After-school program helps adolescent ELLs build academic vocabulary with games, other activities

girl browse internetStrategies that have been shown to be effective with elementary students can be used successfully to teach academic vocabulary to English Language Learners (ELLs) in middle school, according to a recent study in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.

These strategies were effectively used in a  20-session after-school program called the “Language Workshop” that engaged adolescent students in building their academic vocabulary with games, activities and instructional materials. The target words for the Language Workshop used in this Southern California school were the 60 most common academic words in Coxhead’s (2000) Academic Word List (AWL). The AWL comprises general academic words as opposed to discipline-specific words.

Incremental vocabulary building

Research shows that  students build word knowledge incrementally, according to the author.  One exposure, even a meaningful one, would not be sufficient to help students build knowledge of the target words so games and activities provided many different exposures to the word and provided collaboration with peers, an essential component of engaging adolescent literacy programs.

“General academic words have specific meanings in different contexts; understanding the meaning of the word structure in respect to the structure of a cell does not guarantee understanding of the structure of a poem,” the author writes.

“In designing Language Workshop, we considered these challenges of academic vocabulary words along with evidence-based practices for vocabulary development and recommendations for effective adolescent literacy programs.”

The guiding principles for Language  Workshop  sessions were as follows:

  • Provide multiple exposures to words in  multiple contexts
  • Provide multiple opportunities to process  words
  • Encourage personalization of words
  • Provide visual support and extra practice time whenever possible

Hard-to-illustrate words

Because academic vocabulary words are so abstract, one major activity was “picture puzzlers.” Students matched pictures with hard-to-illustrate words such as benefits, function, process and consistent and engaged in discussions about the word. 

“Such definitions are nearly impossible to illustrate with a picture, but a picture of a computer working correctly (or incorrectly) provides an opportunity to discuss what it means when something is functioning,” the researcher writes.

A picture of a team, for example, led to a brainstorming session on the benefits of being part of a team, such as being able to accomplish more than you could on your own.  Later in the session, students were asked what benefit meant and several raised their hands and said essentially that it means you are part of a team.

The response showed that students had started the process of “fast-mapping,” which involves creating initial associations with words and the contexts in which they are used.

“The students had connected, or mapped, the word benefit to a familiar context, but they would need to explore the word in other contexts before they could understand it in isolation,” the author writes. “Because the Language Workshop sessions were designed to give students multiple exposures to the words in multiple contexts, we saw these responses as a good first step and we continued to build on them.”

In another activity, a timed gallery walk, pictures drawn by students that illustrated academic words were exhibited on walls. Teams made their way around the room and tried to guess which words the other teams had illustrated. Students also worked with  “music puzzlers.”  They discussed their favorite songs in class using the target words for the day to interpret the song and discuss what they liked or disliked about it.

Other games and activities included charades, PictionaryJeopardy! , matching games and Taboo, where students give partners clues about a target word without using a list of  taboo words.

While games with peers in the Language Workshop engaged adolescent students, the author emphasizes that the games were nested in a larger instructional context that directed students’ involvement, building their background knowledge and addressing their misconceptions about word meanings.

“Without this instructional context, the games, in isolation, may not have resulted in the growth they did.”

Language Workshop was implemented as part of an experimental study in a suburban school in southern California.  Participating in the study were 37 students divided in 2 groups who attended the 75-minute after-school sessions.  Vocabulary measures administered to students(e.g. a modified version of  Vocabulary Knowledge Scale) showed greater vocabulary growth during the intervention compared to vocabulary growth in a comparable period of time with no intervention. Students also showed greater growth on the target words used in the intervention than with vocabulary not used in the intervention. 

Students’ vocabulary growth was greater with students who had more proficiency in English. The author says further research will be needed to show if these gains in academic vocabulary are sustained.

“Building Academic Vocabulary in After-School Settings: Games for Growth With Middle School English-Language Learners,” by Dianna Townsend,  Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy,  November 2009, pps. 242-251.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)