Skip Navigation
Funding Opportunities | Search Funded Research Grants and Contracts

IES Grant

Title: Robust Instruction of Academic Vocabulary for Middle School Students
Center: NCER Year: 2010
Principal Investigator: McKeown, Margaret Awardee: University of Pittsburgh
Program: Literacy      [Program Details]
Award Period: 3 years Award Amount: $1,685,982
Type: Development and Innovation Award Number: R305A100440

Purpose: As evidence by recent reports and test results suggesting that too few students are reading at grade level, problems in adolescent reading seem to be universally acknowledged. Middle school texts contain challenging vocabulary words that are considered to be a major contributor to reading problems, yet there is very little explicit vocabulary instruction in middle school. The purpose of this project is to develop and document the feasibility and promise of an intervention designed to teach academic words to middle school students.

Project Activities: The research team will select words from Coxhead's Academic Word List (AWL) that contains words that commonly appear across academic texts from a range of domains. The AWL was developed from a 3.5 million word corpus that covers 28 content domains. The intervention will base instruction on multiple contexts drawn from authentic sources to illustrate typical uses of words across domains. The instructional strategies will be derived from strategies for robust vocabulary instruction shown to be effective in earlier work at the elementary school level. Over the three years of the project, instructional materials for sixth and seventh grades will be developed through an iterative process in classrooms with revisions informed by observations, teacher logs, teacher interviews, student surveys, and assessments. To determine the promise of the intervention for improving student outcomes in vocabulary and reading comprehension, research-developed measures will be administered pre and post intervention to participating sixth and seventh grade students and their performance on the state standardized end-of-year reading comprehension test will be compared to a historical cohort of sixth and seventh grade students.

Products: Products include a vocabulary program for middle school students that are designed to teach academic words that they encounter in their school texts (e.g., science, social studies, and English). Peer reviewed publications will also be produced.

Structured Abstract

Setting: The study will be conducted in a small school district near Pittsburgh composed of rural and urban communities.

Population: The school district population includes students from a variety of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, with about half of the students receiving free and reduced-priced lunch.

Participants: The study participants are teachers and students in sixth and seventh grade classrooms.

Intervention: The vocabulary program will teach academic words to middle school students and is modeled on an instructional approach that has been used successfully with younger students. The words will be selected from Coxhead's Academic Word List (AWL) which contains words that commonly appear across academic texts from a range of domains. The instructional approach includes a focus on multiple contexts, active processing, making connections among words and to personal experience, and scaffolding as students integrate newly learned words into their class work. Lessons will be presented in cycles beginning with the introduction of contexts and definitions expressed in everyday language, followed by activities to engage students in thinking about and using the words, such as hypothetical scenarios that represent everyday use of words. For example, a question such as "How would a chef show that he is versatile?" is asked to connect the new word "versatile" to the familiar word and concept of "chef." The use of authentic contexts will be systematic and deliberate in order to explicitly illustrate the subtle variations in word meaning that occur across contexts (e.g., exposure to radiation versus exposure to art). In addition, students will be taught to attend to morphology in new vocabulary words to encourage deeper processing and the ability to make connections across words and to new contexts.

Research Design and Methods: The research design will mix quasi-experimental and qualitative methods. Year 1 will be devoted to an iterative process of development, tryouts, and revisions of lessons for sixth graders using a set of words from Coxhead's list, with the goal of grouping these words according to thematic categories. In Year 2, the full set of instructional materials for sixth grade will be implemented in classrooms and revised as needed, and pre/post comparisons of student performance on researcher-developed measures of vocabulary and comprehension will be made to determine the intervention's promise for improving sixth grade students' vocabulary and reading comprehension. In this year, the iterative process of development will begin for the seventh grade lessons. In Year 3, the full set of instructional materials for seventh grade will be implemented in classrooms and revised accordingly, and the promise for seventh grade students will be determined through pre and post comparisons of performance on the researcher measures. Process measures will be collected throughout to inform the iterative design of the intervention and address feasibility of implementation and student engagement. Participating students' performance on the state end-of year standardized assessment of reading comprehension will be compared to the prior year's student cohort.

Control Condition: There is no control condition.

Key Measures: Observations, teacher logs and exit interviews, and student surveys are used to inform the iterative design of the intervention and address questions of teacher manageability and student engagement. Researcher-designed measures and the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment standardized reading comprehension tests will be used to assess whether the intervention affects students' vocabulary and comprehension outcomes.

Data Analytic Strategy: Coding schemes will be developed to analyze the process measures for intervention feasibility and engagement as well as the researcher-designed comprehension test for length and quality of text recall. Learning measures will be analyzed for pretest to posttest gains. In the case of the standardized test, gains relative to same grade-level students who do not participate in the study and to the prior year's same grade-level students will be analyzed.


Journal article, monograph, or newsletter

Crosson, A.C., and McKeown, M.G. (2016). Middle School Learners' Use of Latin Roots to Infer the Meaning of Unfamiliar Words. Cognition and Instruction, 34(2), 148–171.

McKeown, M.G., Crosson, A.C., Artz, N.J., Sandora, C., and Beck, I.L. (2013). In the Media: Expanding Students' Experience With Academic Vocabulary. The Reading Teacher, 67(1): 45–53.