Improving English Language Learners' Academic Vocabulary, Kenneth McKee

Data collection and sources

  • šAdapted vocabulary knowledge rating pretests and posttests
  • šStudent attitude surveys

  • šInterviews with the regular classroom teacher
  • Interviews with students at the midpoint and end of study
  • šResearcher journal
  • šPhotographs of instructional practice

Data analysis and interpretation

Overall Impact of Word Generation

During the word generation phase of the mini-lessons, I asked students to "take the route back to the root," or connect the words they generated to the meaning of the target morpheme. Students began to see correlations between words. Both the classroom teacher and I were impressed by how students articulated how the meaning of the morphemes impacted the definitions of their generated words. The teacher was so impressed by this aspect of the study that she revealed that she planned to continue with a focus on morphological instruction after the study ended. She mentioned that she hoped to emphasize roots, prefixes, and suffixes while teaching pre-exisiting vocabulary words she used in instruction.

Overall word knowledge increased by 46%, based upon the cumulative class means of both pre-tests (11.25) and post-tests (21). This bar graph represents the average increase in general academic (Tier 2) word knowledge for this group of students.

The students strongly agreed with each of the following statements concerning word generation:

  • "I learned new words by studying word parts" (a 4.75 mean out of a maximum 5 points).
  • "I found studying word parts interesting." (a 4.75 mean out of a maximum of 5 points).
  • "Talking about words helped me learn new words" (a 4.75 mean out of a maximum of 5 points).
  • "I enjoy learning vocabulary by making words from different word parts." (a 4.5 mean out of a maximum of 5 points).

In addition, some students mentioned that they had begun to see connections between morphologically related words in texts they read for pleasure or that they read in their other classes. They also made connections to previously studied words. For example, when I taught students the prefix auto-, they quickly connected its meaning to the word autobiography, a vocabulary word they studied in their ESL class before I began the action research study. Students agreed with the statement, "I use word parts to help me figure out the meanings of words I don't know" (a 4.25 mean out of a maximum of 5 points).

There was a quantitative impact upon their word knowledge of words we did not explicitly teach. Based on the post-assessments, their word knowledge of words that shared morphemes but were not explicitly taught increased 31% from the pre-assessments.


Generating and Connecting Cognates to Morphemes

All students responded with Strongly Agree to the statement, "Comparing How word parts are used in English and Spanish words helped me learn." This was their strongest area of agreement on the Likert scale. One student mentioned that connecting to words in Spanish was exceptionally helpful, and the classroom teacher remarked that she believed that having students collaboratively generate words in both English and Spanish was one of the most successful practices in the study.

Correlations with Text Genres

Although there was no significant difference overall between word knowledge improvement when comparing words associated with informational texts (46% growth) and those associated with literary texts (49% growth), there were significant differences in which mode instruction worked best for each text genre.

When students learned about morphemes connected to words in informational texts, it appears that their generative word knowledge increased more than their knowledge of explicitly taught words. Students' word knowledge increased 39% on the target words that I explicitly taught before reading informational texts. However, their knowledge of words that were morphologically related but not explicitly taught increased by 50%.

The gap was even larger when I investigated the morphemes taught alongside literary texts; however, the results were contradictory to those of the informational texts. By far students' word knowledge improved greatly on the explicitly taught words in the literary texts (64% growth). Students' knowledge of the morphologically related words improved by only a modest percent (29%).

Comparisons across Text Genres.JPG

Thus, it seems that the morphology generation lessons were much more effective when taught within the context of reading informational texts. I believe that this could be partially because of the nature of Tier 2 vocabulary, which appears much more often in informational texts than literary ones. Students encountered a wider array of words sharing morphemes when they read informational text. The students often vocalized these connections when reading the informational texts and sometimes added new words to the anchor charts.

Morphological knowledge was not often reinforced when students read literary texts, yet pre-teaching words from the text resulted in high increases in students' word knowledge.

Overall Effectiveness of Vocabulary Instruction in Context of Connected Text

Much research suggests that students best learn new words when they are connected to real reading, rather than the common method of isolated word lists. My action research supported this assertion. In the student interviews, all of the students said that reading the target vocabulary words in text helped them learn the words; in addition, students agreed with the statement, "Looking for words in the reading helped me learn new words" on the student attitude survey (a 4.25 mean out of a possible 5 points). Selecting the target words and morphemes after I selected texts was important for this learning. For example, when we read an article about the effects of the Ebola case on public perceptions of the Liberian community in Texas, students effectively connected the word community from our mini-lesson to its the repeated appearance in the article. Another example cited by my researcher journal as well as the teacher interview was that students pointed out the morphemes from the mini-lessons when they encountered them in new words while reading.

Effectiveness of Interactive Morpheme Posters

In five of the eight student interviews, students mentioned that the posters helped them learn. In fact, students viewed the posters as records of their own learning because they created the English and Spanish word lists from their shared background knowledge. In some of the classes, the students asked to add words to the posters when they encountered new words with previously studied morphemes in the text. For example, when reading an article on professional baseball in Cuba, students encountered the words connection and contracts, which they added to the com-, con-, co-, cor- poster from a past morphology lesson. Students average rating of the statement, "Looking at the posters helped me learn new words," was a 4.75, or strongly agree.

Other strategies for keeping records of words did not work as well with our group. Students were asked to continue adding words in word study notebooks, but many of the students were reluctant to add words without checking in with classmates. In addition, I attempted to integrate a digital morpheme poster through the use of Padlet, but it seemed to confuse students. One later reported that he preferred seeing the words on the wall each day instead of a digital location. However, I still believe that digital methods could be used in other classroom contexts or in online courses.

Increased Levels of Engagement

By far, games were popular with students. On the student attitude surveys, students strongly agreed with the statement, "Playing games helped me learn new words" (a 4.5 mean out of a maximum of 5 points). All of the students and the classroom teacher mentioned the helpfulness of games in their student interviews. In fact, the classroom teacher commented that she believed that the study would have been better if we had played games more often. She had not used word-learning games much previously, and she stated that she was surprised by how much students enjoyed the games. In my researcher journal, I often made notes of students asking whether we would be playing games in the lesson. The most frequent (and easy to play) game was Brainburst. In fact, although students did rather poorly on a vocabulary game I made using Kahoot!, they repeatedly asked if we could play Kahoot! in subsequent lessons.

Turning student interests into thematic units worked quite well. During the classroom teacher interview, Mrs. Dodson indicated that she believed surveying the students' interests to choose high-interest topics and texts contributed to increased student engagement while reading texts. She also made note that the students critical thinking improved greatly when we integrated the texts based upon student interests. Students related much of their cultural background knowledge when we used these texts as well. For example, when we read about Cuba's difficulties of losing their best baseball players to high-paying Major League Baseball teams, students discussed similarities in how excellent soccer players are often recruited from lower-paying teams to higher-paying teams.

Students cited that clarity of assignments demonstrated through learning targets and modeling of strategies helped them feel successful during each lesson. For example, one of the most successful reading comprehension strategies was Stop-Think-React because we used the gradual release of responsibility model to aid student autonomy of the strategy. Of course, it's well-documented that student autonomy results in increased motivation and engagement for adolescents. I modeled the strategy with the text, then we discussed reactions as a class, then students worked with partners to read, and eventually they read the texts independently incorporating STR.

Integrating opportunities for movement during word generation mini-lessons, paired reading, and games also resulted in increased student engagement, according to the classroom teacher and the students. Students especially enjoyed being able to add their own words to the morpheme posters.