It's impossible to directly teach students all the words they need to become proficient readers.
"Still, none of this fully explains how some students are able to acquire the vast number of words they need to be successful readers."
Well, how about basic cognitive ability, colloquially termed "IQ"? In general, some people are just naturally smarter than others, and the people who are naturally smart tend to do a better job of acquiring vocabulary (as well as learning substantive content). That's true across all demographics -- I attended a private high school where all the students were white and upper middle class, and it was clear even among that privileged group that some of the students were operating with stronger cognitive abilities than others.
Of course native cognitive ability (IQ) isn't the only determining factor. But it's interesting that as I read this article this issue is never raised as an explanatory factor.
We need to give children more experiential learning (exposure to places, things, and ideas) by going into the neighborhood and out of the neighborhood where they will be exposed to a broader vocabulary. In addition, having children do some long term investigations of topics and be read to and read by themselves using the phonetic tools (along with context) to sound out words and discuss their meanings is another way to broaden their background knowledge in an interesting format.
They also need to do more writing to demonstrate what they have learned, which would give them another opportunity to use new vocabulary. Our receptive vocabularies are always better than our expressive oral vocabularies.
One thing that I noticed many years ago in the South Bronx was that there were words on standardized reading tests that were totally unfamiliar to these young children who were living in an urban environment. That is why it is so important to connect knowledge, decoding skills, and meaning together.
Children need to do more writing where they use the new vocabulary to explain their understanding of the content they are and have learned.
All these parts of comprehension are tied together.
Thank you for such an excellent overview of vocabulary instruction with superb suggestions. The only thing you've left out is the importance of uniting phonology, orthography, and meaning in order for new words to stick--to become 'mapped' to memory. Gentry and Ouellette (Brain Words: How the Science of Reading Informs Teaching) encourage the following sequence for vocabulary instruction at ALL levels: hear it, say it, write it, read it, use it. And Linnea Ehri has done research with fifth graders on how to facilitate 'orthographic mapping'.
Orthographic Mapping in the Acquisition of Sight Word Reading, Spelling Memory, and Vocabulary Learning, Ehri, Linnea C., Scientific Studies of Reading, v18 n1 p5-21 2014
Wonderful essay. Thanks!
I remember my dad saying "If you don't know how to pronounce a word [common as a young reader hitting new words] say it LOUD". But really, I think this is a case where context does (usually) teach you definitions of new words. But, you might need correction on pronunciation when you start to move them into spoken language!