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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: Policies, Practices, and Programs to Support 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 Awardee: University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston

Co-Principal Investigator: Avalos, Mary

Purpose: The research team conducted two experiments to inform instructional strategies intended to help Spanish-speaking English learners (ELs) learn the meanings of academic words in English. ELs 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. In this project, the researchers manipulated the types of definitions, cognates, and context-related supports students received to investigate the extent to which ELs were able to independently learn definitions for novel academic vocabulary words or comprehend texts containing these words. Findings from these exploratory studies aim to help inform the development of future interventions to help Spanish-speaking ELs build the academic vocabulary knowledge they need to benefit from the full academic curriculum as well as inform the types of testing accommodations provided to ELs on assessments.

Project Activities: The researchers conducted two experimental and two measurement studies in this project. The goal of the experimental studies was to explore how English and Spanish definitions, contextual information, and cognate status affect independent learning of English vocabulary words by Spanish-speaking ELs. Experiment 1 measured the effect of Spanish and English definitions on students' independent learning of English definitions. Experiment 2 measured the effect of Spanish and English definitions on students' application of word knowledge for understanding short passages. The goal of the measurement studies was to develop measures to support the data collection in the experiments. These studies led to the development of the Word Definitions Learning Assessment (WDLA), used in experiment 1, and the Word-Meaning-in-Context (WMC), used in experiment 2.

Key Outcomes: The main findings of this exploratory study will be shared when available in a publicly available peer-reviewed publication.

Structured Abstract

Setting: The study took place in a large district in Florida that included urban, suburban, and rural locales, and served a high percentage of Spanish-speaking ELs.

Sample: Participants in the studies included a total of 851 fourth-grade Spanish-speaking ELs. The participating students were not receiving special education services and their English proficiency, as defined by the district, ranged from ESOL levels 2 (emergent English speakers) through 5 (exited ESOL services within 2 years of data collection).

Factors: Different factors may support ELs learn academic words. In this project, the researchers focused on varying word-learning supports, including definitions in English versus Spanish, on students' independent learning of academic English words. Because there were insufficient measures of the factors of interest, the researchers developed and tested two new measures. The first, the Word Definitions Learning Assessment (WDLA), includes a pool of 141 multiple choice items that measure knowledge of English definitions for words that vary by cognate status, part of speech and other linguistic parameters such as word frequency and dispersion. The second, Word-Meaning-in-Context (WMC) assessment includes a pool of 108 multiple-choice cloze items that measure students' ability to apply knowledge of English definitions to comprehend short English passages presented aurally and in print.

Research Design and Methods: For the measurement studies, the researchers validated the WDLA items with a sample of 207 fourth-grade Spanish-speaking English learners and validated the WMC items with a sample of 256 fourth-grade Spanish-speaking ELs. The two experiments were designed following a 3 x 2 x 2 design in which definition condition served as a between-subjects factor with three levels (English definition, Spanish definition, and no definition) and where contextual support (high and low contextual support) and cognate status (cognate and noncognate) served as within-subject factors each with two levels. Experiment 1 tested the effects of definition condition, context, and cognate status on students' independent learning of the words using a 24-item measure targeting knowledge of English definitions. Experiment 2 tested the effects of definition condition, context, and cognate status on students' independent learning of the words using a 24-item measure targeting application of word knowledge to understanding of short English texts.

Control Condition: Students were randomly assigned to a Spanish definition, English definition, or no definition condition in the experimental studies.

Key Measures: The two key measures used in the experiments were the researcher-developed measures of Word Definitions Learning Assessment (WDLA), which assesses knowledge of English definitions, and the Word-Meaning-in-Context (WMC) assessment, which measures application of word knowledge to comprehension of short passages. Other measures included the picture vocabulary, and passage comprehension subtests (English and Spanish) of the Woodcock-Munoz Language Survey — Revised Normative Update. Other information obtained included EL designation; state assessment scores in math, reading, and writing; home language practices, number of school absences, and parent provided demographic information.

Data Analytic Strategy: For the two experiments, researchers used a 3 x 2 x 2 Analysis of Covariance with definition condition (English, Spanish, no-definition) as a three-level between-subjects factor and cognate status (cognate, non-cognate) and level of context (low, high) as within-subject factors.

Related IES Projects: Effect of Bilingual vs Monolingual Methods of Explicit English Vocabulary Instruction on 4th Grade Spanish-speaking English Learners (EL) (R305A200047)

Products and Publications

ERIC Citations: Find available citations in ERIC for this award here.

Additional online resources and information: Items developed in Measurement Study 1 and Measurement Study 2 are publicly available at:

Select Publications:

Inside IES Research Blog

Kim, H. and Carlo, M.S. (2022, October 13). A Bilingual Perspective on Literacy Development. Inside IES Research Blog. /blogs/research/post/a-bilingual-perspective-on-literacy-development