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24 Sep 2007

Repetition of Words: The Forgotten Variable in Texts

Elfrieda H. Hiebert, University of California, Berkeley; Leigh Ann Martin, TextProject

Book Chapter

Hiebert, E.H., & Martin, L.A. (2008). Repetition of Words: The Forgotten Variable in Texts for Beginning and Struggling Readers. In E.H. Hiebert & M. Sailors (Eds.), Finding the right texts for beginning and struggling readers: Research-based solutions (pp. 47-69). NY: Guilford.


At the present time, repetition of specific words does not appear to be a factor in the design or selection of individual texts or sets of texts in instructional programs for beginning readers in the United States. As illustrated in Chapter 1 of this volume, approximately 22.9 new unique words appear per every 100 words in the 2007 copyright of an American mid first-grade textbook. In 1962, the rate in this same program was 7.4. These rates reflect historical events, changes in theory and perspectives, and critiques of education that have occurred over the past 45 years. The interest in this chapter is to review research to determine whether this dramatic shift represents a practice that emanates from work that qualifies as scientifically based reading research (Slavin, 2002).

We preface this review with a comment about its comprehensiveness. In 1995 while working with students in a graduate course at the University of Michigan on an analysis of then-current basal reading programs, the first author was confronted with the paradigm shift in the nature of reading textbooks that resulted from changes in guidelines and policies (California English/Language Arts Committee, 1987; Texas Education Agency, 1990). Reading textbooks had shifted from controlled vocabulary texts to anthologies of authentic children’s literature. The effects of this shift on the features of words in first- and second-grade reading programs were reported in several publications (Hiebert, 2005; Hiebert, Martin, & Menon, 2005). These analyses showed high percentages of single-appearing words and patterns of word repetition that can be described as serendipitous (i.e., reflecting the typical use of high-frequency words in written language). These results were the impetus for a search of literatures on the role of repetition and the pace of new information in learning to read.

Our aim in this chapter is to summarize critical literatures that we have identified in this decade-long search. We do not claim that the literature that is summarized in this chapter represents all that is known about the role of repetition and pacing in learning to read. We are aware that individual studies and even particular literatures that represent particular paradigms have not been addressed. For example, a substantial literature exists on massed and distributed practice of word learning (Bloom & Shuell, 1981). There is also a research literature (although not large) on repetitions in vocabulary learning (McKeown, Beck, Omanson, & Pople, 1985; Wysocki & Jenkins, 1987) and on learning vocabulary in a foreign language (Kyongho & Nation, 1989). We have chosen to focus on particular literatures and, within those literatures, particular studies to provide an overview of the current research on the repetition of words and linguistic units in learning to read.

Our focus in this chapter is on the students who depend on schools to become literate, not the students who come to first grade reading or become proficient readers within the few first months of school (Lesgold, Resnick, & Hammond, 1985). As was demonstrated by Hiebert (Chapter 1, this volume), automaticity with the 1,000 most-frequent words is not reached until the fourth-grade by the 40th percentile and fifth-grade by the 25th percentile. It is the role of word repetition in the reading development of this portion of an age cohort that provides the focus of this chapter.

For more information on this edited volume, please visit the publisher's (Guilford Press) website.