Impact of Oral Vocabulary on Reading

posted in: Reading | 0

It is well known that there is a complex interplay between oral vocabulary knowledge and reading. This includes:

  • Increased oral vocabulary knowledge is directly associated with increased comprehension. You need to be familiar with the majority of the words in a sentence to understand the sentence.
  • Readers (including children) are much more likely to accurately identify a written word the first time it is encountered if they have previously heard the word.

In their research, Wegner and Castles (2019) found that when a child knew the pronunciation and meaning of a word AND they had some knowledge of the alphabet code (i.e., how sounds are mapped onto letters and letter combinations), then this information was combined to form an expectation about the spelling of that word. This is turn meant that children were able to more quickly and accurately read those words.

The experiment was conducted with Year 4 children using nonsense words (to eliminate the confounding effect of prior knowledge). Children were taught the pronunciation of nonsense words and each word was accompanied by a picture showing its function, but they never saw the written form of the words.

After the learning phase, the researchers then asked the children to read sentences containing the nonsense words. While reading, the children’s eye movements were tracked. Previous research has shown that less time is spent looking at familiar words and a longer time spent looking at unfamiliar words or words that the reader finds difficult to decode.

Wegener and Castle found that if there was a match between what the child expected and what they actually saw (e.g., the spoken word was ‘nesh’ and they saw ‘nesh’), then less time was spent looking at the word. If there was a mismatch they spend longer looking at the word. For example, if the spoken word was ‘coib’ but the child saw ‘koyb’. This is an unexpected spelling for two reasons: ‘oy’ is rarely used in the middle of words and ‘c’ not ‘k’ is usually used when the next letter is ‘o’. Similarly, if the sentence contained nonsense words to which the children hadn’t been exposed, these words also were looked at longer.


  • Oral vocabulary language instruction should be an integral part of the literacy program.
  • After you introduce a word orally, identify the sounds in the word and discuss how these different sounds might be written.
  • Compare and contrast the written form of the word to the discussed expected form. Teach any relevant rules or phonic knowledge associated with the actual spelling of the word (e.g., see the explanation provided in the previous paragraph for the spelling of ‘coib’).

You might like to watch a video with Wegener explaining the research and the outcomes:


Wegener, S., & Castles, A. (2019). How does oral vocabulary knowledge help children learn to read? The Bulletin, 5, 2-3.