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IES Grant

Title: The Effect of Definitions, Contextual Support, and Cognate Status on 4th Grade Spanish-speaking English Learners' (ELLs) Understanding of Unfamiliar Words in Text
Center: NCER Year: 2015
Principal Investigator: Carlo, Maria Awardee: University of South Florida
Program: English Learners      [Program Details]
Award Period: 4 years (7/1/2015 6/30/2019) Award Amount: $1,554,789
Type: Exploration Award Number: R305A170636

Previous Award Number: R305A150415
Previous Institution: University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston

Purpose: In this project, the research team will conduct a series of experimental studies to inform instructional strategies intended to help ELLs learn the meanings of new words. English Language Learners (ELLs) are more likely than their native English-speaking peers to encounter unfamiliar words when reading, and vocabulary knowledge is a key contributor to reading comprehension and acquisition of content knowledge. Findings from studies will inform the development of future interventions to help ELLs build the academic vocabulary knowledge they need to benefit from the full academic curriculum as well as to inform the types of testing accommodations provided to ELLs on assessments.

Project Activities: Studies will test the benefits of providing definitions in English versus Spanish, contextual support, and cognate status on the learning of new words by Spanish-speaking fourth graders. The research team will conduct a series of experimental studies in which ELLs learn new words under a variety of conditions. In one study, ELLs will view sentences which include one target word that is most likely new to the student. Some students will see a definition of the target word in English along with the sentence, and others will see a definition of the target word in Spanish. Studies will vary whether the target words have Spanish cognates (i.e., words with similar meanings in English and Spanish) and the amount of contextual information provided for the word. Researchers will test students on their knowledge of the meaning of the target words using a traditional multiple-choice format.

Products: The project will provide preliminary evidence of potentially promising practices for helping ELLs learn new vocabulary, and peer reviewed publications. Researchers will also share findings with practitioners and policy-makers through peer-reviewed publications and conferences.

Structured Abstract

Setting: Participating students will attend after-school programs in schools located in an urban district in Florida with a high percentage of Spanish-speaking ELLs.

Sample: Participants in both experimental and assessment development studies will include a total of about 1,000 4th grade Spanish-speaking ELLs.

Intervention: Researchers will create materials for experimental studies to investigate the effect of English and Spanish definitions, contextual information, and cognate-status on learning of new vocabulary words by Spanish-speaking ELLs. In the low context condition, students will be provided with a definition and asked to select the word that best matches the definition. In the high context condition, the student will see a similar item but with an additional sentence that describes a scenario prior to the definition. The research team will select target words to allow comparison of words that have Spanish cognates with those that do not. Findings may be used to inform typical classroom instruction practices, accommodations offered in assessment, and the design of new interventions to help ELLs learn vocabulary.

Research Design and Methods: In Year 1, researchers will develop materials for the experiments by starting from a bank of 212 words that are identified in the curriculum in use in the schools as targets for new vocabulary learning. Most of these words fall at the 4th to 8th grade level according to the Biemiller's Living Word Vocabulary List. Researchers will select 108 words that are also found in the curriculum in use in the create a pool that is balanced in regard to part of speech and in which half of the words have Spanish cognates. Researchers will develop a new multiple-choice assessment called the Word Learning Assessment (WLA). The research team will conduct field tests to inform selection of test and refine the measure the 36 target words for use in experimental studies.

In Year 2, students will participate in an experimental study with one between-subjects factor (English definition, Spanish definition, or no definition) and two within-subject factors (high context versus low context; Spanish cognate versus non-cognate). Students will be asked to read each sentence and to try to figure out the meaning of the word so that they can answer questions about the meanings of the words after each set of four words. In Year 3, researchers will develop a new assessment called Word Meaning in Context (WMC) to further explore the effects of providing contextual clues by providing a short paragraph to accompany each item. In the final year, researchers will conduct similar studies as in Year 2 but will use the WMC assessment to measure student knowledge of the target words.

Control Condition: Students will be randomly assigned to see the Spanish definition, English definition, or no definition in the experimental studies.

Key Measures: Researchers will develop two new assessments, the WLA and the WMC. Other measures include the picture vocabulary, passage comprehension, and letter-word identification subtests (English and Spanish) of the Woodcock-Munoz Language Survey Revised Normative Update. Other information includes ELL level; program of instruction; English language proficiency scores; state assessment scores in math, reading, and writing; and socioeconomic status.

Data Analytic Strategy: Researchers will conduct a mixed effects analysis of covariance to study the effects of type of definition, contextual support, and cognate status. Fixed effects will include language proficiency in English and Spanish, and all main experimental effects as well as interaction effects. The nesting of children in after-school centers will constitute a random effect.