Evidence of Student Learning

In the past six years, we have had opportunities to test our approach to vocabulary learning in many different settings, and with children who come from low-income communities, many of whom are English language learners. Here, we highlight some of what we've learned, and why it is so important to focus on content-rich instruction.

In all, we have studied vocabulary learning with more than 2,000 children. We've conducted design studies in an attempt to understand the active ingredients of high-quality instruction, as well as randomized controlled trials examining the impact of interventions. We've looked at vocabulary learning in the home and in school, and the environmental supports that are typical for young children. From these studies, we can summarize the following points:

  • Children from low-socioeconomic circumstances are not receiving the type of language supports they will need to achieve the standards in the Common Core—in the home or in school. Children who have limited opportunities for academic language learning in the home most often go to schools with similar limited opportunities.*
  • Early literacy instruction in many classrooms in low-income communities has been reduced to the basic skills of learning letters and sounds, with very limited time devoted to content instruction. With little time devoted to science and social studies, children will not develop the background skills needed for comprehending text.
  • Despite calls for increasing the amount of informational text reading, little time is spent on it in classroom instruction.
  • English language learners often go unnoticed and are not receiving the language supports early on in school that they will need to become successful.

Together, these findings suggest that if we do not provide more targeted instruction in vocabulary in ways that help children build knowledge networks, children are likely to struggle to meet those Common Core standards that emphasize the importance of integrating knowledge and ideas in texts, making arguments based on evidence, and analyzing similarities and differences among texts.

To better understand effective vocabulary instruction, we focus on what children are capable of when given the opportunity to learn in content-rich settings. In a randomized controlled experiment (generally considered the "gold standard" of research), we examined how a yearlong program of content-rich instruction might compare with the typical day-to-day curriculum in 24 Head Start classrooms in a high-poverty urban area severely affected by the recent economic recession. Classrooms were evenly divided into treatment and control groups, with the treatment group participating in a 12-minute, four-day-per-week program of content-rich vocabulary instruction.

However, in addition to this traditional experimental design, we raised another question. We reasoned that it was not simply enough to compare two similar groups of students; rather, we needed to understand if content-rich instruction might "level the playing field" by helping low-income and language-minority children reach the same standards and skills that middle- and upper-middle-income children have when they enter school. In other words, could high-quality vocabulary instruction early on improve the odds that children would come to school with the vocabulary and conceptual skills that are essential to ensure they are ready to learn?

To answer this question, we measured children's progress from two additional groups: a sample of middle-class children in a state-related preschool program and a sample of children from a university-based program, where more than half the children's parents were PhD students or faculty. In total, we measured more than 1,200 3- and 4-year-old children's progress in vocabulary and conceptual knowledge over a year's time. In addition, we then came back half a year later to see if the gains were sustained.

Using assessments designed to measure young children's growth in vocabulary and content knowledge, Figure 1 tells a compelling story. It shows that, by the middle of the year, we began to see dramatic gains for children in the treatment group compared with those of the control group, which remained rather stable. More interesting, however, was that as the words got harder, the children did better, so that by the end of the year, there was no statistical difference between the treatment children and the middle- and upper-middle-class children.

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Now let's take a look at children's conceptual development. This is an area that is often not considered in the early years, yet it is central to children's developing comprehension. As Figure 2 shows, the scores of the Head Start treatment group even exceeded those of the middle-class children by midyear, and were statistically on par with the upper-middle-class children at both the middle and the end of the year. In other words, children in the treatment group were engaged in using similar abstract language skills and concepts that their more economically advantaged peers were using as these children were about to enter kindergarten.

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When we looked at the differences between native English speakers and second language learners, we found some interesting and very relevant results. Our assessments indicated significant growth in vocabulary and conceptual knowledge for both native and second language learners, as Figure 3 shows. However, for those in the control group, their understandings of conceptual categories throughout the year actually went down. These findings suggest that in settings where the language is not comprehensible and no effort is made to help these children learn concepts, second language learners' growth in concepts is stymied.

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Finally, we were curious about transfer: whether children who develop conceptual knowledge in some topics can apply their understanding to an entirely new topic. In particular, we were interested in whether our content-rich instruction supported children's self-learning. In this extension task, children were introduced to six unfamiliar objects, half of which were tested with a category-related property (e.g., "Can you use a backhoe to make things?"), while the remaining objects were tested using an unrelated property (e.g., "Can you use a backhoe to count?"). Children completed three steps for each of the six unfamiliar objects. First, they were asked to identify the target object from a set of three pictures; this step helped ensure that the object was, in fact, unfamiliar. Children were next told the name of the target object and its category membership (e.g., "This is a vise. It's a tool."). Third, children were asked whether the object possessed certain category properties (e.g., "Can you use a vise to make things?").

As Figure 4 shows, we found that the children in our treatment group were significantly more able to make connections to concepts and to extend their learning to a topic that they were less familiar with. In other words, good-quality instruction, structured in a way that allows children to begin to make knowledge networks, helps them think more conceptually. In this example, children were able to use their existing knowledge for self-teaching purposes. Children's conceptual knowledge appeared to bootstrap their ability to (1) determine the meaning of unfamiliar words, and (2) figure out how these unfamiliar objects related to a larger category. Consequently, with this type of targeted instruction, these children not only made educationally meaningful gains, they achieved at levels consistent with those of more economically advantaged children. This suggests, quite simply, that we have just begun to tap these children's potential.

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Susan B. Neuman is a professor and chair of the Teaching and Learning department at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University. Previously, she was a professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan, where she directed the Ready to Learn Project. She has authored numerous books on early childhood, including Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance: Poverty, Literacy, and the Development of Information Capital. Tanya S. Wright is an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. This article is adapted, with permission of Teachers College Press, from Susan B. Neuman and Tanya S. Wright, All About Words: Increasing Vocabulary in the Common Core Classroom, PreK–2. New York: Teachers College Press. Copyright 2013 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.

*See Tanya S. Wright and Susan B. Neuman, "Vocabulary Instruction in Commonly Used Kindergarten Core Reading Curricula," Elementary School Journal 113 (2013): 386–408. (back to the article)

For more on instructional supports for young English language learners, see "Dual Language Learners: Effective Instruction in Early Childhood," in the Summer 2013 issue of American Educator. (back to the article)

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American Educator, Summer 2014