Research Supporting the Pratice
A long history of literacy research has made clear that vocabulary knowledge is important to reading achievement and strongly linked to reading comprehension (Snow, 2002; NRP, 2000; Freebody & Anderson, 1983; Davis, 1942; Whipple, 1925). However, the research on exactly how to teach vocabulary is limited (Snow, p. 36).
Graves (2000) describes four components of an effective vocabulary curriculum: (1) teaching individual words, (2) encouraging wide reading, (3) teaching word-learning strategies, and (4) promoting word consciousness (p. 118). Snow (2002) acknowledges that this type of curriculum is "likely to make an important contribution to students' long-term vocabulary growth and, hence, to their reading comprehension" (p. 39).
In their review of the research on vocabulary instruction, Blachowicz and Fisher (2000) say that there are in general four main principles to guide instruction (pp. 504-508):
With regard to the teaching of individual words, a substantial proportion of the research on vocabulary development has been dedicated to which words are optimal for teachers to choose for instruction. For example, Nation (1989, 1999) and Laufer (1999) categorize words as high-frequency words, domain-specific technical vocabulary, low-frequency words, and high-utility academic vocabulary (Snow, p. 37). Vocabulary researchers vary as to which category is most beneficial to comprehension and for what group of learners (e.g., English language learners).
Although the National Reading Panel (2000) did not find compelling evidence that extensive independent reading such as sustained silent reading promoted vocabulary growth, the RAND report points out a "powerful correlational relationship between the volume of reading and vocabulary growth among first-language learners in Stanovich and Cunningham's (1992) research and second language learners" (Elley, 1991).
Practitioners can rely on the well-documented instructional strategies of modeling, scaffolding, and student engagement; focusing instruction on student-selected and "need to know" high-utility and domain-specific vocabulary; and using context clues and identifying morphemes (the meaning-bearing parts of words). A major benefit of the RAND metasynthesis of the research has been to define the areas of need for research so that in the future these practitioner-validated practices can be better supported by systematic research.
Blachowicz, C. L. Z., & Fisher P. (2000). Vocabulary Instruction. In M. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, P. Pearson, & R. Barr, (Eds.), Handbook of reading research, Volume III (pp. 503-523). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Buikema, J. L., & Graves, M. F. (1993). Teaching students to use context clues to infer word meanings. Journal of Reading, 36, 450-457.
Davis, F. B. (1942). Two new measures of reading ability. Journal of Educational Psychology, 33, 365-372.
Elley, W. B., (1991). Acquiring literacy in a second language: The effect of book-based programs. Language Learning, 41(3), 375-411.
Fisher, P. J., & Danielsen, D. (1998). When fourth-graders select their own words for spelling and vocabulary. In L. Wedwick & R. K. Moss (Eds.), Conversations: Teacher research in literacy learning (pp. 23-27). Bloomington: Illinois Reading Council.
Freebody, P., & Anderson, R. C. (1983). Effects of vocabulary difficulty, text cohesion, and schema availability on reading comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 18(3), 277-294.
Friedland, E. S. (1992). The effect of context instruction on vocabulary acquisition of college students (Doctoral dissertation, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1992). Dissertation Abstracts International, 53, 11A.
Gifford, A. P. (1993). An investigation of the effects of direct instruction in contextual clues on developmental reading students' ability to increase vocabulary and reading comprehension scores. (Doctoral dissertation, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, IL, 1993). Dissertation Abstracts International, 54, 08A.
Graves, M. (2000). A vocabulary program to complement and bolster a middle-grade comprehension program. In B. M. Taylor, M. F. Graves, & P. van den Broek (Eds.), Reading for meaning: Fostering comprehension in the middle grades. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Laufer, B., & Nation, P. (1999). A vocabulary-size test of controlled productive ability. Language Testing, 16(1), 33-51.
Nation, A. (1989). A system of tasks for language learning. In A. Sarinee (Ed.), Language teaching methodology for the nineties. Selected papers from the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) Regional Language Centre Seminar (1989). Anthology Series 24.
National Reading Panel (NRP). (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Snow, C. (2002). Reading for understanding: Toward a research and development program in reading comprehension. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.
Stanley, P. D., & Ginther, D. W. (1991). The effects of purpose and frequency on vocabulary learning from written context of high and low ability reading comprehenders. Reading Research and Instruction, 30(4), 31-41.
Stanovich, K. E., & Cunningham, A. E. (1992). Studying the consequences of literacy within a literate society: The cognitive correlates of print exposure. Memory & Cognition, 20, 51-68.
Whipple, G. (Ed.). (1925). The Twenty-fourth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education: Report of the National Committee on Reading. Bloomington, IL: Public School Publishing Company.
General Research on ELL Reading Instruction
There is general agreement that becoming a proficient reader in a second language is a difficult task. Snow, Burns, and Griffin (1998) and August and Hakuta (1997) underscore the enormous cognitive challenge faced by young ELLs who must acquire oral and literacy skills in English simultaneously. ELLs who are already literate in a home language are able to transfer some of their skills for use in English reading (Garcia, 2000), but that does not imply that learning to read well in English will be an easy task. Reading involves the use of both "higher level cognitive knowledge, ... abilities... and learning strategies," as well as "low level linguistic knowledge and processing strategies (Birch 2002, p. x.) Throughout the elementary grades, ELLs are likely to encounter difficulties with both "high" and "low" levels of the reading process, especially as they tackle increasingly complex readings (Droop & Verhoeven, 1998).
Knowledge of the relationships between sounds and letters is essential for learning to read English (Ehri, 1998). Verhoeven's (1999) work cautions teachers that it is unrealistic to expect ELLs to decode words independently until they are familiar with the sound system of English. To help ELLs become adept at using sound-letter relationships, Birch (2002) recommends practice in a variety of tasks: identifying a particular phoneme in words, discriminating between that phoneme and similar ones, linking the sound to the printed letter, visually discriminating the letter from other visually similar letters, recognizing and printing the letter in both upper and lowercase forms, finding the letter at the beginnings and endings of words alone and in connected text, and drawing things that begin with the letter and labeling them (p. 72). Other teaching suggestions include: playing games with rhyming words and alliterative words to develop students' awareness of how sounds combine to form words (Antunez, 2002; Kaufman & Franco, 2004), and, in the case of Spanish-speaking ELLs, building upon the similarities and differences between the sound systems of the two languages (Helman, 2004).
Many researchers point out the difficulty of comprehending text when one has a limited vocabulary (Verhallen & Schoonen, 1993; Garcia, 1991; McLaughlin, 1993; Jimenez, Garcia, & Pearson, 1995, 1996). ELLs of any age often know too few words or only a single meaning for a word. McLaughlin et al. (2004) have had promising results in increasing ELLs' vocabulary knowledge through an intervention that pre-selected challenging and high-utility words from a reading selection. The intervention involved direct teaching of word meanings; teaching and raising awareness of words with multiple meanings; systemic teaching of word analysis skills including roots and affixes; engaging students in word games, riddles, and other activities designed to promote deeper understanding and use of the words in new and meaningful contexts; and finding the words outside of school. The intervention also focused on increasing Latino students' awareness of Spanish/English cognate words and ability to use cognate recognition as a legitimate and productive comprehension strategy.
Several researchers have documented that ELLs benefit from cognate recognition training (García & Nagy, 1993; Durgunoglu et al., 1993). Kress (2002) contains a useful reference list of Spanish-English cognates. Similarly, Au (1993), Nagy (1988), Dixon and Nessel (1983), and others recommend that teachers integrate vocabulary instruction with content instruction and with story reading. Hickman et al. (2004) describe a successful approach to teaching vocabulary to primary-grade ELLs during storybook reading. The approach involves careful selection of several storybooks or informational texts that focus on a theme of interest to the students in the class and are at a reading level above students' grade level. Teachers carefully select from the texts those vocabulary words which students could encounter and use in other contexts. Over the course of five days, the class previews the story and the vocabulary words, and the story is read aloud, discussed, re-read, and summarized. Discussions focus on using the vocabulary words and encouraging children to relate these words to their own life experiences.
Carrell and Eisterhold (1988) and Carrell (1983, 1984) have demonstrated the positive impact that prior knowledge of a topic or situational context has on ELLs' reading comprehension. However, stories and other texts often contain cultural contexts and assumptions that are unfamiliar to young ELLs and make comprehension difficult or impossible. Researchers advise teachers to support comprehension before students read by eliciting and building upon ELLs' prior knowledge and experiences relevant to story theme, setting, and content. Many researchers also support the value of teaching content reading strategies such as previewing a chapter before reading it and formulating questions, self-monitoring, and using imagery during reading (Carasquillo et al., 2004; Chamot & O'Malley, 1994; Echeverria et al., 2000; Schifini, 1994). Researchers agree that teachers should model and support comprehension before, during, and after reading by teaching text structures; using graphic organizers such as Venn diagrams, cause and effect charts, and story maps; and creating study guides that students can complete (Carasquillo et al., 2004).
One recommended approach to increase comprehension and engagement is the use of culturally relevant texts and multicultural literature (Au, 1998, 1993; Barrera, 1992; Harris, 1994). Larrick's 1965 landmark article, "The All-White World of Children's Books" (reprinted in Muse, 1997) pointed out that minority children had few opportunities to read about characters like themselves or see themselves in these books. In Larrick's review, these children's books often depicted those minority characters in offensive or demeaning ways. More recently, Singer and Smith (2003) point out that
Multicultural children's literature provides self-affirmation for readers when it conveys that people like themselves have lives worth knowing about and worth sharing with others (Bishop, 1997; Tenorio, 1994). This is particularly significant for readers who are members of marginalized groups (p.17).Daphne Muse's book, Multicultural Resources for Young Readers (1997), contains an extensive annotated bibliography of such literature likely to engage ELLs readers and to build upon their experiences and prior knowledge.
Students' knowledge and experience are the starting points for The Language Experience Approach to reading, used with beginning English readers of all ages (Moustafa, 1987; Tharp & Gallimore, 1989; Tinajero & Calderon, 1988). Through questioning, teachers prompt students to speak about their individual or in-class experiences. The teacher writes down students' oral narratives, and the resulting text becomes the basis of reading instruction. Often teachers plan a group activity (e.g., taking a walk) to provide a common experiential base for reading.
Hoggard's 1996 review of the "critical attributes of classroom culture" for ESL literacy learners includes "the teacher as guide," "meaningful literacy experiences, a sense of ownership," "a community of learners," and "interactive classroom discourse" (pp. 5- 9). Other researchers have also highlighted the importance of student participation in conversations that relate book themes to students' personal experiences and to other books. The instructional conversations (IC) approach is one way of structuring such book-centered interactions. Teachers promote general participation in small-group discussion by not calling on children but waiting for them to volunteer to speak, by responding to student contributions, and by encouraging students to connect their comments to those of previous speakers and build upon what they said (Rueda et al., 1992; Saunders & Goldenberg, 1999). IC also promotes skimming, scanning, and careful reading by requiring students to find text passages that support their opinions and interpretations (Goldenberg, 1991, 1992/1993; Goldenberg & Gallimore, 1990). Literature circles are another discussion format that promotes comprehension and academic language in a social context. Ruby (2003) discusses their effectiveness when properly scaffolded for English language learners. Gordon (2003) offers another good example of how teachers can effectively use literature response journals with English language learners.
Antunez, B. (2002). Implementing Reading First with English language learners. Directions in Language and Education, 15. Retrieved February 9, 2005, from: www.ncela.gwu.edu/pubs/directions/15.pdf
Au, K. H. (1993). Literacy instruction in multicultural settings. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Au, K. H. (1998). Social constructivism and the school literacy learning of students of diverse backgrounds. Journal of Literacy Research, 20, 297-319.
August, D., & Hakuta, K. (Eds.). (1997). Improving schooling for language-minority children: A research agenda. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Barrera, R. B. (1992). The cultural gap in literature-based literacy instruction. Education and Urban Society, 24, 227-243.
Birch, B. (2002). English L2 reading: Getting to the bottom. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Bishop, R. S. (1997). Selecting literature for a multicultural curriculum. In V. Harris (Ed.), Using Multiethnic literature in the K-8 classroom (pp. 1-19). Norwood, MA: Christopher Gordon.
Carrell, P. (1983). Background knowledge in second language comprehension. Language Learning and Communication, 2(1), 25-34.
Carrell, P. (1984). Schema theory and ESL reading: Classroom implications and applications. Modern Language Journal, 68, 332-43.
Carrell, P., & Eisterhold, J. (1988). Schema theory and ESL pedagogy. In Carrell, P., Devine, J., & Eskey, D. (Eds.), Interactive approaches to second language reading (pp. 73-89). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Carasquillo, A., Kucer, B., & Abrams. R. (2004). Beyond the beginnings: Literacy interventions for upper elementary English language learners. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Chamot, A. C., & O'Malley, M. J. (1994). CALLA handbook: Implementing the cognitive academic language learning approach. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Dixon, C. N., & Nessel, D. D. (1983). Language experience approach to reading and writing: Language experience reading for second language learners. Hayward, CA: Alemany Press.
Droop, M., & Verhoeven, L. (1998). Background knowledge, linguistic complexity, and second language reading comprehension. Journal of Literacy Research, 30(2), 253-271.
Durgunoglu, A., Nagy, W. E., & Hancin-Bhatt, B. J. (1993). Cross-language transfer of phonological awareness. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(3), 453-465.
Ehri, L. C. (1998). Grapheme-phoneme knowledge is essential for learning to read words in English. In J. L. Metsala & L. C. Ehri (Eds.), Word recognition in beginning reading (pp. 3-40). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Echevarria, J., Vogt, M. E., Short, D. (2000). Making content comprehensible for English language learners: The SIOP Model. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Garcia, G. E. (1991). Factors influencing the English reading test performance of Spanish-speaking Hispanic children. Reading Research Quarterly, 26(4), 371-392.
Garcia, G. E. (2000). Bilingual children's reading. In M. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, D. Pearson, R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research, Volume III. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
García, G. E., & Nagy, W. E. (1993). Latino students' concept of cognates. In D. J. Leu & C. K. Kinzer (Eds.), Examining central issues in literacy research, theory, and practice. Chicago: National Reading Conference.
Goldenberg, C. (1991). Instructional conversations and their classroom application (Educational Practice Report No. 2). Washington, D.C.: National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning.
Goldenberg, C. (1992/1993). Instructional conversations: Promoting comprehension through discussion. The Reading Teacher, 46, 316-326.
Goldenberg, C., & Gallimore, R. (1990). Meeting the language arts challenge for language minority children: Teaching and reaming in a new key. Progress Report, University of California Office of the President, Presidential Grants for School Improvement Committee, Los Angeles.
Gordon, T. (2003). "Romeo and Juliet come to New York": Integrating reading and writing through literature response. TESOL Journal, 12(3), 49-50.
Harris, V.J. (1994). Multiculturalism and children's literature. In F. Lehr & J. Osborn (Eds.), Reading, language, and literacy: Instruction for the twenty-first century (pp. 201-214). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Helman, L. (2004). Building on the sound system of Spanish: Insights from the alphabetic spellings of English language learners. The Reading Teacher, 57, 452-460.
Hickman, P., Pollard-Durodola, S., & Vaughn, S. (2004). Storybook reading: Improving vocabulary and comprehension for English language learners. The Reading Teacher, 57(8), 720-730.
Hoggard, L. S. (1996). Critical attributes of classroom culture for literacy development of English language learners. Doctoral Dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles.
Jimenez, R. T., Garcia, G. E., & Pearson, P. D. (1995). Three children, two languages, and strategic reading: Case studies in bilingual/monolingual reading. American Educational Research Journal, 32(1), 67-97.