with multiple meanings)
vocabulary instruction on the vocabulary knowledge and reading
comprehension of students. Third and 5th grade students received either
contextually-based multiple meaning vocabulary instruction embedded in
the standard language arts instruction offered to all students over a
three-month period or the standard language arts instruction alone
(i.e., non-specific treatment). Students who received the
contextually-based multiple meaning instruction generally showed
statistically and educationally significant gains in their vocabulary
knowledge and reading comprehension relative to students who did not.
These gains were most evident in reading comprehension. Additionally,
students with low initial vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension
achievement tended to show greater gains than those with average to high
achievement. These effects were more pronounced in the case of 3rd grade
students. The results and limitations are discussed.
Vocabulary knowledge plays a critical role in people's lives
and future possibilities (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). In fact,
"it is clear that a large and rich vocabulary is the hallmark of an
educated individual. A large vocabulary repertoire facilitates becoming
an educated person to the extent that vocabulary is strongly related to
reading comprehension in particular and school achievement in
general" (Beck et al., p. 1).
Armbruster, Lehr, and Osborne (2003) reported two ways in which
vocabulary is learned: indirect and direct vocabulary instruction.
Indirect vocabulary building pertains to learning words primarily
through exposure--through conversations with others, being read to, or
reading on one's own (Beck et al., 2002; Cunningham &
Stanovich, 1998; Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985). Thus, the more
children participate in rich oral and reading vocabulary experiences,
the greater their vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension (Greene
& Lynch-Brown, 2002; Robbins & Ehri, 1994; Stahl, Richek, &
Vandevier, 1991). Unfortunately, we know that many children may have
limited indirect experiences in vocabulary development for a variety of
reasons (see Hart & Risley, 1995 for further details).
Students also learn vocabulary directly through explicit
instruction. Researchers have studied the effects of a wide range of
explicit approaches to vocabulary instruction across the Pre-K-11th
grades. These instructional approaches include: (a) key word (Levin,
Levin, Glassman, & Nordwall, 1992; Levin, McCormick, Miller, &
Berry, 1982), (b) repeated multiple readings (Leung, 1992; Senechal,
1997), (c) rich contexts (Kameenui, Carnine, & Freschi, 1982;
McKeown, Beck, Omanson, & Pople, 1985), (d) computer-based (Heise,
Papelweis, & Tanner, 1991; Heller, Sturner, Funk, & Feezor,
1993), (e) pre-instruction (Brett, Rothlein, & Hurley, 1996; Carney,
Anderson, Blackburn, & Blessing, 1984), and (f) restructuring the
task (Malone & McLaughlin, 1997; Scott & Nagy, 1997). Overall,
the results of this research suggest that explicit vocabulary
instruction methods improve vocabulary knowledge and reading
comprehension, and the effects are greatest for students with low
initial vocabulary knowledge levels (see Fukkink & deClopper, 1998;
Klesius & Searls, 1990; NICHD, 2000; Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986 for
reviews of the vocabulary instruction research literature).
Although researchers have applied a wide range of explicit
instruction approaches to teach a single meaning for a word, it appears
that to date they have not yet attempted to teach students the multiple
meanings for a word. Explicitly teaching students that most words they
encounter have multiple meanings that may fall into different semantic
categories (e.g., verb, noun, adjective), depending upon the context in
which they are used (Anderson & Nagy, 1991; Biemiller, 1999; Chall
& Dale, 1995; Dale & O'Rourke, 1981), should have a
positive effect on reading comprehension because it would encourage
students to attend more closely to contextual clues that influence word
meanings. Further, teaching students that the meanings and semantic
categories of many words are influenced by context would provide them a
word learning strategy that could be used beyond the words being taught.
Word-learning strategies are helpful because we cannot teach students
the definition of every word they will encounter.
Armbruster et al. (2003) recommend teaching word meanings in
context (also supported by the NICHD, 2000). In addition to other
instructional activities (e.g., word histories, semantic mapping),
contextually-based instruction begins with the presentation of word
meanings in clear and simple language. Paired with this presentation,
every meaning of every word is clearly illustrated in sentences to help
the learner grasp the different meanings conveyed by a word. The student
then produces contextually relevant sentences that depict word meanings.
In much the same way that it is important to provide multiple exposures
to a word and associated meanings, the context in which a word is
learned is critical (McKeown et al., 1985). The learner is more likely
to learn the meanings for words if they are presented in
contextually-relevant sentences that convey the different meanings for
The use of contextually-based instruction is especially true for
words that have multiple meanings (Beck et al., 2002). For example,
knowing that just means "based on reason and fairness" will
provide little help when just is used in the following ways: "Jason
just broke the high school track record in the 100-yard dash" (the
meaning now relates to "little time or distance") or "My
parents said that whatever movie we wanted to rent was just fine"
(the meaning now relates to "simply"). Additionally, students
understanding of the meanings for a word are strengthened when they are
asked to generate contextually-correct written narratives using its
meanings (Armbruster et al., 2003).
Along these lines, Stahl (1999) discussed the importance of using
examples and non-examples when teaching vocabulary, particularly during
guided practice with words like those with multiple meanings. In terms
of instruction, the teacher may pose scenarios where vocabulary words
and their meanings are used as expected (examples) or not used as
expected (nonexamples). Interestingly, Stahl and Fairbanks (1986) noted
that approaches providing only definitional information did not
significantly affect students' reading comprehension. In contrast,
methods that provided both definitional and contextual information did
significantly improve comprehension. It would appear that
contextually-based multiple meaning vocabulary instruction should have a
positive effect on the reading comprehension of students. Stahl (1999)
also called for semantic mapping activities where students practice
mapping vocabulary words to other related words. These activities expand
students' knowledge base and teach students that words and their
meanings are highly interrelated. "It is generally beneficial to
teach words so that students learn more than just single words."
(Stahl, 1999, p. 51). Thus, related words practice is critical in
The primary purpose of this study was to assess the effects of
contextually-based multiple meaning vocabulary instruction on the
vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension of students. Classrooms
received either contextually-based multiple meaning vocabulary
instruction embedded in the standard language arts instruction offered
to all students or the standard language arts instruction alone (i.e.,
non-specific treatment) and were pre- and post-tested using a
standardized assessment of vocabulary knowledge and reading
comprehension. The target words and associated related words taught were
systematically chosen to ensure that they were used frequently and
widely across content areas as well as the 3rd through 6th grade levels
(selection procedures are described below).
A total of 283 third (n = 134) and fifth (n = 149) grade students
enrolled in a small Midwestern public school system were participants.
The students were drawn from 16 third (n = 8) and fifth (n = 8) grade
classrooms. Third and fifth grade classrooms were randomly assigned to
an experimental or non-specific treatment condition. To estimate
treatment effects, all students who were present at pre- and
post-testing and who had appropriate test protocols were sampled.
Appropriate test protocols were those in which students made a
reasonable attempt to complete the test. For example, a protocol in
which the student did not respond or responded inappropriately (the same
response for all items) were not included. This resulted in a total of
134 (or 86% of 156 students) third grade and 149 (or 84% of 168
students) fifth grade students. Approximately 32% of the students
qualified for free or reduced lunch.
Students were classified into two groups based on their initial
overall vocabulary and comprehension achievement. Students' initial
overall vocabulary and comprehension achievement was based on their
pre-test Gates-MacGinitie Reading Tests (4th Edition) (GMRT) Total scale
normal curve equivalent (NCE) score (MacGinitie, MacGinitie, Maria,
& Dreyer, 2000): low (NCE [less than or equal to] 30) and average to
high (NCE >30). The Total scale score is a composite of the GMRT
Vocabulary and Comprehension scale scores (described below). A separate
high group was not established because few students (n = 7) received
scores more than one standard deviation above the mean. Student race,
language status, and special education status by experimental condition
and students' initial vocabulary and comprehension achievement
status are presented in Table 1. With one exception, chi-square analyses
on these nominal data showed no effect for condition. The difference in
the percentages of fifth grade European Americans and Hispanic students
who were in the low initial overall vocabulary and reading comprehension
in the experimental and non-specific treatment conditions was
statistically significant ([X.sup.2] = 7.73, 2, N = 25, p < .05).
Students in the experimental condition were less likely to be of
European American descent than those in the non-specific treatment
Selection of Words
Two interrelated processes were used to identify two levels of
multiple meaning target words: Level I (i.e., words with two mutually
exclusive meanings) and Level II (i.e., words with three or four
mutually exclusive meanings). The commonly accepted "stages of
vocabulary knowledge" (Dale & O'Rourke, 1986) were used in
the first process to identify multiple meaning target words. The four
1. I never saw the word before.
2. I've heard of the word, but I don't know what it
3. I think I know it -- it has something to do with.
4. I know the word -- it means "..." in this context.
The aforementioned stages provided the initial criterion for
selecting multiple meaning target words from The Living Word Vocabulary
(Dale & O'Rourke, 1981). The Living Word Vocabulary is a
national level vocabulary inventory of the familiarity of 44,000 words
represented by their meanings. This vocabulary inventory provides
objective familiarity scores for students in grades 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 13,
and 16 on each of the 44,000 word meanings. The target words included in
Levels I and II were those that students in the 4th through 6th grades
are likely to struggle with (Stages 1-3). Thus, the typical target word
included two to four meanings, some of which students may have some
(Stage 3) or little (Stage 2) familiarity with one or more meanings, and
some of which students were unlikely to know at all (Stage 1).
The Educator's Word Frequency Guide (Zeno, Ivens, Millard,
& Duvvuri, 1995) was used in the second process to further refine
the list to ensure that the target words and associated related words
(i.e., 3 per meaning) were used frequently and widely across content
areas as well as the 3rd through 6th grade levels. This guide provides a
frequency and breadth index for words used in written text based on 17
million words. The final words used in the study were included in the
1000 most frequently and widely used words in 3rd through 6th grades.
The two interrelated processes resulted in a total of 80 target words at
each level, and approximately 480 (Level I) and 800 (Level II) related
words. The Level I and II words and associated related words along with
the corresponding frequency and breadth indices are available from the
Design, Core Instruction, and Conditions
Design. A pre/post experimental and non-specific treatment group
design was used to assess the effects of the multiple meaning vocabulary
instruction on the vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension skills
of students. Sixteen third (n = 8) and fifth (n = 8) grade classrooms
were randomly assigned to the experimental conditions. The four 3rd and
5th grade classrooms assigned to the experimental condition received
contextually-based multiple meaning vocabulary instruction on the Level
I and II words, respectively. All instruction was delivered by classroom
teachers across a contemporaneous four month time span. Teachers
self-selected the words they believed to be most relevant to their
students. The four 3rd and 5th grade classrooms assigned to the
non-specific treatment condition received the standard language arts
instruction provided to all students. No attempt was made to alter the
instructional practices of teachers. Additionally, the multiple meaning
vocabulary instruction was embedded in the time normally allotted for
standard language arts instruction in the experimental classrooms.
Core instruction. All 16 teachers used and followed the
district's core language arts curriculum. Teachers used the Scott
Foresman Basal Reading program (Scott Foresman, 2001) to guide their
instructional activities each week. No direct observations were
conducted to describe or contrast the vocabulary and reading
comprehension instructional activities used by teachers.
Experimental condition. Students in the experimental condition
received contextually-based multiple meaning vocabulary instruction on
36 target words (SD = 2.4) as well as three related words per meaning.
This instruction was embedded within the language arts instruction they
provided to students. Third grade students received the Level I words
(i.e., two mutually exclusive meanings); whereas fifth graders received
the Level II words (i.e., three or four mutually exclusive meanings).
Teachers guided students through the instructional activities (described
below) using overhead masters of each activity. Students completed each
activity in their student workbook. Teachers participated in a two hour
training session. A three-step training process was used to train
educators to implement the contextually-based multiple meaning
vocabulary instruction. First, the trainer (first author) provided
educators an overview of the rationale and formats for the instructional
activities. Second, the trainer modeled and practiced the instructional
activities with educators. Finally, following training, a question and
answer session was conducted approximately one month after teachers
began to implement the contextually-based multiple meaning vocabulary
instruction to address implementation issues.
Each target word and associated set of related words was taught
over 2 days for approximately 20-30 minutes each day. The meanings for
the target words were presented nine times in six varied
contextually-based instructional contexts. These contextually-based
learning opportunities began in the pre-lesson activity (Day 1) and
extended across all the instructional activities included in the lesson
(Day 2). The set of contextually-based instructional contexts are
available from the first author.
On Day 1, the meanings of each of the target words were introduced
through related words to activate students' prior knowledge in a
pre-lesson activity (entitled, "Meanings of Related Words").
For example, accident has two meanings: (a) unexpected happening and (b)
event that causes damage. Thus, students' prior knowledge for the
meanings of the target word was activated by getting a chance to learn
words that were related to the two meanings of accident. For example,
one meaning of accident (i.e., unexpected happening) has the following
related words: fluke, mishap, and by chance. Students examined and
discussed sentences that used the related words in context with the
teacher ("Regina's plane was delayed. This mishap caused her
to miss her sister's party") and then wrote sentences of their
own using the related word ("Write a sentence using mishap").
On Day 2, the first activity was labeled "Word Meaning in
Context." This activity began with the word history of the target
word. For example, using the word accident, "It all began with a
Latin phrase meaning 'fall.' Later in the English language,
this meaning changed to its two current meanings to include
'unexpected happening' and 'event that causes
damage.'" Students then practiced their knowledge of these
meanings within the context of sentences using each of the meanings.
Next, a "Word Meaning Map" activity was conducted. In
this exercise, students matched the related words that appeared in the
pre-lesson activity (covered in Day 1) with the appropriate meanings of
the target word. These meanings appeared in a graphic organizer format
with spaces provided for the students to write the related words. Next,
students completed a definition activity for the multiple meanings of
the target word in a section entitled "Complete Each
Definition." Following this short exercise, there was an
"Understanding Check" where students examined short reading
passages to see if the target word was used as they expected or not
expected. For example, "Jasmine worked hard to earn enough money to
buy a new car. Jasmine's new car was perfect in every way. It
looked like it had been in an accident." This sentence would be
labeled as not expected by students. Finally, students wrote short
stories or scenarios using each of the meanings of the target word in a
section entitled "Create Stories."
Non-specific treatment condition. Students in the non-specific
treatment condition received the core language arts instruction offered
in the classroom. No attempt (staff development activities directed at
vocabulary and reading comprehension development) was made to change any
of the language arts instructional activities provided to students by
The GMRT (4th Edition) (MacGinitie et al., 2000) was used to
measure students' vocabulary and reading comprehension skills. The
GMRT is a timed multiple-choice test administered in groups. Levels 3
and 5 were used to assess third and fifth grade students'
vocabulary and reading comprehension skills, respectively. Furthermore,
alternate forms were used at pre- (Form S) and post-testing (Form T).
The alternative form reliabilities of the different levels of Forms S
and T were .90 or higher (MacGinitie et al., 2000). The GMRT Vocabulary
scale is a test of vocabulary knowledge. The student chooses the word or
phrase that means most nearly the same as the test word. The
administration time for the GMRT Vocabulary scale is 30 minutes. The
GMRT Comprehension scale consists of fiction and nonfiction prose
passages. The passages are drawn from various content areas and written
in a variety of styles. The administration time for the GMRT
Comprehension scale is 50 minutes. The test-retest reliabilities of all
levels and forms of the GMRT Vocabulary and Comprehension scales ranged
from .58 to .91 with only two coefficients below .70 (MacGinitie et al.,
2000). All analyses were based on the GRMT NCE Vocabulary and
Comprehension scale scores. NCEs are normalized transformations of
percentile rank scores in which the range is divided into 99 equal parts
with a mean of 50 and a standard deviation of 21.06.
Teacher self-evaluations and permanent product assessment of
lessons (i.e., completed student worksheets) were used to assess
treatment fidelity. Both measures assessed the total number of program
components implemented correctly. The program elements included eight
items that focused on the specific instructional activities: (1)
following the two day lesson sequence, (2) using the pre-lesson
activity, (3) reviewing and discussing the meanings of the target words
with students during the pre-lesson activity, (4) writing sentences for
each of the related words, (5) reviewing and discussing the word history
with students, (6) completing the word meaning map, (7) completing the
understanding check, and (8) writing a short story for each of the
meanings for a target word. Teachers completed a self-evaluation during
the 10th week. Teachers rated the extent to which they completed the
eight components for each lesson on a 4-point Likert-type scale (i.e., 1
= never, 2 = sometimes, 3 = usually, 4 = always).
The permanent product assessment included 20 completed student
lessons randomly selected from a group of low achieving (n = 10) and
average to high achieving (n = 10) students. Equal numbers of third and
fifth grade student lessons were assessed. A three-step procedure was
used to select the completed student lessons. In the first step,
teachers collected all student essays during the 6th week of the
intervention. The teachers sorted the completed lessons into two groups
depending on their pre-intervention skill levels (i.e., low achieving
and average to high achieving) and removed all identifying information
in the second step. The first author then selected randomly the
completed student lessons from the two groups of papers.
Two independent raters assessed the number of components completed
by students to establish inter-rater agreement. The raters were graduate
students in education and were unaware of the purpose of the study.
Inter-rater agreement was calculated by taking the percentage of
agreements divided by the total number of agreements and disagreements
multiplied by 100. Inter-rater checks conducted on the 20 completed
student lessons was 100%.
Teachers' Perception of Efficacy
Teachers completed a questionnaire that focused on their
perceptions of the efficacy of the contextually-based multiple meaning
vocabulary instruction. Teachers responded on a 5-point Likert-type
scale (i.e., 1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = undecided, 4 =
agree, 5 = strongly agree) to the following four efficacy items: (1) The
exercises challenged students; (2) Students learned key vocabulary
knowledge and reading comprehension skills; (3) Students can apply the
lesson content in other areas; and (4) Students responded
enthusiastically to the lessons.
With one exception (i.e., respondent indicated
"usually"), all teachers indicated that they
"always" (a) followed the two day lesson sequence, (b) used
the pre-lesson activity, (c) reviewed the meanings of the target words
with students during the pre-lesson activity, (d) had students write
sentences for each of the related words, (e) had students complete the
word meaning map, and (f) had students complete the understanding check
(X = 3.9 and SD = .31 in all cases). Teachers' mean responses on
the two remaining components--(1) reviewed and discussed the word
history with students and (2) had students write a short story for each
of the meanings for a target word--were 3.8 (SD = .42) and 3.7 (SD =
.48), respectively. Permanent product assessments of lessons completed
by students revealed that the percentage of program components
implemented correctly was 100% in all cases.
Pre-treatment Vocabulary Knowledge and Reading Comprehension Skills
The pre-treatment means and standard deviations are presented in
Table 2. A Condition (Experimental, Non-Specific Treatment) X Level
(Low, Average to High) X Grade (Third, Fifth) Multivariate Analysis of
Variance (ANOVA) applied to the pre-treatment GMRT Vocabulary and
Comprehension scores revealed no statistically significant pre-treatment
effects involving condition: for condition, F(1, 290) = 0.21, p >
.05; for condition by initial achievement status interaction, F(1, 290)
= 1.56, p > .05; for the condition by measure interaction, F(1, 290)
= 1.65, p > .05; and for the 3-way interaction, F(1, 290) = 1.73, p
> .05. Taken together, these results demonstrate the comparability of
the treatment groups in terms of the pre-treatment vocabulary knowledge
and reading comprehension skills of students.
Changes in Vocabulary Knowledge and Reading Comprehension Skills
The mean NCE pre-test, post-test, and mean change GMRT Vocabulary
and Comprehension scale scores for the experimental and non-specific
treatment conditions for third and fifth grades, as well as for the
overall sample by experimental condition, are presented in Table 2. The
mean changes in the experimental and non-specific treatment conditions
on the vocabulary and reading comprehension measures were analyzed in
Condition (Experimental, Non-Specific Treatment) X Level (Low, Average)
X Grade (Third, Fifth) X Change (Pre-treatment, Post-treatment) ANOVAs,
with the latter variable being a within-subject factor. Follow-up
Newman-Kuel post hoc tests, appropriate for within-subjects analyses
(Ferguson & Takane, 1989), were applied when appropriate.
Additionally, effect sizes, corrected for the intercorrelation between
the pre- and post-test scores, were calculated by dividing the
difference between the experimental and non-specific treatment condition
mean change scores by the pooled standard deviation of the improvement
scores (Hedges & Olkin, 1985). The obtained estimates were then
corrected for bias due to sample size using a factor provided by Hedges
and Olkin (1985). The 95% confidence bands for the effect sizes (ES)
were also computed using percentiles from the standard normal
distribution and the asymptotic variance of the standardized mean
difference (Hedges & Olkin, 1985). The obtained effect sizes and
associated 95% confidence intervals for the third and fifth grades, as
well as for the overall sample by achievement status, are presented in
Table 3. Effect sizes in the range of 0 to 0.3 are considered small, 0.3
to 0.8 are considered moderate, and 0.8 and above are considered large
Vocabulary knowledge. Students with low initial vocabulary and
comprehension achievement in the experimental condition showed small
improvements in their vocabulary skills relative to students in the
non-specific treatment condition (see Tables 2 and 3). Students who were
average to high achieving in the experimental and non-specific
conditions showed negligible changes in their vocabulary skills pre- to
post-treatment. A statistically significant main effect for Change was
obtained (F (1, 285) = 34.07, p < .001). This result revealed that
students generally showed improvements in their vocabulary skills from
pre- to post-treatment. Follow-up Newman-Kuels post hoc tests to the
obtained statistically significant Change by Level interaction (F (1,
285) = 20.35, p < .001) revealed that students in the low achieving
group were more likely to show improvements in their vocabulary skills
than those who were in the average to high group. The relative effect
sizes for students who were low and average to high achieving were .28
vs. -.07 (3rd grade), .14 vs. -.07 (5th grade), and .18 vs. -.06
(overall sample). Furthermore, follow-up Newman-Kuel post hoc tests to
the obtained statistically significant Change by Grade interaction (F(1,
285) = 6.10, p < .05) showed that third grade students with low
initial vocabulary and comprehension achievement were more likely to
show improvements in their vocabulary skills than those in the fifth
grade. There were no other statistically significant main or interaction
Reading comprehension skills. Students in the experimental
condition showed moderate to large improvements in their reading
comprehension skills relative to students in the non-specific treatment
condition (see Tables 2 and 3). A statistically significant main effect
for Change was obtained (F (1, 285) = 34.07, p < .001). This result
revealed that students generally showed improvements in their reading
comprehension skills from pre- to post-treatment. Follow-up Newman-Kuels
post hoc tests to the statistically significant Change by Condition
interaction (F(1, 285) = 10.68, p < .01) showed that, with the
exception of average to high achieving fifth graders, students in the
experimental condition were more likely to show improvements in their
reading comprehension skills than students in the non-specific treatment
condition. The obtained effect sizes for students with low initial
vocabulary and comprehension achievement in the third and fifth grade
were .67 and .57, respectively. In contrast, the resulting effect sizes
for students who were average to high achieving in the third and fifth
grade were .46 and -.08, respectively. Furthermore, follow-up
Newman-Kuels post hoc tests to the statistically significant Change by
Level interaction (F(1, 285) = 20.76, p < .001) revealed that fifth
grade students with low initial vocabulary and comprehension achievement
in the experimental condition were more likely to show improvements in
their reading comprehension skills than those who were average to high
achieving. Students who were low and average to high achieving in the
third grade both showed statistically equivalent improvements in their
reading comprehension skills. The obtained effect sizes for low and
average to high achieving students in the overall sample were .53 and
.23, respectively. There were no other statistically significant main or
Teachers' Perception of Efficacy
Teachers consistently rated the efficacy of the contextually-based
multiple meaning vocabulary instruction as high. Teachers reported that
they thought the contextually-based multiple meaning vocabulary
instruction challenged their students (X = 4.82: SD = .45), helped
students learn key vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension skills
(X = 4.62: SD = .55), lesson content could be applied by students in
other areas (X = 4.48: SD = .69), and that students responded
enthusiastically to the lessons (X = 4.01: SD = .72). The 95% confidence
intervals for each of the means were calculated to establish whether
teachers were significantly resolute rather than indecisive or neutral
about the efficacy of the contextually-based multiple meaning vocabulary
instruction. In all cases the 95% confidence interval failed to
encompass the midpoint of the Likert-type scale (3=undecided),
indicating no teacher indecisiveness regarding the program's
The primary purpose of this study was to assess the effects of
contextually-based multiple meaning vocabulary instruction on the
vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension of students. Effects were
studied on third and fifth grade students with low and average to high
initial vocabulary and comprehension achievement. Third and fifth grade
students with low initial vocabulary and comprehension achievement who
received the contextually-based multiple meaning vocabulary instruction
showed statistically significant gains in their vocabulary knowledge.
The magnitude of the improvements (i.e., effect sizes) for students with
low initial vocabulary and comprehension achievement skills were small
(ES =.28 and .14 for 3rd and 5th grade, respectively). In contrast,
third and fifth grade students with average to high initial vocabulary
and comprehension achievement who received the supplemental vocabulary
instruction did not show statistically or educationally significant
gains in their vocabulary knowledge relative to their counterparts in
the non-specific treatment condition.
It is plausible that the obtained relatively modest or no change in
students' overall vocabulary knowledge was a function of the
relatively small number of words taught to students. The supplementary
vocabulary instruction was only taught to students over a
contemporaneous four month time span. Thus, on average students were
only taught 36 (SD = 2.4) target words and approximately 220 (Level I)
to 350 (Level II) related words. Students may have shown greater gains
in their general vocabulary knowledge if teachers had provided the
students the contextually-based multiple meaning vocabulary instruction
for the entire year. It is also plausible that students who received the
multiple meaning vocabulary instruction would have shown greater changes
in their vocabulary knowledge relative to those in the non-specific
treatment condition if a more direct measure of the words taught had
Third grade students with low and average to high initial
vocabulary and comprehension achievement who received the
contextually-based multiple meaning vocabulary instruction showed
statistically significant gains in their reading comprehensions skills.
The magnitude of the improvements was moderate for students with low (ES
= .67) and average to high (ES = .57) initial vocabulary and
comprehension skills. In contrast, fifth grade students with low initial
vocabulary and comprehension achievement showed statistically
significant gains in their reading comprehension skills; whereas, those
with average to high initial vocabulary and comprehension achievement
did not. The magnitude of the improvements for students with low initial
vocabulary and comprehension achievement was moderate (ES = .46);
whereas, students with average to high initial vocabulary and
comprehension achievement showed small negative effects (ES = -.08).
Overall, the generally moderate improvement in students' reading
comprehension skills relative to vocabulary knowledge was expected. The
multiple meaning vocabulary instruction was designed to enhance students
awareness of the complexity of words (i.e., multiple meanings and
semantic category of meanings is dependent upon context) and to
encourage them to more carefully consider contextual information. The
number of exposures to words with multiple meanings to achieve such
awareness may not be as large as that required to build vocabulary
knowledge. Of course, it is possible that students may have shown
greater gains if they had been exposed to the contextually-based
multiple meaning vocabulary instruction for a longer period of time.
The mixed outcomes of this study for students of differing
vocabulary and comprehension levels are generally consistent with the
body of research on vocabulary instruction (Klesius & Seals, 1990;
NICHD, 2000; Stahl et al., 1986). This body of research has shown that
various ability levels can affect the effects of vocabulary instruction.
Tomesen and Aarnoutse (1998), for example, reported similar findings
from a combined reciprocal and direct vocabulary instruction program
provided to 4th grade students. Students who were low achieving readers
showed greater gains from direct instruction in word meanings relative
to those with high abilities. Although it is unclear why lower
performing students tend to benefit more from vocabulary instruction,
this may simply be a function of a floor effect. These students enter
with such limited vocabulary and associated comprehension skills that
they will benefit from any instruction that builds their vocabulary
knowledge and helps them to operationalize and practice detecting word
meanings in context.
There are two potential reasons for the mixed outcomes of this
study for 3rd and 5th grade students. First, the words selected for this
study were included in the 1000 most frequently and widely used words in
3rd through 6th grades (Zeno et al., 1995). This may have resulted in
set of words that 3rd graders are less likely to know than are 5th
graders. Furthermore, 5th graders may have been more likely to know the
multiple meanings for a word than 3rd graders. There is evidence that
students develop an ever more complete understanding of words over time
(Nation, 2001). Second, the general negative or limited gains in 5th
grade students may have occurred because the multiple meaning words that
were taught were not content area specific. Students in the 3rd grade
may have been more likely to have encountered the words taught in the
text they were reading than 5th graders because the emphasis tends to
focus more on content area specific reading (Meyerson, Ford, &
The fact that educators could implement the multiple vocabulary
instruction reliably following a relatively short training session
provides evidence of its utility. The teacher self-evaluations of the
extent to which they implemented each of the instructional activities or
components and followed the two day instructional sequence were high in
all cases. Permanent product assessments of lessons were consistent with
the teacher self-evaluations. Teachers also reported that they found the
lessons to be structured and easy to follow as well as of the right
Limitations and Future Research
As with all studies, this pilot study is not without limitations
that should be addressed by future research. First, the study timeframe
did not allow us to fully assess the effects of the contextually-based
multiple meaning vocabulary instruction over the course of an entire
academic year. Human subject consent and budgetary limitations
restricted the study timeframe. Future research is needed to determine
the effects of contextually-based multiple meaning vocabulary
instruction when it is taught for an extended period of time. Second, it
is certainly plausible that teacher effects may have influenced the
study outcomes. Although the randomization of teachers to conditions
should control for this issue, no information was collected on the core
vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension instruction practices
provided to students in both experimental conditions. Future research
should document the instructional practices used by teachers to clarify
the "value added" effects of contextually-based multiple
meaning vocabulary instruction. Third, related to this issue, teachers
were allowed to select words they believed to be most relevant to their
students. It is possible that the words selected by teachers varied and
may not have been critical to enhancing the vocabulary knowledge of
students. Future research should focus on words that students do not
know (established through a pre-test). Fourth, our agreement with
participating teachers did not allow us to collect observational data on
treatment fidelity. Although the self-evaluations and permanent products
suggest that teachers implemented the multiple meaning vocabulary
instruction as prescribed, we have no way of knowing if this is the
case. Future research should measure treatment fidelity more directly.
Fifth, the sample of students was drawn from one school district in one
geographic location and may not be representative of the general
population of third and fifth graders. It is possible that the findings
may not generalize to other students in other geographical regions and
diverse populations. Future research should replicate these findings
across varied contexts and diverse populations. Sixth, only one
vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension measure was used. In this
study, vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension skills were
assessed via a standardized group administered measure (GRMT Vocabulary
and Comprehension scales). It may be that students receiving
contextually-based multiple meaning vocabulary instruction would have
shown greater improvements in their vocabulary knowledge and reading
comprehension skills if measures more closely linked to the target words
and instructional activities in the program had been used. Future
studies could be enhanced by incorporating a range of vocabulary
knowledge and reading comprehension measures. Finally, this study
appears to be the first to focus on words with multiple meanings. A
comprehensive program of research should be undertaken to identify the
types of core and/or multiple meaning vocabulary instruction that work
with a wide range of diverse students. Unfortunately, it appears that to
date there is relatively little research with which to guide education
decision makers regarding effective multiple meaning vocabulary
instruction that can be used to meet state standards in this area.
Research and discussion of vocabulary instruction typically focus on
words rather than word meanings.
With the above limitations in mind, two implications are evident.
First, contextually-based multiple meaning vocabulary instruction
appears to produce positive outcomes. These outcomes appear to be
greatest for students with low initial vocabulary and reading
comprehension achievement. Second, contextually-based multiple meaning
vocabulary instruction can be implemented reliably by teachers with
relatively little training. This is noteworthy given the complexity of
enhancing students' awareness that most words have multiple
meanings that may fall into different semantic categories depending upon
the context in which they are used. The key elements to achieve reliable
implementation by teachers include staff development combined with a set
of clear and detailed instructional activities that can be followed by
both teachers and students.
Preparation of this manuscript was supported in part by grants from
the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs
(No. H324X010010, H324D010013, and H325D990035). Opinions expressed do
not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Department of
Education, and no endorsement should be inferred
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J. Ron Nelson
University of Nebraska, Lincoln
Scott A. Stage
University of Washington
Correspondence to J. Ron Nelson, Ph.D., Center for At-Risk
Children's Services, 202 Barkley Center, Lincoln, NE 68583-0732;
Table 1 Student Demographics By Achievement Status and Condition
Grade/Status/Variable N (%) N (%)
Third 71 63
A to H Sex (male) 25 (35) 22 (35)
Race European American 34 (48) 33 (52)
Hispanic 9 (13) 6 (10)
Other 3 (4) 1 (2)
English Second Language 9 (13) 6 (10)
Special Education -- -- -- --
Low Sex (male) 16 (23) 14 (22)
Race: European American 13 (18) 13 (21)
Hispanic 10 (14) 9 (14)
Other 2 (3) 1 (2)
English Second Language 10 (14) 9 (14)
Special Education 8 (11) 6 (10)
Fifth 72 77
A to H Sex (male) 38 (53) 39 (51)
Race: European American 51 (71) 60 (78)
Hispanic 14 (19) 15 (19)
Other 7 (10) 2 (3)
English Second Language 14 (19) 15 (19)
Special Education 2 (3) 1 (1)
Low Sex (male) 10 (14) 6 (8)
Race: European American 5 (7) 8 (10)
Hispanic 9 (13) 1 (1)
Other 2 (3) -- --
English Second Language 9 (13) 1 (1)
Special Education 5 (7) 5 (8)
Note. A to H = average to high. Percentages based on the number in each
respective group at each grade level.
Table 2 Mean NCE Pre, Post, and Improvement Scores of Students for the
Overall Sample and by Grade Level
Third Grade Fifth Grade
Experimental Non-Specific Experimental
Scale/Status/Trial M (SD) M (SD) M (SD)
A to H Pre 55.69 (17.28) 52.34 (15.25) 56.43 (17.35)
Post 57.56 (15.84) 55.19 (15.24) 55.95 (19.79)
Improve 1.86 (16.83) 2.85 (9.76) -0.48 (9.44)
Low Pre 14.24 (9.53) 16.90 (7.34) 13.70 (9.24)
Post 27.53 (13.30) 25.90 (12.73) 20.75 (11.46)
Improve 13.29 (14.18) 9.00 (15.80) 7.05 (11.08)
A to H Pre 51.48 (12.67) 49.07 (10.84) 49.04 (11.83)
Post 65.15 (14.15) 57.66 (12.19) 56.52 (11.79)
Improve 13.67 (8.79) 8.89 (7.74) 7.48 (6.15)
Low Pre 15.88 (7.89) 16.11 (7.34) 18.71 (8.09)
Post 40.94 (13.56) 31.33 (12.73) 35.64 (7.92)
Improve 25.06 (11.51) 16.22 (14.80) 16.93 (12.49)
Fifth Grade Overall Sample
Non-Specific Experimental Non-Specific
Scale/Status/Trial M (SD) M (SD) M (SD)
A to H Pre 55.83 (12.01) 56.07 (17.25) 54.81 (13.90)
Post 56.08 (13.14) 56.23 (17.92) 55.75 (14.77)
Improve 0.24 (11.91) 0.17 (13.63) 0.94 (11.48)
Low Pre 18.31 (10.54) 13.95 (9.24) 17.51 (8.75)
Post 23.94 (10.52) 23.86 (12.63) 25.05 (11.72)
Improve 5.62 (9.53) 9.92 (12.81) 7.54 (13.39)
A to H Pre 52.96 (12.01) 55.85 (15.23) 54.81 (13.90)
Post 61.07 (13.14) 59.47 (15.48) 55.75 (14.77)
Improve 8.11 (7.85) 3.61 (11.74) 0.94 (11.48)
Low Pre 21.00 (11.83) 17.66 (7.94) 18.67 (11.83)
Post 32.50 (11.79) 35.09 (14.71) 29.22 (11.79)
Improve 11.50 (10.92) 17.43 (14.53) 10.56 (10.92)
Note. A to H = average to high
Table 3 Effect Sizes by Grade and Achievement Status
95% C.I. Fifth Grade
Scale/Status Effect Size Lower Upper Effect Size
Vocabulary -.07 -.42 .28 -.07
A to H .28 -.07 .64 .14
A to H .57 .21 .93 -.08
Low .67 .31 1.03 .46
Fifth Grade Overall Sample
95% C.I. 95% C.I.
Scale/Status Lower Upper Effect Size Lower Upper
Vocabulary -.42 .29 -.06 -.30 .18
A to H -.22 .49 .18 -.06 .42
A to H -.44 .27 .23 -.01 .47
Low .10 .82 .53 .29 .77
Note. A to H = average to high. C.I. = Confidence Interval