Research on the literacy and language development of Spanish-speaking English language learners
VIAS Subproject 3
Acquisition of Vocabulary in English
The goals of Subproject 3 are to explore the vocabulary development of primary grade English language learners (ELLs) and their English-proficient peers by developing an assessment of vocabulary knowledge that indicates how well students at these grade levels know words that appear frequently in grade-level reading material, and by designing and evaluating two interventions focused on improving students’ vocabulary knowledge of high-frequency words that children at these grades have not yet acquired. Findings to date indicate that all students have the most difficulty acquiring conceptually complex words and that first language vocabulary knowledge helps ELLs understand English words when those words are cognates.
Subproject 3 of the Vocabulary Instruction and Assessment for Spanish Speakers (VIAS) project consists of three studies. The first study examines differences in vocabulary performance of third grade English-only (EO) students and Spanish-speaking English language learners (ELLs). The second and third studies examine the effects of two instructional interventions for promoting vocabulary learning in second grade ELLs. The second intervention study will follow a cohort of second graders over two years.
Studies and Results
The goal of Study 1, implemented in Years 1 and 2 of the project, was to explore 1) how third grade Spanish-speaking ELLs compare to their English-proficient peers in knowledge of a representative sample of words that occur most frequently in written texts; 2) whether word difficulty varies as a function of word attributes; and 3) whether the function that relates word difficulty to word attributes varies for ELLs compared with English-proficient students. To answer these questions, we recruited two school districts in which to work (Washington, DC, and Houston, Texas) and developed two measures of word knowledge: the Word Inventory, composed of words that appear frequency in text for students in grades 1–6 (drawn from Zeno 1995), and the Text Cohesion Task, a measure of coherence relations. Words were coded for attributes that may relate to word difficulty, including part of speech, cognate status, degree of polysemy, and degree of conceptual complexity (in the Word Inventory), and type of relationship, such as additive, temporal, and causal (in the Text Cohesion Task). Raters with expertise in second language acquisition rated words that appeared on the Word Inventory assessment; rating words for conceptual complexity was especially challenging.
In Year 2 of Study 1, 286 third grade students from four schools in the Houston Independent School District (HISD) and 49 third grade students from DC participated (a total of 335 students). We administered the two researcher-developed measures of vocabulary (Word Inventory and Text Cohesion Task) and two subtests of the Gates-MacGinitie (word decoding subtest and word knowledge subtest) to all students. On the Word Inventorytthere were large, significant differences between English-proficient students and ELLs, favoring English proficient students. However, ELLs did better on cognates than on non-cognates whereas English-proficient students performed comparably on cognates and non-cognates . On the Text Cohesion assessment, there were also significant group mean differences in favor of the English-proficient studentsThere was a strong correlation between Gates-McGinitie Word Decoding and Word Knowledge subtests, indicating that students who were better at decoding also knew more vocabulary words. Additionally, the Word Inventory and Text Cohesion Task both had strong correlations with the Gates-MacGinitie Word Knowledge subtest, indicating that both of the experimenter-generated assessments are strong and robust measures of vocabulary.
To determine what makes high frequency academic words difficult to acquire, we first examined the bivariate zero-order correlations between the word characteristics and two indices of word difficulty. The word characteristics included Living Word Vocabulary (LWV) grade level, three components of complexity, cognate status, polysemy, and the number of letters in each word. The two indices of difficulty were the actual item percent correct as well as an IRT difficulty parameter based on a single vocabulary factor and a two-parameter IRT model (difficulty and discrimination). These preliminary results indicated that the LWV grade level and all three complexity components were significantly related to both the item percent correct and IRT difficulty parameter. When examining the correlations separately for the English-proficient and ELLs, the magnitudes of the correlations differed slightly, but the pattern of significance was the same.
In Year 3 we have implemented Study 2, the first intervention study. The goal of this study was to examine the relative effectiveness of two methods of vocabulary instruction (direct instruction and paraphrasing) for improving the vocabulary knowledge of second grade Spanish-speaking ELLs. Because the intervention is concerned with giving children vocabulary instruction that will help them comprehend challenging text, we have selected as target words the kinds of words identified in Study 1 that children are not likely to have in their vocabulary, even after considerable exposure to English, as well as words that appear frequently in the texts that children will encounter in school. Prior to implementing the study, we obtained permission from the HISD for both intervention studies. The sample consists of 186 second grade ELLs. Students were pretested on the Gates-MacGinitie level 1S word decoding and level 2S word knowledge subtests, a 72-item researcher-developed vocabulary assessment focusing on content words, and an 18-item researcher-developed test assessing connective words. Students are currently participating in the intensive 9-week vocabulary intervention and will be post-tested in May.
Of significance to the field is the development of a valid and reliable measure of vocabulary that generalizes back to a meaningful corpora of words (those that appear frequently in grade-level texts), a method to code conceptual complexity (one of the best predictors of word difficulty), and findings related to the relative performance of English-proficient students and ELLs and the factors that make words difficult for each group of students. More detailed findings are reported above.
During Year 4, we plan to analyze the data we have collected in the first intervention study (Study 2). A repeated measures, within-subjects ANOVA will be used to determine if performance at posttest, after controlling for pretest performance, differed as a function of method of instruction, level of conceptual complexity and cognate status of words (i.e., word type), or the interactions of these three factors. We will also conduct item-level analyses to determine if some types of words are more susceptible to acquisition under various instructional contexts and if the characteristics of those words interact with instructional type. Over the summer we will develop the second intervention to be implemented during Year 4 and in the fall and winter of Year 4 we will implement the second intervention study. We will continue preparing papers based on data collected in Years 1, 2 and 3.
The following papers have been published or are in preparation. They report findings from the first 5 years of the grant:
- August, D., Goldenberg, C.Saunders, W. & Dressler, C. (2010). Recent research on English language and literacy instruction: What we have learned to guide practice for English-language learners in the 21st century. In M. Shatz & L. Wilkinson (Eds.), Preparing to educate English language learners, (pp. 272-297). New York: Guilford Press.
- August, D., & Gray, J. L. (2010). Developing comprehension in English language learners: Research and promising practices. In K. Ganske and D. Fisher (Eds.), Comprehension across the curriculum: Perspectives and practices K-12. New York: Guilford Press.
- Proctor, C. P., August, D., Snow, C. & Barr, C. (2010). The interdependence continuum: A Perspective on the Nature of Spanish-English Bilingual Reading Comprehension. Bilingual Research Journal, 33, 2, 5-20.
- Proctor, C. P., August, D., Carlo, M., & Barr, C. (2010). Language maintenance versus language of instruction: Spanish reading development among Latino and Latina bilingual learners. Journal of Social Issues, 66, 1, 79–94.
Based on our work creating the Word Inventory, we developed a dictionary of high-frequency general academic vocabulary by grade level for teachers in HISD.back to top