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Building Vocabulary Knowledge: What Does It Mean to Know a Word?

by Kathy Ganske
 | Jul 07, 2015

shutterstock_77120368_x300There’s been much discussion about which words should be taught and how many. Although answers differ, there is general agreement that words taught and learned should be useful. But what does it mean “to know a word”?

The continuum on which we can know a word has long been considered. In 1965, Edgar Dale, author of The Living Word Vocabulary and other books on vocabulary development, described four stages of word knowledge development:

  • No knowledge of the word; we don’t even know it exists
  • Awareness that such a word exists, but we don’t know what it means
  • Vague notion of what the word means, in a particular context
  • Rich understanding; we know the word well and can use it

With this framework in mind, consider the word ineffable. This may be your first encounter with the word, or you may have seen it or heard it before but really know nothing about it. Or you may apply morphological knowledge of the prefix un- and the context of the sentence What an ineffable sight the Grand Canyon is! to deduce that the word has something to do with “not” and a magnificent scene. If you know the word, you understand that the author is communicating that the beauty and grandeur of the Grand Canyon are beyond words.

Dale’s framework can be useful for getting a sense of what learners know about vocabulary words. By creating a matrix with the four categories as headers and listing the vocabulary words down the side, learners can check off their level of understanding for each of the words, before and after a particular unit of study.

Vocabulary Knowledge Rating: American Revolution


Can Define It/Use It

Can Tell You Something About It

Think I’ve Heard of It

No Idea!













Psychologist L. J. Cronbach outlined a continuum of five dimensions, each demonstrating greater depth of understanding:

  • Generalization (can define the word)
  • Application (can use the word correctly)
  • Breadth (know multiple meanings of a word)
  • Precision (know when and when not to use a word)
  • Availability (can apply the word in discussion and writing; namely, can use it productively)

For instance, dock is a word you likely understand as a place where ships unload and load or are repaired and could use the word appropriately in that narrow sense. But how deep is your understanding of the word? Do you know which of the following meanings also apply to dock?

  • to link two more spacecraft together in space
  • the fleshy part of an animal’s tail
  • to reduce a person’s wages
  • the area in which a defendant stands or sits during a trial
  • a type of plant

If you identified all of the entries and could use them appropriately, your understanding of dock is very deep.
We can create a matrix similar to the one that follows, based on Cronbach’s work, to document a student’s growth in learning particular words. The matrix also could be adapted to reflect an entire class’s understanding of a particular target word, by recording students’ names where the words are listed.

Assessing Vocabulary Knowledge (B = Before; A = After)

Child’s Name: JC


(can define the word)

(can use the word correctly)

   Breadth  (knows multiple meanings of a word)

(knows when and when not to use a word)

(can use the word productively)

  • bear






  • charge






  • mind






  • pupil






  • range






  • stable






Just as the people we know best are those with whom we have had the most experiences, so too with words: Once we’ve been introduced, our knowledge of them relies on lots of exposures in meaningful contexts. Although paraphrasing may enable readers/listeners to get the gist of a word in order to maintain meaning of a text, it is not likely to lead to learners “owning” the word, being able to access and use it whenever they wish. Estimates vary and words vary, but it can take 40 or more meaningful encounters with a word before owning begins to happen. Therefore, it’s important to remember to bring vocabulary that’s been taught into the daily classroom talk.

As a reminder of that, post a few of the words in a conspicuous place on a Teacher’s Word Wall. As learners begin to use the words, remove the known words and post new ones. Make the learning process active and engaging through raps and songs, games, dramatization, and drawing. And celebrate the enriched talk that can result.

Kathy Ganske is professor of the Practice at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University, with more than 20 years of experience in the classroom. She is current chair of the AERA Vocabulary SIG and author or coauthor/editor of Word Journeys: Assessment-Guided Phonics, Spelling, and Vocabulary Instruction (2nd edition); Write Now! Empowering Writers in Today’s K–6 Classroom; and other works on word study/vocabulary development, supporting struggling readers and writers, and perspectives and practices on comprehension.



Leave a comment
  1. Shuchita Jain | May 09, 2017
    Extremely useful. Such simple facts which we always had but rarely perceived. I too am an English teacher and will definitely keep these ideas in mind while teaching. Thanks a lot.
  2. Luis Lopes | Mar 10, 2017
    A very interesting article demonstrating that to real know a word in its many contexts takes time and deep understanding good advice too.

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