Truths About Vocabulary

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 24, 2008 2 min read
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“The more words you know, the easier it is to acquire new words,” said David J. Francis, a professor of quantitative methods in the psychology department of the University of Houston, while presenting a study about teaching vocabulary to English-language learners at a conference of the Institute of Education Sciences this month in Washington.

Mr. Francis argued at a June 11 session about ELLs that schools need to do a better job of infusing the teaching of vocabulary across a school’s whole curricula. Mr. Francis noted that the Reading First Impact Study, released in May, shows that children in Reading First programs in 2nd grade spend an average of 12 minutes per day learning vocabulary (see page 45 of the study). “I mean, who are we kidding?” he said, implying that 12 minutes isn’t nearly enough time for children to learn the academic vocabulary they need to succeed in school. (After the session, he told me that having the chance to learn vocabulary throughout the school day is particularly important for children from low-income families because they typically lack the general knowledge to easily learn new words.)

Mr. Francis and Diane August, a senior research scientist at the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics, presented findings from the first year of a two-year study paid for by the Institute of Education Sciences that examines interventions for improving the science knowledge and academic language (including vocabulary) of middle school students in Texas. The students in the study were from homes where a language other than English is spoken and included many English-language learners. For each teacher, two sections of science were randomly assigned to the treatment condition and two sections were randomly assigned to the control condition. With a sample of 1,000 6th graders at five middle schools, the researchers compared student outcomes for students in treatment sections where the teachers implemented the interventions developed by the researchers to control classrooms where teachers taught the science curriculum as they usually do. Strategies for teaching science and academic language included providing children with lots of hands-on science activities, such as looking at plant and animal cells under a microscope, as well as guided reading and writing that used new vocabulary.

“They don’t just have to hear it, they have to see it,” Ms. August said, in explaining how children learn new words. She reported that on tests designed by the researchers using items developed by Texas and the textbook publishers, students in the treatment group outperformed students in the control group. Students in the treatment group also did significantly better on measures of academic language.

Two decades ago the teaching of vocabulary was not a hot topic in education circles, said Judith Scott, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was invited to respond to presentations about teaching vocabulary to ELLs. “Now vocabulary is hot. People are starting to pay attention to it.” She said the topic of how to teach vocabulary to ELLs in particular is prevalent in the research community. She summed up three studies at the conference session by saying: Students “need to have multiple opportunities to see, hear, and use words.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.