Annotated Bibliography on the Benefits and Importance of Speaking with a Good Vocabulary


Bowker, R. (1981). English vocabulary manual. New York: Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation. “English vocabulary level has been shown to be strongly related to educational success. In addition, it is related to the level of occupation attained. It is highly correlated with measures of reading ability and intelligence.” (p.1). Correlations with other standard vocabulary measures: +.64 with Nelson-Denny Vocabulary; +.76 with SAT-Verbal; +.85 with Educational Records Bureau Comprehensive Testing Program, Vocabulary Subtest (level 5). Contains list of average vocabulary scores, by percentile, for a large number of occupations. “It seems clear that most intelligence tests are primarily measures of verbal ability” (p.15). Vocabulary correlates highly with reading comprehension. “Various factor analyses have consistently shown that knowledge of word meanings is the dominant factor in reading comprehension” (p. 16). “Vocabulary level is a useful predictor of academic ability, even for courses like Chemistry that do not emphasize language usage” (p. 16).


Broadley, M.E. (1986). Your natural gifts, 3 rd ed. McLean, Va.: EPM Publications. Interweaves importance of vocabulary for development of virtually all occupations. Heavy reference to O’Connor’s theories.


Broadley, M.E. (1986). Your natural gifts, 3 rd ed. McLean, Va.: EPM Publications. Interweaves importance of vocabulary for development of virtually all occupations. Heavy reference to O’Connor’s theories.


Corson, D. (1983). Social dialect, the semantic barrier, and access to curricular knowledge. Language in Society, 12, 213-222. Presents theory of lexical bar—a hypothesized semantic barrier in the English (of England and Australia) lexicon that “separates the lexes of dominant central dialects. It serves to produce differential attainment rates in education and to reproduce a social class-based division of labour in English-speaking societies” (213). “There is a semantic barrier in the English lexicon which hinders the users of some social dialects from access to knowledge categories of the school curriculum in their oral and written language and perhaps in cognition as well. The existence of this barrier is a principal cause of school failure for some social dialect users" (213). Notes that “between 65% and 100% of the total specialist vocabularies of the curricular knowledge categories identified by Paul Hirst (1974)” are of Graeco-Latin origin (213). Suggests that lower class children may not achieve as high a level of cognitive development because they do not have the vocabulary common in middle class families, presumably because they “have been kept in lexically conservative peripheral areas” (214). “There is a very real meaning complexity that attaches to the G-L words examined…. They are often remote from the everyday and concrete needs of everyday people. Some of the semantic features that attach to G-L words are: They possess a ‘connotative’ meaning that is not extensional; they are without suitable synonyms and may be defined only by the use of a number of other words and even then perhaps poorly; they give precision and explicitness to texts; they allow their users to order thought where such an ordering of thought might not occur without the words themselves” (216). “If these social dialects do not expose children to an early and consistent use of words of semantic complexity in speech, writing, and thought, their later application and use within school knowledge categories is hindered and the position of meaning within the institution of education is less easy” (216). Found higher incidence of G-L words among higher socioeconomic students in both written and oral language use. “Rightly or wrongly, teachers do make initial evaluations of pupil potential on the basis of language used in performance” (218). “The wide use of G-L words in speech adds not just socio-cultural status to communications but also vast semantic facility, explicitness, and precision. Such use yields access to semantic fields closed off to the language user not disposed to using G-L words” (218). “The semantic barrier affects the three language areas essential to effective school performance: speech, literacy, and thinking” (220). Proposes ways to alleviate problem through changes in educational policies, teachers approaches to language use, and changes in curriculum, though he notes that “education cannot compensate for society”


Corson, D. (1985). The lexical bar. New York: Pergamon. Low SES children have less experience with Greek and Latin derivatives.
Davis, F.D. (1972). Psychometric research on comprehension in reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 7, 628-678. Found little evidence for separable skills within reading except for component of word knowledge.


Draper, A.C., & Moeller, G.H. (1971). We think with words (therefore to improve thinking, teach vocabulary). Phi Delta Kappan, 52, 482-484. St. Louis Vocabulary Development Project. 24,000 students in grades 4, 5, and 6 (2/3 Black) were taught 1,800 words in a radio program 30 minutes a day three days a week from Sept., 1969 to May, 1970 (4 th graders received shorter lessons and fewer words). Improvements 3 to 4 months better than expected levels on vocab, spelling, reading, and IQ (exc. 6 th grade reading) (based on ITDS and Lorge-Thorndike tests). Definition/explanation of meaning and examples of use in context. Teacher wrote words on board, students followed in texts. After several lessons, words from earlier lessons incorporated into tests. Provided repetition in various narrative and testing environments, including regular textbooks. Teachers reviewed meanings of words as they occurred in various contexts. Barrage of new words with systematic multisensory input over long period of time claimed to account for sizable gains in verbal ability/IQ.


Dupuy, H.P. (1975). Basic Word Vocabulary Test, Examiner’s manual. Highland Park, NJ: Dreior Educational Systems. Argues that vocabulary tests (including this one) really also measure reading and IQ, since vocabulary is so heavily implicated in both. “Vocabulary improvement can be taught, and it is related to general educational development” (1). Test is a 1% sample of the 12,300 Basic Words of English (words which appear in 4 major unabridged dictionaries, are not compounds, proper names, abbreviations, foreign, archaic, slang, technical words, or derivatives). “There were 239,506 words (main entries) in Webster’s but when you applied the above criteria, there are only 12,300 Basic Words in English” (3).


Elley, W.B. (1988). New vocabulary: How do children learn new words (Research Information for Teachers, No. 1, 1988, Item 10). New Zealand Reading Association. “Most children in school learn the meanings of more than a thousand new words each year” (2.) Most of this knowledge presumably comes from incidental acquisition. “The trouble with learning from silent reading is that many pupils do not read widely or quickly enough” (2). “A rich vocabulary is a valuable asset and an important attribute of success in [m]any walks of life…. Verbally facile individuals have real advantages in everyday life…. Many research studies show that vocabulary is the best single indicator of intellectual ability and an accurate predictor of success at school” (2). Study explores how much vocabulary children learn from listening to stories read aloud to them, the effect of teacher discussion, permanency of learning, and relative learning of good vs. bad readers. For one of the stories, read aloud 3 times over 30 days (“Rapscallion Jones”), “improvement for the non-discussion group from pre-test to post-test, 21 days later, was 15% overall. The children who listened to the story read without discussion did learn new vocabulary from the story…. The three classes who heard the story read with discussion...showed a much greater gain on almost every word, resulting in an average improvement—from pre-test to post test—of 40%. Clearly, the teacher’s explanations for the unfamiliar words, given in passing, led to a substantially greater word acquisition, from 33% to almost 73%. In 17 of our 20 words, the mean level of understanding increased to over 50%” (3). For the other story (“The White Crane”), the overall improvement for the no-discussion group was 4.4%. The “explanation group” improved an average of 17%. “We believe…results for this story…reflect the nature of the story. It was a translation of a Japanese myth, less familiar in style to the usual type of story, its language had less helpful redundancy, and it did not seem to involve the children as much as the first story” (3). “The result for the control group, as expected, showed virtually no change, from pre-test to post-test” (3). Interestingly, lower scoring students (based on the pretest) improved more than higher scoring students. “The other finding of importance was the virtual absence of forgetting. Four months after the last pre-test, two classes which had not heard either story again, received a post-test for each story. Surprisingly, the mean score for each class was almost identical to that of the post-tests given one week after the readings. Apparently, incidental learning, acquired in the context of an interesting story read aloud, results in stable, long-term learning” (3). The findings reported above confirm the fact that much vocabulary acquisition does occur during…listening to suitable stories read aloud to the class. It is clear too, that teacher explanations add substantially to the level of acquisition, that the lower ability children learn as many words, or more, than the bright, and that the learning is long-term….The essential point of this article is that story-time is frequently productive, and not a frivolous waste of time” (4).

Graves, M.P., Ryder, R.J., Slater, W.H., & Calfee, R.C. (1987). The relationship between word frequency and reading vocabulary using six metrics of frequency. Journal of Educational Research, 81, 81-91. The higher a word’s frequency, the more likely it is to be decoded and understood by a young learner. Both individual word frequency and word family frequency correlated with probability of word’s being in learner’s recognition vocabulary. Account of data was almost linear when logitized version of proportion correct was plotted against log of family frequency. (N = 576; 4 th – 12 th graders). 86 words tested with definition of five choices. “Distracters were…distinctly wrong and not requiring fine discriminations in meaning” (82). Only most common meaning was tested. The test may well not give a good indication of true word difficulty since it tested superficial knowledge and only most common meaning; partial, “fast mapping” knowledge was sufficient to answer correctly. This type and depth of word knowledge probably correlates much more highly with word frequency than does in-depth knowledge, which is what is probably the important aspect of word knowledge (and word difficulty) for most purposes. Concludes that “using frequency to predict word knowledge is a distinctly feasible task, and that with additional work we should be able to predict word knowledge quite accurately, even for individual words (not supported by their data), and without undue reliance on intuition” (89).

Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation. (1980). Four basic steps to a better vocabulary. Houston, TX: Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation. “Because each new word has to be studied and learned on its own, the larger your vocabulary becomes, the easier it will be to connect a new word with words you already know, and thus remember its meaning. So your learning speed, or pace, should increase as your vocabulary grows” (1). “While it is obvious when a word is totally unknown to you, you have to be especially aware of words that seem familiar to you but whose precise meanings you may not really know” (1). “What should you read? Whatever interests you—whatever makes you want to read…. There is no point in trying to read something you simply aren’t able to understand or are not interested in” (1). “Vocabulary building is simply a matter of reviewing the words regularly until they are fixed in your memory” (2). “The major disadvantage of many of these [vocabulary building] books is that the words in them may sometimes be too difficult for the person who does not have a large vocabulary. Such a person would have a hard time learning these words and could quickly become discouraged…. If, however, you recognize many of the words but don’t quite know them, then the material is probably at the right level for you” (2-3). “Nothing we measure at the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation contributes to success in life more than vocabulary” (3).

Mathiasen, R. (1984). Predicting college achievement: A research view. College Student Learning, 18, 380-386. Vocabulary correlates highly with SAT Verbal and with ACT and these tests correlate with college achievement.
Nielsen, L., & Piche, G.L. (1981). The influence of headed nominal complexity and lexical choice on teacher’s evaluation of writing. Research in the Teaching of English, 15, 65-73. Writing is judged better if it uses higher level vocabulary. Vocabulary was the strongest factor influencing rating of writing.

O’Connor, J. (1934). Vocabulary and success. Atlantic Monthly, 153.2 (Feb), 160-166. Financial success in virtually all occupational endeavors correlates highly with size of vocabulary. “An extensive knowledge of the exact meanings of English words accompanies outstanding success in this country more often than any other single characteristic [we] have been able to isolate and measure” (p. 160). 150-item test used, graduated from easy to difficult. High school average 76 errors; college freshmen average 42 errors; college grads average 27 errors; college profs: 8 errors; major executives: 7 errors—higher than any other group (p. 161). “The executive level which a man or woman reaches is determined to some extent by vocabulary” (p. 161). “Typical non-college-graduate shop foremen average…about as high as college graduates” (p. 162). “Words are the instruments by the means of which men and women grasp the thoughts of others and with which they do much of their own thinking. They are the tools of thought” (p. 163). “The large vocabularies of successful individuals come before success rather than after” (p. 163). Schooling does not, in itself, appear to result in high vocabulary. Vocabs of 20 men who had left school at age 15 averaged just as high as those with college degrees: “It is their vocabularies which are important rather than their formal school education. Their large vocabularies are not the result of schooling” (p. 163). “College graduates, in general, average measurably higher in vocabulary than do not-college persons” (p. 163-4). “Vocabulary advances with an almost unbroken front. The words at the command of an individual are not a miscellany gathered from hither and yon. With a very few exceptions they are all of the words in the dictionary up to those of an order of difficulty at which his vocabulary stops abruptly, and almost no words beyond"”(p. 165). "In the region where learning is taking place, the commonest error is the confusion of a word with its exact opposite…[This] confusion seems…to be a natural step in the learning process” (p. 166).

O’Connor, J. (1940). Unsolved business problems. New York: Human Engineering Laboratory. 100 college seniors studying to become industrial executives given vocab test. All in top 10% became executives; none in bottom 25% did.

O’Connor, J. (1970). Civil Disorders. Human Engineering Laboratory Bulletin #74. Boston: Human Engineering Laboratories. Proposes that low vocabulary is a major source of frustration and crime. “English vocabulary can be taught….Anyone can learn words. No evidence exists of a limiting ceiling, and the resulting artificially forced vocabulary seems just as effective as one which others gain without effort” (p. 2). “Though it is difficult to prove on a national basis, such evidence as we have, which extends back 48 years, suggests that every word learned reduces a bit the chance of crime and violence” (p. 2). Rate of vocabulary acquisition gradually slows down starting at about age 10, and continues slowing throughout life, fitting a smooth mathematical formula. A study based on 29,000 people suggests that “neither high schools nor colleges contribute to [rate of growth of] English vocabulary” (p. 2). Order of word difficulty and acquisition “is the same in California, Texas, Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts, and is not dependent on some school, textbook, or teacher” (p. 2). “Today’s high schools and colleges fail to improve the English vocabulary of their students” (p. 2).

Smith, R.M., & Supanich, G.P. (1984). The vocabulary scores of company presidents. Technical Report No. 1984-1. Chicago: Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation. Retested O’Connor (1940) with 50-question test. Corroborated O’Connor’s results: company presidents as a group scored above the mean of those tested by the Foundation (average of testees is 16 years education). “Half of the company presidents scored at or above the 75th percentile for the norm group. Only 12%…scored below the mean” (p. 5-6). “The small positive correlation between Vocabulary Scale Scores and both age and years of education indicates that age and years of education only marginally account for the variation in vocabulary scores” (p. 6). (Weakness: sampling bias—test mailed to presidents of 5,000 largest US companies; 464 returned test; 456 used.)

Stewart, M.F., & Learman, H.L. (1983). Teachers’ writing assessments across the high school curriculum. Research in the Teaching of English, 17, 113-114. Writing is judged better if it uses higher level vocabulary. Vocabulary was the strongest factor influencing rating of writing.

Thorndike, R.L. (1973-4). Reading as reasoning. Reading Research Quarterly, 9.2, 135-147. Vocabulary is the most important component of reading comprehension. Beyond basic reading, “reading is an indicator of the general level of the individual’s thinking and reasoning processes rather than a set of distinct and specialized skills” (135). Reading shows a positive correlation with measures of general intelligence. Reading test items show stable difficulty when translated from one language to another. Argues that though Davis (1972) found word knowledge to account for majority of variance in reading comprehension, word knowledge, reading, and reasoning are all interrelated and that reading is thus a measure of reasoning ability. Notes that vocab subtest of Stanford-Binet has higher correlation with Binet IQ than any other student. “To draw a sharp contrast between ‘word knowledge’ and ‘reasoning in reading’ seems hardly justified by [Davis’] results. If intelligence tests assess reasoning (and this can of course be debated), word knowledge tests seem to be as much an indicator of that reasoning as do questions based on connected prose; and both seem to serve this function admirably” (142). “Though the role of reasoning in reading is reinforced by these data, any distinction between word knowledge and reasoning is blurred” (142). “Our results…suggest that measures of reading should be considered as predictors of academic achievement fully on par with tests to which the term scholastic aptitude’ is conventionally applied” (144). Vocabulary and reading (for which vocab is biggest factor) show highest correlation with educational development. Results of early reading and vocab tests are best predictors of later academic achievement on Iowa tests. In fact early reading gives better prediction than IQ. “Ability to construe the printed page provides…a powerful indicator of skills intellectual and academic” (145). A hard item on a reading comprehension test is hard if translated (high crosslinguistic correlations of difficulty (generally about .8)). “Level of early competence in reading is a very potent predictor of eventual level of academic performance” (146). “If reading is reasoning, we face at one and the same time a barrier and a challenge. The barrier is that set by the child’s limited comprehension of what he reads, which we see now as not primarily a deficit in one of more specific and readily teachable reading skills but as a reflection of generally meager intellectual processes. And this barrier promises to stand in the way of a wide range of future learnings” (147).

Weizman, R. (1982). The prediction of college achievement by the SAT and the high school record. Journal of Educational Measurement, 19, 179-191. Vocabulary correlates highly with SAT Verbal, which correlates with college achievement.