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Vocabulary Addition to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy

The Vocabulary Addition to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) is a new NAAL component being developed to assess the adequacy of adult Americans' vocabularies for purposes of reading and writing different types and levels of text.

Why is this study needed?

Words, singly and in combination, are the principal means by which written meaning is conveyed. Vocabulary is thus an effective predictor of reading comprehension across age groups, years of schooling, and languages—even when decoding ability is held constant. Conversely, skill analyses indicate that vocabulary weakness is a major deficit among the majority of students enrolled in Adult Basic Education courses. Thus the data this study will provide—about the breadth and depth of adults' vocabulary skills, and the relation of these skills to demographics and literacy proficiency—will contribute importantly to document design, workforce training, and setting education priorities.

What does this study measure?

Competencies to be measured fall into three categories, as indicated by the study's three modules: core vocabulary, text and document vocabulary, and productive vocabulary.

Core vocabulary. Linguistic analyses indicate that roughly 95% of spoken language and 80% of written language consists of approximately 2000 word families. Given that understanding of these core word families is essential to communication regardless of the topic, genre, or purpose, this study module will assess participants' mastery of the core vocabulary. Data collection for this assessment is currently planned in a multiple-choice format.

Text and document vocabulary. Whereas the core vocabulary covers nearly 80% of written text, the remaining 20% consists of many thousands of relatively infrequent words. Thus, although command of core English vocabulary may suffice for most oral communication, the demands of text comprehension are far greater. In fact, the information in a text derives disproportionately from its less frequent words, and reading comprehension depends on prior knowledge of at least 95% of the words in the text. For example, knowledge of core vocabulary alone is estimated to limit readers to the equivalent of a grade 4 reading level. Therefore, this module—currently planned as a multiple-choice format—will assess participants' knowledge of text and document vocabulary.

Productive vocabulary. The number of words that people can adequately understand in reading or listening is greater than the number they can use properly in speaking or writing. Because of the key role of writing abilities in meeting the demands of the workplace and everyday life, this study module will assess participants' ability to select and use appropriate words when communicating in writing.

Brown faculty collaborators:


Other project collaborators:

Marilyn Jager Adams, Soliloquy Learning
Back to Kathryn Spoehr's Brown Research Profile
Research at Brown: Kathryn Spoehr: Vocabulary Addition to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy Brown Research home page
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