Most words students encounter in school texts come from a small group of about 2,500 word families, which are groups of words related via a common root (e.g., walk, walked, walkable, etc.). Many are likely to be known orally to children entering kindergarten. Others, even if not known, are easily taught. Two word features help account for the familiarity of words and how teachable they are: age of acquisition and concreteness.
Age of acquisition is the average age at which a child can recognize a word in oral language and use it correctly. Because children learn these words before the age of three, on average, words like mom, dad, yes, and no have an age of acquisition below 3. The age of acquisition for microscopic and ban is around 10, and for sanguine and interminable, over 16, as these words are typically learned later in the school career. The lower the average age of acquisition, the higher the likelihood that a child will be familiar with the word.
Concreteness is the property of having a physical referent—so many words with the highest concreteness ratings are nouns. Ear, sand, and frog can all be easily represented by things or images and thus have the highest concreteness rating of 5. Verbs and adjectives can be represented through physical action or a physical quality, so rained has a concreteness rating of 4.97, and fat is rated 4.52.
About 54% of the 2,500 word families are familiar to entering kindergarteners, or they are highly concrete, or both. The Venn diagram below shows the interaction between familiarity (with an age of acquisition below 5) and concreteness at the kindergarten level.
The familiarity and concreteness of these word families facilitates their instruction when student start learning to read. Recent research suggests that these word features not only help students learn to recognize and decode, but that a student’s knowledge of a particular word’s meaning can help predict whether the student can successfully read the word1. One way a beginning reader might recognize a word is by first attempting to decode it using phonics skills and then checking the pronunciation against known words. For instance, if a reader pronounces a word bay-nay-nay, she can compare the sounds to words she knows and self-correct. If she doesn’t know what a banana is, however, she is less likely to recognize the word and correct the mispronunciation.
Other studies have shown that concreteness or, similarly, imageability (the ease with which a word’s meaning can be imagined) can also help students learn to read and recognize words. For example, one study found that students trained to imagine the meaning of a word when reading it learned to recognize and read words, especially those with irregular spellings, faster than students without the training2. Additional research has suggested that words with higher concreteness ratings are more easily recognized than words with low concreteness rating, and that a word’s concreteness rating can be a good predictor of whether a child will recognize it3.
If teachers can focus reading instruction on these familiar, concrete words during kindergarten and early elementary school, they will have helped students master more than half of the words they will read most often at the primary and secondary levels.
1 Kearns, D. M., & Al Ghanem, R. (2019). The role of semantic information in children’s word reading: Does meaning affect readers’ ability to say polysyllabic words aloud?. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(6), 933. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000316
2 Steacy, L. M., & Compton, D. L. (2019). Examining the role of imageability and regularity in word reading accuracy and learning efficiency among first and second graders at risk for reading disabilities. Journal of experimental child psychology, 178, 226-250. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2018.09.007
3 Balota, D. A., Ferraro, F. R., & Connor, L. T. (2013). On the early influence of meaning in word recognition: A review of the literature. In The psychology of word meanings (pp. 199-234). Psychology Press.