U.S. Students Lack Crucial Vocabulary

Published January 21, 2013

Vocabulary is vital to learning in every subject, studies show. To get a more accurate view of U.S. students’ vocabulary, the National Center for Education Statistics adapted its vocabulary and reading comprehension assessment in 2009. The second round of results shows U.S. students have only a mediocre vocabulary.

Vocabulary is central to reading, said Angela Glymph, an associate research scientist at NCES. The new test asked students to understand words in passages rather than to match them to definitions.

Although overall average vocabulary scores for fourth- and eighth-grade students changed little between 2009 and 2011, Glymph noted some convergence of scores. 

Higher-performing students in both fourth and eighth grade scored lower in 2011 than in 2009.

Lower-performing students scored higher in 2011 than in 2009.

“On average, students don’t know the words they need to flourish as learners, earners or citizens,” prominent literacy researcher E. D. Hirsch Jr. has written. “Math is an important index to general competence, but on average words are twice as important.”

Few Changes to Mediocre Scores
The differences are so small that conclusions are difficult, Glymph cautioned.

Special NCES studies comparing the new test to old ones found reading comprehension scores under the new framework match previous years.

Fourth graders’ 2009 and 2011 reading scores were the same, and both were significantly higher than in the earliest assessment year, 1992.

In 2011, eighth-grade students scored 265, slightly higher than the 1992 score of 260. Twelfth-graders scored 288 in 2009, gaining two points since 2005 but significantly lower than the 1992 score of 292.

Context Is Crucial
The results show students who scored high on vocabulary also scored high in reading comprehension.

The two subjects complement one another, said Linda Bevilacqua, president of the Core Knowledge Foundation.

“The key is to arm kids with enough broad, general knowledge so that they have the context to intuit unfamiliar words and, through repeated exposure, become comfortable with them,” Bevilacqua said.

The National Reading Panel has found children learn new words both indirectly in everyday life or from other school subjects and directly through instruction.

“There has been a tendency in the elementary grades to think of literacy as something separate and distinct from learning about various topics in history, science, or the arts,” Bevilacqua said. “This is shortsighted and misleading.”


Image by San Jose Library.