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Vocabulary Instruction and Assessment for Spanish Speakers (VIAS)

VIAS Model for the Development of Word Knowledge and Comprehension Skills

The subprojects within the VIAS research program are utilizing a common model in their investigations of word knowledge and comprehension skills. The first  subproject (Harvard University) provides the basic longitudinal description of vocabulary and literacy development among Spanish-English bilinguals from prekindergarten through to seventh grade,  and each of the other three subprojects concentrates on a particular period in development: kindergarten through second grade (Boston College), third  through fourth grade (Center for Applied Linguistics), and sixth through eighth grade (University of Connecticut).  Together these four subprojects will provide information to address key questions that motivate this research:

  • What is the relationship of oral language proficiency, including oral vocabulary and listening comprehension, to reading vocabulary knowledge?

  • What is the relationship of oral and reading vocabulary to reading comprehension?

  • What is the impact of home vs. school factors on English vocabulary knowledge?

The relationships among the variables are complex. For example, home language use and practices (e.g., book reading) and school language use and practices (i.e., nature and quality of instruction) may be related. Home language use and practices may influence the development of oral vocabulary; school language use and practices influence the development of both oral vocabulary and reading vocabulary.

The relationship between oral and reading vocabulary is also complex, with oral vocabulary driving reading vocabulary acquisition at the beginning of reading instruction, but much vocabulary learned through reading by the late elementary grades. Similarly, relations between vocabulary and comprehension are complex. Oral vocabulary knowledge influences listening comprehension, which in turn influences reading comprehension. For older readers, reading comprehension helps build reading/oral vocabulary.

Thus each project within the program can be conceived as investigating a part of the overall model of development of word knowledge and comprehension skills. In addition, the research proposed here will also advance our understanding of transfer and its role in the acquisition of word knowledge and comprehension skills. Transfer is a central concept in bilingualism research but one which has often been either presupposed or prematurely dismissed, and which has itself too rarely been a focus of study. The possibility of transferring skills from a first to a second language has been widely invoked as an argument in support of bilingual education, but there has been remarkably little longitudinal research, controlling for important home and school factors, that focuses on questions such as: Which first language skills transfer? What second language skills show an effect of transfer? Do some skills transfer more easily than others? What conditions promote the likelihood or efficiency of transfer? Research on word knowledge and comprehension among Spanish speakers learning English must consider the cross-language construct of transfer.
Findings from the studies proposed here will help us test particular claims about transfer, following from the important findings emerging from our ongoing work. We have shown that the Spanish and English non-cognate vocabularies of young children from Spanish-speaking homes typically correlate negatively—a finding suggesting that transfer in the domain of vocabulary breadth is either absent or not automatic (Tabors, Páez, & Lopez, 2003) or alternatively, we lack the measures that might show L1 to L2 relationships. Phonological awareness skills, in contrast, are positively correlated across languages in our findings (August, Calderón, & Carlo, 2002) as in others’ (Durgunoglu, Nagy, &  Hancin-Bhatt, 1993; Nagy, García, Durgunoglu, & Hancin-Bhatt, 1993). Our research shows that cognate vocabulary, word reading, and comprehension skills are all positively correlated across languages, but only for children who have received formal instruction in Spanish reading—an important result indicating limitations on the conditions under which transfer occurs (August et al., 2002). Metalinguistic aspects of word knowledge (use of superordinates, analyticity of definitions) also transfer from Spanish to English, even when breadth of vocabulary is unrelated (Ordoñez, Carlo, & Snow, 2002).

These findings suggest important limitations on the extent and likelihood of transfer, but confidence in these conclusions is limited by the paucity of experimental approaches to studying transfer. The proposed work will address these limitations. Subproject 2 (Boston College) explicitly tests the existence and ease of transfer from Spanish to English vocabulary, by comparing children receiving a parent-involvement oral-language-focused intervention in Spanish, children receiving an English language version of the same intervention in the kindergarten classroom, and children receiving both the Spanish home intervention and the linked English language classroom intervention. Subproject 3 (Center for Applied Linguistics) includes an examination of how cognates influence vocabulary acquisition of young children. Subproject 4 (University of Connecticut) tests the impact of two vocabulary interventions designed for middle school students, both of which are designed to build oral and reading vocabulary using both meaning-based activities and explicit instruction in spelling, word recognition, and morphological analysis.

Shared Approaches to Promoting Word Knowledge 

The four VIAS subprojects are unified by their shared interest in exploring approaches that promote word knowledge. While Subproject 1 (Harvard University) extends examination of how natural variation in home and classroom language use relates to English vocabulary outcomes, Subprojects 2 (Boston College), 3 (Center for Applied Linguistics), and 4 (University of Connecticut) use quasi-experimental methods to manipulate conditions for vocabulary development. Findings from the National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Children and Youth (August & Shanahan, 2006) indicate that between 1980 and 2002, there were only four experimental or quasi-experimental studies of vocabulary development in ELLs; three of these were extremely limited in duration (the longest was for 3 months, the shortest only 3 days of intervention) and reported no long-term outcomes. Further research is desperately needed to address the gap in knowledge about effective vocabulary interventions for ELLs.

The three VIAS subprojects conducting intervention studies will share a common framework that is based on first language research (Graves, 2006; Nagy & Stahl, 2006). The projects will address, as developmentally appropriate, the following components of a comprehensive vocabulary program: the promotion of incidental word learning through rich and varied language experience; direct instruction of individual words; teaching word-learning strategies; and building word consciousness.

One way to build word knowledge is to expose children to a rich assortment of language experiences. For younger children the experiences will tend to be oral and include such things as read-alouds and discussion. As children become older, the read-alouds are replaced by the students’ own reading of text, but discussion remains an important venue for vocabulary development. A second way to help students gain vocabulary is through direct instruction of individual words. First language research indicates that vocabulary instruction is most effective when learners are given both definitional and contextual information, when learners actively process the new word meanings, and when they experience multiple encounters with the words (Graves, 2006, p. 6). A third approach is to provide students with strategies they can use to learn words. Strategies include using context to figure out word meanings (Baumann, Edwards, Boland, Olejnik, & Kame’enui, 2003), using affixes, learning root words, using dictionaries or peers, and, in the case of second language learners whose native languages share cognates with English, using cognate knowledge (Carlo et al., 2004). Finally, a fourth strategy entails building word consciousness that involves meta-cognition about words, motivation to learn words, and interest in words (Graves, 2006, p. 7). The three VIAS intervention projects incorporate these components into the vocabulary instruction activities they introduce into classrooms.

Linked Methodologies Across the VIAS Studies

The four studies in the proposed research program also benefit from shared methodological commitments and procedures. All of the subprojects are collecting longitudinal data, and two of them are using individual and multilevel growth modeling. Thus, while the interventions designed for the purposes of these studies will not yet be developed to a level appropriate for being taken to scale, they will be well-tested in schools like the ones most ELL students attend. We have chosen to implement classroom-level random assignment and provide professional development and mentoring in the schools where we work to support the teachers in delivering the interventions.

Furthermore, we will be using shared and centralized procedures for evaluating fidelity of interventions, general classroom quality, and teacher background and professional development experiences, and will continue to use shared instruments to collect information about the parental education, occupation, and language use of the children as well as their language and literacy development.
In addition, in this proposed work (as in our work to date) we will take an approach that is

  • Developmental: in following children longitudinally, we seek heterotypic as well as homotypic continuity in reading development;

  • Sociolinguistic: we examine the development of English and Spanish in a variety of instructional situations that provide differing levels of support and status for the two languages;

  • Linguistically sophisticated: in analyzing word knowledge we attend to phonological, morphological, syntactic, and semantic aspects of lexical representation; and

  • Cross-linguistic: we pursue well articulated questions about how, under what conditions, and for what domains of language and literacy, children’s knowledge in Spanish might transfer to support acquisition of vocabulary in English.

Vocabulary Improvement and Assessment of Spanish-speakers is supported by Grant No. 2 P01 HD39530-06 A2  from the Eunice Kennedy Schriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and by Grant No. R305A070438 from the Institute of Education Sciences. However, the content of this Web site does not necessarily represent the positions or policies of these agencies, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.

Return to the VIAS main project page.