Words are bigger stumbling block than sentence structure when reading academic language

Words are bigger stumbling block than sentence structure when reading academic languageWhat poses greater challenges to students in reading comprehension, long sentences or long and complex words?

According to a large new German study on academic language published in Reading Research Quarterly, long and complex words seem to be a greater stumbling block for students from families of low socioeconomic status (SES) who have a less extensive academic vocabulary than peers from higher-income families. Students who are learning a new language struggle with both long sentences and long and complex words.

The study reports that students from low-income families struggle more with comprehension when they encounter a large number of general academic words, words with 3 or more syllables and compound words while language-minority students struggle with both lexical and grammatical features. The study is based on the performance of 19,108 fourth-graders on reading comprehension test items included on a national test.

Language-minority students had difficulty reading longer sentences as well as sentences with more prepositional phrases, but not sentences with dependent clauses and complex structures. General and specialized academic vocabulary, words with 3 or more syllables and compound words also impacted the reading comprehension of language-minority students.

One major take-away: Provide targeted vocabulary instruction to your students, but perhaps more important, give them a lot of early experience with expository texts to prepare them for the language demands ahead.

Germany is among those countries that has one of the biggest achievement gaps among its students. As early as elementary school, children with at least one foreign-born parent perform significantly worse in math, natural sciences, reading and listening comprehension than students whose parents were both born in Germany.

Of the 19,108 students whose standardized test data was included in the study, 16,485 were monolingual students and 2,623 first or second-generation children living in Germany. Of the monolingual students, 28.1% were classified as from low-SES families and 23.4% from high-SES families

By contrast, roughly half of all language-minority students (48.8%) came from families with low-SES and 17.1% from high-SES families.  Students who are language-minority students and from low-SES families are at a double disadvantage in acquiring academic language, the researchers report.

“Language-minority students are not only likely to have less exposure to their language of instruction in their homes, but also to receive less language input by native speakers than their native peers do. They are therefore assumed to be additionally hampered in their second-language acquisition over and above the assumed effects due to their often detrimental socioeconomic position.”

For this differential item functioning (DIF) study, researchers analyzed test items accompanying 4 expository texts and 5 narrative texts; each text was accompanied by 5-10 items. Texts were rated on their lexical and grammatical language features including 20 academic language features (number of passive voice constructions, number of specialized academic vocabulary).

The researchers noted that they found only a few items with moderate DIF and no items with large DIF, indicating that the reading comprehension test is by and large equally valid for different student groups.

“The Role of Academic-Language Features for Reading Comprehension of Language-Minority Students and Students from Low-SES Families,” by Birgit Heppt et al., Reading Research Quarterly, 2014, Volume 50, Number 1, pp. 61-82.

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