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IES Grant

Title: Developing a Cross-Age Peer Tutoring Program to Promote the Vocabulary and Comprehension of English Learners
Center: NCER Year: 2011
Principal Investigator: Silverman, Rebecca Awardee: University of Maryland, College Park
Program: English Learners      [Program Details]
Award Period: 3 years Award Amount: $1,500,000
Goal: Development and Innovation Award Number: R305A110142

Co-Principal Investigators: Melinda Martin-Beltran and Megan Peercy

Purpose: English language learners (ELLs) are especially at risk for reading difficulties due to limited vocabulary and comprehension skills. Innovative curricula are needed to meet their needs. Two critical periods for supporting ELLs are upon school entry (i.e., kindergarten) and upon transition from learning to read to reading to learn (i.e., fourth grade). Cross-age peer tutoring has been shown to be an effective instructional context. Given the social nature of language learning, cross-age tutoring, in which older and younger children work together, is a uniquely promising instructional format for supporting vocabulary and comprehension. Furthermore, the use of multimedia has been shown to support the language learning of ELLs. Combining cross-age peer tutoring with multimedia support is a potentially powerful way to target ELL vocabulary and comprehension. The purpose of this project is to develop materials designed to support this type of cross-age peer tutoring with ELLs and to gather preliminary evidence as to the effects of this intervention on student outcomes.

Project Activities: Researchers will develop and refine the materials for 16 lessons based on principles that have been shown in previous research to be of particular benefit to ELLs. Each lesson includes: (1) instruction for teachers in how to introduce the lessons to the kindergarteners ('little buddies') and fourth-graders ('big buddies'); (2) instructions and activities for big buddies in working with the little buddies; (3) activities to connect the lesson to classroom-level activities; and (4) activities to support the lesson at home. A teacher study group guide will also be developed to enhance teacher skills in implementing the cross-age tutoring program. Materials will be field-tested and revised in the first and second year of the project in two kindergarten and two fourth-grade classrooms in each of two schools. Teachers will participate in monthly focus groups to inform the design and revision of the intervention as well as the teacher study group guide. The final version of the program will be pilot-tested in Year 3 of the project in the same two schools. Gains in reading for little and big buddies will be compared to that of students in comparison classrooms in the same schools.

Products: Products include a teacher study group guide with information on vocabulary, comprehension, accommodations for ELLs, and cooperative learning. This guide will structure activities for groups of teachers in discussing the research, reviewing lessons, and planning for implementation of the lessons. The guide will include a DVD with examples and tips for program implementation. Research findings will be shared in peer-reviewed journal articles.

Structured Abstract

Setting: This study will take place in two elementary schools in an urban district near Washington, DC with a high concentration of Latino English Learners.

Population: Participating students will include 120 Spanish-speaking English learners in each of the two grades (kindergarten and fourth grade).

Intervention: There will be a total of 16 lessons either refined or developed for use with ELL's. Each lesson will include teacher-led introductory lessons for little and big buddies; lessons for buddies to work together; classroom connection activities, and home-school connection activities. A teacher study group guide will support professional development to encourage high quality implementation of the intervention. In each Martha Speaks episode, there is a focus theme which connects two 11-minute stories. Five Tier 2 words (such as discuss, express, exclaim) are taught explicitly and five Tier 1 words (such as speak, talk, say) are used repeatedly and purposefully to support word-learning. All explicit words are previewed, defined, and reviewed, and all target words are used at least 4 times per 11-minute story. Additionally, word use in the story is supported with visual, audio, and action cues. The intervention will include multimedia and explicit strategy instruction for vocabulary and comprehension. In the reading buddies program, little and big buddies watch part of a Martha Speaks episode, talk about the theme of the show, play a game with words introduced in the show, read a non-Martha speaks narrative trade book, and write in a journal in a related topic. Big buddies lead little buddies through these activities using a lesson guide. A website is available with games, video clips, and print materials for teachers and parents to use in reinforcing the lessons.

Research Design and Methods: Researchers will begin by revising the eight existing lessons for the Martha Speaks program developed for English-speaking students based on previous results. In Year 2, eight more lessons will be developed and revised. An advisory board will review the revised curriculum on a yearly basis. Teacher focus groups, comprised of participating teachers and school specialists, will meet monthly to review research relevant to the program and suggest revisions to curricular materials. The cross-age tutoring program will be field tested in two kindergarten and two fourth grade classrooms in each of two schools in the spring of each year of the project. For little buddies, teachers will gather bi-weekly progress monitoring data on a sample of children from the classrooms, researcher-developed pre-post tests of vocabulary, and story recall. Teachers of big buddies will gather weekly progress monitoring data and pre-post measures of vocabulary and comprehension. Classroom observations will focus on language use in student interactions.

Control Condition: There is no control condition.

Key Measures: Measures of the feasibility and usability of the intervention include teacher surveys and classroom observations. Measures of student outcomes include researcher-developed measures of vocabulary and comprehension, as well as standardized measures including the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (kindergarteners), the Woodcock-Munoz Language Survey-Revised (kindergarteners), and the Gates MacGinitie Reading Test (fourth-graders).

Data Analytic Strategy: Qualitative data gathered in teacher surveys and focus groups will be analyzed using an inductive grounded theory approach with codes emerging directly from teacher responses. More focused codes with specific questions about each component of the intervention will also be developed. The results will inform the revision of the program. Student interactions will be coded as 'language related episodes' to capture student talk about the language they are producing as well as their questions and error corrections. In the first two years of the project, descriptive statistics from the student assessments will be examined. In Year 3, repeated measures analysis of covariance will be used to compare gains for students participating in the intervention with those in comparison classrooms to examine the promise of the cross-age tutoring program in improving reading skills of English learners.

Website for this project:

Publications from this project:

Silverman, R.D. & Hartranft, A.M. (in press).  Developing vocabulary breadth and depth in young children.  Guilford Press. ISBN 9781462517886

Murphy, K.P., Rowe, M.L., Ramani, G., & Silverman, R.D. (2014). Promoting critical-analytic thinking in children and adolescents at home and in school. Educational Psychology Review.  Published online:

Peercy, M. M., Martin-Beltrán, M., Silverman, R. D., & Daniel, S. M. (in press). Curricular design and implementation as a site of teacher expertise and learning. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 21(7),

Silverman, R.D. & Doyle, B. (2013).  Vocabulary and comprehension instruction for ELs in the era of Common Core Standards.  In Neuman, S.B., & Gambrell, L. (Eds.) Reading Research in the Age of Common Core Standards.  Washington, DC: International Reading Association.

Peercy, M. M., Artzi, L., Silverman, R. D., & Martin-Beltrán, M. (in press). Meeting the demands of the ELA Common Core for English language learners: Developing vocabulary and reading comprehension skills in a language-rich classroom environment. In L. C. de Oliveira, M. Klassen, & M. Maune, (Eds.), The Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts for English Language Learners: Grades 6-12. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press.