Improving English Language Learners' Academic Vocabulary, Kenneth McKee


Reference: Donnelly, W. B., & Roe, C. J. (2010). Using sentence frames to develop academic vocabulary for English learners. The Reading Teacher, 64(2), 131-136. doi:10.1598/RT.64.2.5

Summary: This article focused on how to develop academic vocabulary (both Tier 2 and Tier 3) in the content area classroom. The overall sequence of instruction included: determining a core concept from a text, matching the concept to a language function, selecting and explaining critical concept vocabulary, and using structured language practice to give students opportunities think, talk, and write about concepts. In an example lesson on migration, researchers noticed several core concepts, so they read the entire selection and analyzed the end-of-chapter test questions to determine the overall concepts. Core concept words (both Tier 2 and Tier 3) were selected. These words were introduced to students early in the lesson with student-friendly explanations, examples, and non-examples. Compare-contrast was identified as main concept. Two sentence frames were developed, simple ones to illustrate the idea to less proficient students, and then more sophisticated academic language-laden ones for when the lesson progressed. Frames can become more complex depending on language level.

Relevance to my Study: Sentence frames are one strategy I have used in the past to build academic language. The way frames are presented in the article provide some opportunities for differentiation based on language level. I am not sure how I can do that in my study if I work with a regular content area, rather than an ESL classroom. There are several examples for how the frames can be built, based upon student needs. Word banks can also be used. Like another article mentioned, the use of frames allows students to think, discuss, and write about content while integrating the academic (or Tier 2) language. Sentence frames look like a promising way to integrate general academic language development, and I believe could be utilized in some form during the study. I’m no yet sure if they will be my specific intervention strategy.



Reference: Flanigan, K., Templeton, S., & Hayes, L. (2012). What’s in a word? Using content vocabulary to generate growth in general academic vocabulary knowledge. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56(2), 132-140. doi:10.1002/JAAL.00114

Summary: This practitioner piece suggests instructional strategies for teacher to emphasize morphemes while teaching their content vocabulary in order to help students build their general academic vocabulary. Generative vocabulary principles outlined include: (1) move from concrete and familiar to more abstract and unfamiliar, (2) model and demonstrate generative processes to guide students, and (3) apply knowledge in support of individual learning. The focus of the paper is more upon teaching students how words work, so they make inferences and connections between words, not necessarily teaching individual general academic words. One of the main ways to instruct included a morpheme web in which the students added words that they already knew which shared the target morpheme. The teacher then taught two or three complex words that students didn’t know in order to build on to their shared background knowledge. These complex words were usually Tier 2 words, but sometimes they were Tier 3.

Relevance to my Study: Since content-area teachers feel the pressure of time, using their content vocabulary to drive general academic vocabulary learning makes sense. Capitalizing on the rich morphological structures in many content words can also build students’ inferring skills when they come across unfamiliar words in textbooks and tests. Using a morphological strategy could help students learn content as well as improve their general academic vocabulary. This approach focuses more on teaching morphemes in content words and having student build personal connections to those words than it does on teaching individual content words to students. The activities suggested differ from some of the other studies in that there are not necessarily links to a text being studied. Students are making links between morphemes and their current vocabulary, the content word, and new words that the teacher shares.


Reference: Hiebert, E. H., & Lubliner, S. (2008). The nature, learning, and instruction of general academic vocabulary. In A. E. Farstrup & S. J. Samuels (Eds.). What research has to say about vocabulary instruction (p. 150-181). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Summary: Students experience difficult and abstract general academic vocabulary, especially in content area informational texts. This vocabulary is especially troublesome for students living in poverty and who are English language learners. General academic words are by far the most common and widely dispersed among subjects of different types of school vocabulary. Many studies have nor yet been conducted on the instruction of general academic vocabulary, but some aspects have been studied: including morphological richness and English-Spanish cognates. Derivational relationships between words can help unlock the meaning of words aiding vocabulary acquisition and reading comprehension. Students who speak Spanish acquire the highest number of new words when they recognize cognate relationships. The article says that although best general academic vocabulary practices are still being studied, it is clear what should not be done ( word lists to learn and memorize). It is also whether instruction of some general academic words is more helpful for some disciplines than others. A middle school program called Word Generation is explored. Students read a text on Monday that has five Tier 2 words chosen from the AWL. The following days students are engaged in experiences with the text, content, and words, resulting in writing their response or opinions of the topic at the end of the week.

Relevance to my Study: The text mentions early on how subject-area specialist teach Tier 3 words whereas Tier 2 words often go untaught. Thus, explicit instruction of these words can pay off in great leaps of understanding for students who have not yet mastered this language. Hiebert’s Core Academic World List (or CAWL) may be a resource for choosing words/morphological families. The Latin origin of many Tier 2 words may be helpful not only to Spanish speakers but speakers of other Romance languages; however, this instruction would yield no effect fro students who primary languages are not from Latin origins. The Word Generation program mentioned in the chapter looks similar to the program used in one of the previous articles. However, the chapter does not clearly articulate how morphology or cognates come into play in the program. However, the sequence may be worth investigating in my own study.


Reference: Kelley, J. G., Lesaux, N. K., Kieffer, M. J., & Faller, S. E. (2010). Effective academic vocabulary instruction in the urban middle school. The Reading Teacher, 64(1), 5- 14. doi:10.1598/RT.64.1.1

Summary: The study was conducted with urban district sixth-graders. The researchers developed an 18-week academic vocabulary program, featuring 8 2-week units, and two review weeks. Forty-five minute lessons were delivered four days a week. The introduction of general academic vocabulary began with a short engaging piece of text. Students were given frequent opportunities to use the words, including whole-class seminars, pair shares, and discussions to create target-word definitions. The researchers emphasized depth over breadth in the selection and instruction of words. Morphology instruction was used mid-unit as a way to increase students’ vocabulary solving strategies. Word games and word play were used to expand word consciousness. Writing was integrated in the end of the unit, using pre-writing and graphic organizers to support writing. Students were encouraged to make personal connections to words, and teachers modeled by sharing their own connections.

Relevance to my Study: This study offers several strategies that support general academic vocabulary development for ELLs. This study emphasizes the importance of selecting fewer words for instruction, which mirrors other research on vocabulary instruction. The text guided which words were selected, and students were asked to use the word both verbally and, eventually, in writing. These output opportunities will be important to include in my own study. I agree that word-solving should be a feature of vocabulary development. I am not sure if I can use every strategy reported in this study because of the amount of time available. Also, I know the study will need to focus on a specific intervention, so my strategy should become clearer as I see patterns emerge in this research.


Reference: Townsend, D. (2009). Building academic vocabulary in after-school settings: Games for growth with middle school English-language learners. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(3), 242-251. doi:10.1598/JAAL.53.3.5

Summary: The study was about the impact of academic word instruction for ELLs participating in an afterschool program called Language Workshop. The use of games was a prominent feature in learning. Four instruction principles were used the develop strategies for this program: (1) provide multiple exposures to words in multiple contexts, (2) Provide multiple opportunities to process words, (3) encourage personalization of words, and (4) provide visual support and extra practice time whenever possible. This experimental study explored interventions with sample of students in two groups: one with 20 students and one with 17 students. The two groups attended Language Workshop separately. All students were ELL’s from various backgrounds, and their English proficiency ranged from beginning to early advanced. There was more academic vocabulary growth in the intervention period than in the control period. There was more growth on the target words than the non-target words. Growth seemed to be based upon beginning proficiency. Those with the highest English proficiencies grew the most, and those with the lowest grew the least. However, all students grew in vocab knowledge

Relevance to my Study: Although the article agreed with others that general academic vocabulary impacts the achievement of ELL’s and students living in poverty, the author questioned whether morpheme knowledge was the most effective instructional focus. Instead, the researchers focused on the 60 most academic words on Coxhead’s Academic Word List. The researchers used a modified Vocabulary Knowledge Rating scale as a pre and post test. There were ten words that were among the 60 target instruction words and 10 other general academic words that were not a target of instruction. The instrument was administered through interviews, so reading and writing abilities would not interfere with assessing word knowledge. Students were assessed with the pre and post tests twice -- once before and after a control period (where they did not participate in the program) and before and after the intervention period.



Big Take-Aways and their Relevance to my Project


Overall, there was sparse information about this topic, but as one of the sources mentioned, general academic vocabulary instruction is a new area of literacy research interests that appears to be poised to be studied much more deeply in the next decade. I believe that the sources I found, although not plentiful, point to the validity and importance of my particular study.

Morphological instruction appears to be a way to increase word consciousness and word-solving strategies in order to have students unlock the meaning of both Tier 2 and Tier 3 words.

Other articles discussed the importance of choosing Tier 2 words that are introduced within a short, engaging text. These articles emphasized the importance of using speaking, writing, and thinking activities that scaffolded students until they themselves became active users of the new vocabulary. Sentence frames was one way of doing this, but graphic organizers, games and other structured talk activities were used.

All of the articles suggested that students be “actively” involved in the process of word learning – whether they were brainstorming word from morphemes, playing games, writing, or engaging in structured talk.

For articles that did not explore morphological instruction primarily, words were chosen from either texts themselves and/or Coxhead’s 2000 Academic Word List. I will investigate this list to see if it can be utilized in my study. Also thought the data collection methods in the Townsend article would work well for my study; however, using student interviews to collect the data may be too time-consuming. If I were to use that method, I may have to work with a smaller group of students, or perhaps only interview the ELL students who engaged in the class activities.

Finally, I still need to decide to what extent morphological instruction will be included in my intervention. I most like the methods of the Kelley et al. article, but I feel that there were so many strategies used, it is difficult to isolate which ones were most effective. In addition, since I do not have my own classroom of students, I will not be able to conducted a daily study for the duration of a semester as that study did.