LANSING (WWJ) – A new report on vocabulary skills shows a great deal of work needs to be done to improve the reading ability of all students.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) study focuses on how well students in fourth, eighth and twelfth grades are able to use words to gain meaning from the passages they read.

The study — which shows vocabulary results from 2009 and 2011 for fourth and eighth graders, and data from 2009 for twelfth graders —  found there’s a consistent relationship between performance on vocabulary and performance on reading comprehension.

According to the study, in 2011, fourth and eighth grade students performing above the 75th percentile in reading comprehension also had the highest average vocabulary scores. Lower-performing students at or below the 25th percentile had the lowest average vocabulary scores. This was also true for twelfth graders in 2009.

Driscoll, chair of the National Assessment Governing Board, said without a strong vocabulary, a child’s ability to read and to learn suffers dramatically.

“Helping students improve their vocabulary and use words in the proper context is essential to improving overall reading ability-especially for students who most need to improve,” he said in a release.

The study found that an upward trend in vocabulary performance appears for only some of the nation’s students. At eighth grade, lower-performing students at the tenth percentile scored higher in 2011 than in 2009. However, fourth and eighth graders at the 75th and 90th percentiles scored lower in 2011 than in 2009.

Rather than presenting words in isolation, NAEP’s focus on vocabulary acknowledges that key distinctions and nuances of word meaning arise in the context of particular reading passages. Each vocabulary question asks how a particular word contributes meaning to all or part of the reading passage in which it appears.

In this example test question, eighth grade students were asked to interpret the meaning of the word “permeated” as used in a passage:

On page 1, the author says that mint syrup permeated the shaved ice. This means that the mint syrup:

A: caused the shaved ice to melt slightly
B: formed the shaved ice into clumps
C: spread all the way through the shaved ice
D: made the shaved ice taste better

Fifty-one percent of eighth graders correctly selected answer C. According to the study, incorrect answers were the result of misinterpretation of the word as it is used in the context of the passage, or the selection of an incorrect meaning for the word.

A variety of words were selected from texts of varying difficulty at each grade level.

Another sample question involved a grade 12 NAEP reading passage in which Bill Gates argues that human beings must embrace the digital age. Students were asked what the author was suggesting when he says that we can “mitigate” the challenges of the digital age; 50 percent of twelfth graders selected the correct interpretation of the word.

According to the study, when it comes to reading, Michigan fourth graders scored just below the national average for that grade, while Michigan eighth graders scored just above the national average for that grade.

Nationally, girls scored higher than boys in the fourth and eighth grades, but there was no real gap among high school seniors.

The data also shows scores for white and Asian/Pacific Islander students were higher than the scores for black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native students.

In fourth and eighth grades, the data shows that students from lower-income families scored lower than students from higher-income families.

“Persistent achievement gaps between students of different racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds need to be a focus of improvement for educators, policymakers and the public,” Driscoll said. “There is still a great deal of work that needs to be done to enhance the vocabulary understanding, and reading ability, of all students.”

Vocabulary results from the NAEP Reading Assessments are available at


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