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7 Mar 2012

Vocabulary Assessment: Making Do with What We Have While We Create the Tools We Need

P. David Pearson, Elfrieda H. Hiebert, & Michael Kamil

Book Chapter

Pearson, P.D., Hiebert, E.H., & Kamil, M. (2012). Vocabulary assessment: Making do with what we have while we create the tools we need. In J. Baumann and E. Kame’enui (Eds.), Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice (2nd Ed.). (pp.231-255) New York, NY: Guilford Press.


After a long absence, vocabulary has returned to a prominent place in discussions of reading; it is alive and well in reading instruction and reading research. This is good news for teachers, teacher educators, and researchers. There is good reason to teach vocabulary more aggressively. After all, as many of the chapters in this volume illustrate, vocabulary is a strong predictor of comprehension and the gap in the vocabularies of the “haves” and the “have-nots” is substantial on school entry. Without strategic and concerted efforts in schools, this initial gap may never be eliminated and, in fact, can easily be broadened. If effective instruction is to become commonplace, we must first address the vexing question of how we assess vocabulary knowledge and growth.

In this chapter, we argue that vocabulary assessment is grossly underdeveloped, both in its theoretical and practical aspects. On the theoretical side, it has been driven by tradition, convenience, psychometric standards, and a quest for economy of effort rather than a clear conceptualization of its nature and relation to other aspects of reading expertise, most notably comprehension. On the practical side, it has provided teachers with scores that tell them only how students perform in relation to other students (e.g. percentiles or grade norms); it has not given them data about how well students have mastered particular domains of vocabulary, such as all of the key vocabulary associated with a fourth-grade reading level or with the central concepts of a topic such as habitats and eco-systems. We hope that this chapter will serve as one small step in stimulating the development strategic instruction and curriculum needs and that students deserve.

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The pre-published edition of this chapter is available for download.