A new randomized control trial in Mississippi has found that a good kindergarten literacy program can boost disadvantaged students’ vocabulary in kindergarten by as much as an extra month of school.
Early childhood programs like Mississippi’s have focused heavily on early vocabulary for decades, with growing urgency since a seminal 1995 University of Kansas study showed children of parents on welfare enter school knowing about 525 words, less than half of the 1,100-word vocabulary of children of parents in professional jobs.
The Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast, housed at the SERVE Center of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, evaluated the Kindergarten PAVEd for Success program, which trains teachers to supplement their normal literacy instruction. Pam Finney, the research management leader for the study, said the program was purposely “not a very complicated intervention,” and it helps teachers engage in the same complex conversations that the Kansas study showed professional parents have with their children, “introducing 50 cent words as opposed to 25 cent words,” as Ms. Finney put it.
Each teacher gets a list of thematically related and complex words; for example, “temperature,” “exhaust,” “steam,” and “boil,” or “pineapple,” “banana,” and “kiwi.” The teacher reads stories that incorporate the words with the students and opens conversations with the students.
“One of the strategies is building bridges, having conversations with students whatever they want to talk about,” Ms. Finney explained. “The teacher learns how to have these conversations. Take ‘apple,’ ‘banana’ and ‘Kiwi.’ Students in the Delta may never have heard of a kiwi or seen the fruit. So the teacher shows them and they talk about it.”
Researchers tracked nearly 1,300 kindergarteners at 30 Mississippi Delta school districts, in which 128 kindergarten classes were randomly assigned to either use the program or teach literacy as they normally would. Teachers in the program received training but were allowed flexibility to implement it. All of the schools had to have at least 40 percent of their students in poverty, and both groups of children were similar demographically.
The researchers found children who participated in K-PAVE had an expressed vocabulary one month ahead in vocabulary development and academic knowledge at the end of kindergarten compared with students in the control group, as measured by a normed test. The students showed no significant difference in listening comprehension skills.
“These students who were below the norm for vocabulary to start, they’re one month closer to the norm, one month closer to those middle-class kids,” said Ludy van Broekhuizen; the executive director for SERVE Center and the REL’s director. “To actually get an impact on an intervention that required such a small effort on the part of the district is sort of remarkable in some ways.”
Teachers trained in the program were significantly more likely than the control-group teachers to include activities focused on students’ vocabulary and comprehension development, but they did not show significantly more instructional or emotional support for students.
The researchers have just submitted a follow-up study on the children’s literacy skills by the end of 1st grade, but they wouldn’t share those details yet. Because the students in the K-PAVE study improved in vocabulary, but not in comprehension, compared to their peers, I’d be interested to see what a follow-up study on these kids would show. Considering kindergarteners and 1st graders are just learning to read, would a one-month edge be enough to boost these students reading development, get them moved to more advanced groups, and so on? It would be interesting to find out. Moreover, since the original “vocabulary gap” study focused on parents’ conversations, not teachers’, I’d be interested in whether similar training could help parents improve their conversations with their children, too.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.