The 7 sub-skills of Vocabulary

Now that we have applied the definition of “vocabulary” to reading instruction, we have a good idea about the various sub-skills of vocabulary development and use. The eight sub-skills are as follow.



Word application

using words appropriately according to their meaning and context (See the chapter on Oral Language Development for more information about using words appropriately for the context.)

Meaning discovery

applying a learning process for discovering the meanings of new words found in a text (This sub-skill is the basis for the next six sub-skills that follow.)


sounding out words

Word part knowledge

identifying and understanding components of words, typically prefixes, suffixes, and roots; understanding how words change for tense and person

Word replacement

identifying synonyms and antonyms for words

Word comparison

identifying other words that have similar parts or that fit the same grammatical usage

Content analysis

identifying the theme or topic of a passage, identifying words or phrases that provide clues about unfamiliar words

Definition research

finding a reliable source for the definitions of words; analyzing given definitions for their relevancy to the content

Explaining These Sub-skills

Word application: Word application has two parts. First, once the reader understands what the word means, the reader uses it multiple times. This increases familiarity with the word, leading to automaticity. Also, this is how new words found in text become part of a reader’s oral vocabulary. Second, the reader considers how the word applies in different contexts and how the word may be used in different ways to communicate ideas. This is done through reading the word in multiple texts and through hearing and using the word in different situations.

With word application, the reader learns to use the new words. In fact, the various sub-skills are only valuable when they lead to word application.

Meaning discovery: We cannot teach students every word they need to know. Students will always encounter new words while reading. The discovery process is how strong readers learn the meanings of unfamiliar words. It is a multi-step process that starts with decoding, continues to word analysis and analysis of context clues, and may require research. When students learn the discovery process, they will have the skills needed to understand new words they find and to expand their vocabulary on their own. The next section will discuss the discovery process in more detail.

The remaining sub-skills help students apply the meaning discovery process.

Decoding: Students, like all people, may misread words in text. They may read the word but think it is something else. This is actually quite common. For example, the text may use the word “assent” but the student reads “accent.” Because the brain tries to force new information into existing patterns, a student may see an unfamiliar word and think it is a more common word. This will lead to confusion about the word and the passage as a whole.

Students may also encounter words that look unfamiliar but are actually known. Like most people, students tend to have a larger oral vocabulary than reading vocabulary. Oral vocabulary refers to words a student understands when he or she hears them; reading vocabulary refers to words that a student understands when he or she reads them. As a result, the student may see a word in text that looks unfamiliar but that he or she already knows.

In both cases, accurately sounding out the word will help students understand and use the word. If a student can recognize the word when it has been decoded, the student expands his reading vocabulary and understanding of the text passage.

Word part knowledge: Word part knowledge allows reader to find the meaningful parts within words, interpret the meaning of those parts, and then put all the meanings together to define a new word.

All words have a root form, which is the basic word once you strip away anything added to it, such as prefixes or suffixes. For example, the word “indefatigable” seems like a pretty complicated word. When we examine it, however, we see that it has the root word “fatigue” (not “fat”!) with two prefixes and one suffix added to it. The first step in word part knowledge is learning to identify the root word. Once the student does that, we start to look for any additions to the word that might affect its meaning. In this example, prefix “in” means “not”;

When helping students analyze words, we ask them, “Do you recognize any parts in this word? Does anything look similar to what you have seen in other words? What do those parts mean when you use them in other words?” If they can figure out the parts, they can figure out the word.

Word comparison: This sub-skill is actually an extension of the word part knowledge skill. With word comparison, students consider words that have similar parts, such as similar suffixes or similar roots. By analyzing similar words, readers get clues about what the currently unfamiliar word means.

For example, consider “indefatigable” again. Think about other words that contain the suffix “-able”, such as “eatable,” “drinkable,” and “navigable.” In each case, the suffix “-able” indicates that something can be done or accomplished or that the action is possible. By thinking about how the suffix “-able” is used in similar words, we get a clue about how it applies to “indefatigable” and how it modifies the root word. What we are doing is comparing “indefatigable” to other words that have similar parts. Good readers do this naturally, but others may need to develop this habit.

To perform this mental task, students first must be able to identify the parts within words, which is word part knowledge.

Content analysis: Another way to describe this skill is “Context Clues,” but what readers are actually doing is analyzing the content surrounding the new word. They first think about the overall topic of the passage or paragraph. The passage will be about one topic, and all the information and words in that passage will relate to the topic. The unfamiliar word, too, will likely be about that topic. That is the first clue.

Then readers think about key words and phrases in the passage. What are they about? What words are commonly used and what do they mean? The unfamiliar word will likely relate to those words. Finally, readers consider the sentence in which the word appears. The preceding text may indicate what information is being provided by the new word. I mentioned this before, but one way we figure out what the word may mean is to mentally blank it out. Once you do all the preceding steps, consider what word would make sense in the blank?

Using content analysis may not provide a specific definition of the word, but it does give readers a general sense of what the word might mean or what information it provides. In most cases, this is enough to make sense of the entire passage.

Definition research: When all else fails, look up the word online or in a dictionary. (I usually type “define ___” into an Internet search engine.) But looking up a definition is not sufficient. Most words have multiple meanings, and a reader has to choose the one that seems to fit the content best. Even a word as simple as “air” has more than five definitions. Which one is the right one?

To use the dictionary definition, several things must happen first: the reader must have an understanding of the content, the reader must figure out what part of speech the word is, and the reader must be able to identify parts within the words. In short, before being able to use a dictionary definition, the reader has to first conduct word part and content analyses.

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