Does encouraging contingent talk benefit language development?

A study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry examines whether language outcomes for low socio-economic status (SES) children can be improved by encouraging contingent talk (how often the parent talks about objects in the child’s current focus of attention) through a low-intensity intervention.

In a randomised controlled trial with high- and low-SES families, 142 children aged 11 months and their parents were randomly allocated to either a contingent talk intervention or a dental health control. Families in the intervention watched a video about contingent talk and were asked to practice it for 15 minutes a day for a month. Families were visited in their homes twice when children were 11, 12, 18 and 24 months. Questionnaires were also collected by mail at 15 months. Parent communication was assessed at 11 months (baseline) and after one month. Infant communication was assessed at baseline, 12, 15, 18 and 24 months.

At baseline, the amount of contingent talk children hear is found to be associated with SES, with lower-SES parents engaging in less contingent talk. At post-test (when children were 12 months old) all parents who had taken part in the intervention engaged in more contingent talk, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Lower-SES parents in the intervention group reported that their children produced more words at 15 and 18 months. However, effects of the intervention didn’t persist at 24 months. So while parents’ contingent talk is increased through the intervention, and this is effective in promoting vocabulary growth for lower-SES infants in the short term, these effects are not long-lasting. The study concludes that follow-up interventions may be necessary to produce benefits lasting to school entry.

Source: A randomised controlled trial to test the effect of promoting caregiver contingent talk on language development in infants from diverse socioeconomic status backgrounds (April 2017), The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry doi:10.1111/jcpp.12725

Cross-age peer tutoring benefits for EAL pupils and native English speakers

Research suggests that peer tutoring helps reading achievement, especially for pupils with English as an additional language (EAL). Studies of cross-age peer tutoring, where older pupils tutor younger pupils, have shown positive effects on vocabulary and comprehension. Given that EAL pupils often lag behind their non-EAL peers in reading, University of Maryland’s Rebecca Silverman and colleagues conducted the first study to examine whether the benefits of cross-age peer tutoring are equivalent for EAL pupils and native English speaking pupils.

For the study, researchers used a “reading buddies” design, pairing kindergarten pupils (Year 1 in the UK) with fourth grade (Year 5) pupils to discuss books they’d read about STEM-related topics. The programme incorporated strategies demonstrated to be effective with EAL pupils, such as explicit instruction about specific word meaning and using multi-modalities to demonstrate word learning and comprehension. Following development and field testing, the researchers evaluated the effects of the final programme, called the MTS Buddies Program, in 24 classrooms with high EAL populations. The sample included 12 classrooms (6 kindergarten, 6 fourth grade) that used the MTS Buddies Program and 12 classrooms (6 kindergarten, 6 fourth grade) that continued with business as usual.

All pupils were tested on vocabulary and comprehension using both standardised and researcher-made tests before and after receiving the 14-week intervention. Results showed benefits for vocabulary learning in kindergarten (Year 1) and fourth grade (Year 5) and also reading comprehension and strategy use for the fourth grade pupils. Both EAL pupils and native English speaking pupils demonstrated gains. Although expressive vocabulary scores were lower for EALs than non-EALs, the overall positive effects indicate that the MTS Buddies Program could be helpful for all pupils’ vocabulary learning, regardless of English proficiency.

Source: Effects of a cross-age peer learning program on the vocabulary and comprehension of English learners and non-English learners in elementary school (March 2017), The Elementary School Journal

New guide to foundational reading skills

A new What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) practice guide focuses on the foundational reading skills that enable students to read words, relate those words to their oral language, and read connected text with sufficient accuracy and fluency to understand what they read.

The authors conducted a thorough literature search, identified studies that met protocol requirements, and then reviewed those studies against WWC standards. The review focused on studies published since 2000. The guide, Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade, provides four recommendations that can be used to improve literacy skills from kindergarten to third grade (Years 1–4). Each recommendation is assigned a level of evidence based on the quantity and quality of the research:

  • Teach students academic language skills, including the use of inferential and narrative language, and vocabulary knowledge (minimal evidence)
  • Develop awareness of the segments of sounds in speech and how they link to letters (strong evidence)
  • Teach students to decode words, analyse word parts, and write and recognise words (strong evidence)
  • Ensure that each student reads connected text every day to support reading accuracy, fluency, and comprehension (moderate evidence)

The practice guide is a companion to another WWC practice guide, Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade.

Source: Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade (2016), What Works Clearinghouse

Effective vocabulary teaching

A recent study in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness looks at the effects of Rich Vocabulary (RVOC) teaching on primary pupils’ vocabulary and reading comprehension in a multi-cohort randomised trial.

Rich Vocabulary is an approach where children are exposed to frequent and varied encounters with specific vocabulary words incorporated into classroom teaching. The hope is that this carries over into increased reading comprehension.

The study took place over three years in fourth and fifth grade (Years 5 and 6) classrooms in the northwest US and Canada. A total of 1,232 pupils were assigned to treatment (n=627) or control (n=605) classes from 61 classrooms at 24 schools. This study used at least 12 exposures per word per week. Pupils were given vocabulary instruction 30 minutes per day for four days, with a 10-minute quiz on the fifth day using two novels, A Long Way from Chicago and Maniac Magee, over the course of 14 weeks each year. The pupils had seven weekly reading assignments per book, and teachers were provided with all necessary materials to teach related lessons (worksheets, overheads, etc).

Pupils were pretested in the autumn, and post-tested in the spring each year. Preliminary analysis showed that RVOC treatment pupils scored significantly lower at pretest than control students. Authors suggest this was due to the randomisation assignments, and that they controlled for this in their analyses. Results showed that on norm-referenced tests, the RVOC group scored better than controls in tests of targeted vocabulary, but did not improve general vocabulary knowledge or general reading comprehension.

Source: Efficacy of Rich Vocabulary Instruction in Fourth- and Fifth-Grade Classrooms (2015), Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 8(3).

Teaching academic vocabulary knowledge

Children whose first language is not English have to cope with learning English and academic content in English at the same time. A new study has shown the benefit of specifically teaching academic vocabulary.

The randomised controlled trial (RCT) was carried out in 14 middle schools in California, where 50 teachers were assigned to treatment or control conditions. A total of 2,082 sixth-grade (Year 7) students participated, 71% of whom spoke another language (mostly Spanish) at home. They followed Academic Language Instructions for All Students (ALIAS), a 20-week programme teaching academic vocabulary – words that are not subject-specific but often appear in sixth-grade textbooks (such as expanse, integrated, generate, according to). The programme was supported with teaching materials and professional development.

Students improved their vocabulary knowledge, morphological awareness skills, and comprehension of expository texts that used the academic language that was taught. They also improved their performance on a standardised measure of written language skills (effect size=+0.19). The effects were generally larger for children whose home language was not English and for those who started the intervention with underdeveloped vocabulary knowledge.

Source: Effects of Academic Vocabulary Instruction for Linguistically Diverse Adolescents (2014), American Educational Research Journal 51(6)

What works for EAL pupils?

The US What Works Clearinghouse has released an updated practice guide on teaching academic content and literacy to pupils learning English as an additional language (EAL) in junior and middle school. It provides suggestions for teaching and supporting EAL learners as they acquire academic vocabulary, learn from increasingly complex informational texts, and engage in analytical writing activities. The recommendations, which are based on currently available research evidence and feedback from experts in the field, are as follows:

  • Teach a set of academic vocabulary words intensively across several days using a variety of instructional activities.
  • Integrate oral and written English language instruction into content-area teaching.
  • Provide regular, structured opportunities to develop written language skills.
  • Provide small-group instructional interventions to students struggling in areas of literacy and English language development.

For each recommendation, the guide provides examples of activities that can be used to support students as they build the language and literacy skills needed to be successful in school.

Source: Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School (2014), Institute of Education Sciences.