Vocabulary instruction for middle schoolers uses friendly text to teach academic words

iStock_000020139977XSmallVocabulary lists with novel and infrequently used words such as azure, homestead and scintillating do little to improve the academic literacy of middle schoolers, especially those who are English Language Learners (ELLs), says a recent study in Reading Research Quarterly.

More frequently used and academically relevant words such as method, evidence and average should be the focus of vocabulary instruction at this level, says the study which describes an 18- week vocabulary instruction program.

The Academic Language Instruction for All Students (ALIAS) uses engaging reading passages, not lists, to repeatedly expose students to key words in different contexts. Students develop a deep understanding of a few words rather than a shallow understanding of a large number of words, the researchers write.

Choose words wisely “The words to be taught deeply should be very high utility in nature; specifically, the words taught should be general-purpose academic words as opposed to the low-frequency and often relatively unimportant, if colorful and exotic, words (e.g., refuse, burrowed) that are sometimes selected by teachers or targeted for instruction by textbooks,” the study says.

Students who participated in the 18-week program performed significantly better on tests on the meanings of taught words, morphological awareness and word meanings in expository text. There were marginally significant but promising effects on a depth of word knowledge measure and a norm-referenced measure of reading comprehension. Effects were similar for both native English speakers and minority language learners.

The quasi-experimental study was conducted in 21 classes (13 treatment matched to 8 control) in 7 middle schools in a large district with 476 6th-grade students (130 native English speakers and 346 language minority learners). The language minority learners were students from homes where another language but English was spoken, either predominantly or some of the time.

As in previous studies on the impact of vocabulary instruction, while the researchers found significant effects on several measures of vocabulary learning, there was little effect on a general vocabulary measure, indicating little “far transfer” of learning.

ALIAS was specifically developed for use in mainstream, low-performing English language arts classrooms with high numbers of language minority learners, the researchers write.

Text-based learning The 18-week program comprises 8 2-week units, each consisting of an 8-day lesson cycle and 2 weekly reviews. Each daily lesson in the cycle was 45 minutes long; lessons were delivered 4 days per week.

The units revolved around a short piece of engaging informational text, typically feature articles from Time for Kids magazine. Texts were readable at the 4th-6th grade instructional level and covered topics of interest to youth such as single-gender classrooms, television viewing rates and how different ethnic groups in Africa learn to get along.

Eight to 9 high-utility academic words were chosen from the texts. Each unit provided between 3-4 exposures to each word. The academic word list (AWL), which has 3.5 million words from written academic text, was used as a guide for word selection. (The AWL contains words accounting for 10% of academic texts but only 1.4% of fiction text.)

Students engaged in a variety of whole-group, small-group, and independent activities that provided opportunities for listening, speaking, reading, and writing with the words. (The study in Reading Research Quarterly includes a detailed description of the lesson cycle with sample instruction activities).

Teachers were provided with a binder of materials and scripted lessons which they said was very helpful to them.

“Knowledge of a word—particularly an abstract, conceptually sophisticated word—is thought to develop incrementally over time, with students gaining additional information about a word with each meaningful, contextualized encounter with it,” the authors write.

Students took a battery of tests both before and after the vocabulary instruction program. Teachers reported that the vocabulary instruction program had improved students’ writing. Future research should probably include a writing measure, the researchers said.

While the intervention was equally effective for English speakers and those who spoke English as a second language, it did not close the gap between these 2 groups of students. To close the gap, ELLs might need a greater dose of the intervention or a modified intervention, the researchers said.

Effectiveness and Ease of Implementation of an Academic Vocabulary Intervention for Linguistically Diverse Students in Urban Middle Schools,” Nonie Lesaux et al., Reading Research Quarterly, Volume 45, Number 2, pps. 197-228.

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