IRA Outstanding Dissertation Award for 2012
What Classroom Observations Reveal About Oral Vocabulary Instruction in Kindergarten
Article first published online: 10 OCT 2012
© 2012 International Reading Association
Reading Research Quarterly
Volume 47, Issue 4, pages 353–355, October/November/December 2012
How to Cite
Wright, T. S. (2012), What Classroom Observations Reveal About Oral Vocabulary Instruction in Kindergarten. Reading Research Quarterly, 47: 353–355. doi: 10.1002/RRQ.026
- Issue published online: 10 OCT 2012
- Article first published online: 10 OCT 2012
There is now compelling evidence that children's early vocabulary development (i.e., ability to understand word meanings) is essential to their long-term reading comprehension (e.g., NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2005; Ricketts, Nation, & Bishop, 2007; Sénéchal, Ouellette, & Rodney, 2006; Storch & Whitehurst, 2002). Findings from experimental studies have indicated that vocabulary knowledge influences the development of conceptual knowledge and comprehension, suggesting a causal relationship among these fundamental language skills (Neuman, Newman, & Dwyer, 2011).
Yet, profound differences in vocabulary knowledge among learners from different socioeconomic (SES) groups have been documented as early as toddlerhood (Hoff, 2003). Children growing up in low SES circumstances are likely to be exposed to fewer words early on, resulting in more limited vocabulary knowledge than their middle class peers (Hart & Risley, 1995). Consequently, children from low-income backgrounds may arrive at formal schooling with more limited vocabulary than their more economically advantaged peers. These differences in vocabulary knowledge can become exacerbated as children move through school (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997). By fourth grade, students with limited vocabulary knowledge are likely to slump in reading comprehension (Chall & Jacobs, 2003), and they will often continue to struggle as readers throughout their schooling (Stanovich, 1986).
Therefore, there is consensus that teachers need to focus on enhancing students’ oral language vocabulary from the start of schooling (National Early Literacy Panel, 2008; National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010; National Institute of Child Health and Development, 2000; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). Evidence from meta-analyses of intervention studies indicates that vocabulary instruction can improve young children's vocabulary knowledge and later comprehension when instruction attends to word selection, explicit explanations, and extensive practice and review (Marulis & Neuman, 2010; National Early Literacy Panel, 2008; Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986). Yet, cutoff date studies have shown that children's chronological age, not whether they experience one or two years of schooling, predicted vocabulary outcomes (Christian, Morrison, Frazier, & Massetti, 2000; Skibbe, Connor, Morrison, & Jewkes, 2011). These findings suggest that current instructional practice may not impact children's vocabulary learning trajectories.
Although the preponderance of research has indicated that vocabulary instruction can and should be taught in schools, observational studies have recorded only limited attention to print vocabulary for students in upper elementary and middle school classrooms (Blanton & Moorman, 1990; Durkin, 1978; Scott, Jamieson-Noel, & Asselin, 2003; Watts, 1995). Teachers did much mentioning and assignment of new vocabulary but little actual teaching of it. Although these results focus on upper grades and print vocabulary, they do not forebode well for the prevalence of oral vocabulary instruction in the earlier years of schooling.
Given the strong evidence supporting early vocabulary instruction, there is a clear need to better understand how oral vocabulary instruction is enacted at the start of formal school and whether such instruction is equitable across socioeconomic circumstances. Specifically, I asked the following research questions: (1) What is the extent of oral vocabulary instruction in kindergarten? (2) How do the pedagogical features of vocabulary instruction in kindergarten align with the research base? and (3) Is the quantity and quality of oral vocabulary instruction in kindergarten equitable across teachers serving in different SES schools?
Ten trained observers visited the classrooms of 55 kindergarten teachers with students from a range of urban and suburban communities across a Rust Belt state. Approximately one-third of the teachers served in primarily low-income schools (i.e., greater than 50% of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches), one-third taught in more economically diverse schools (i.e., 25–50% of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches), and a third served in more economically advantaged schools (i.e., 25% or fewer receiving free or reduced-price lunches). Observations lasted for three-hour periods beginning at the start of the school day, which constituted the entire day of kindergarten for half-day kindergarten programs. Each classroom was visited four times in the spring of 2009 for a total of 660 hours in kindergarten classrooms.
Observers audiorecorded all teacher talk and simultaneously took notes on a laptop using an observation protocol designed to capture all episodes of vocabulary instruction as well as when they occurred during the school day. An episode of vocabulary instruction was defined as an interaction in which the teacher discussed the meaning of a word with students at any point throughout the observation period. For example, “A cube has six sides that are square” would be identified as a vocabulary episode. I included episodes that were in the form of a child-friendly definition, or a clear rephrasing. They could be long or short conversations, synonyms, antonyms, category attribution, or examples to give meaning to a target word.
All vocabulary episodes were transcribed for coding and analysis. I examined the extent and quality of vocabulary instruction in classrooms across different SES schools by analyzing (1) the number of vocabulary episodes that teachers provided per day, (2) the number of vocabulary words that teachers addressed per day, (3) the difficulty level of vocabulary words that were addressed using three methods from previous research (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002; Biemiller, 2009; Weizman & Snow, 2001), (4) the length of vocabulary episodes (i.e., number of teacher utterances), and (5) the number of vocabulary episodes per minute across content areas during the kindergarten day. I used ANOVA to compare each feature of vocabulary instruction across teachers serving in different SES schools.
I found that teachers discussed vocabulary words on average 8.14 (SD = 4.24) times per day. However, the range and variability were considerable. Some teachers provided no vocabulary episodes, whereas others did so up to 20 times per day. There were significant differences across groups in the number of vocabulary episodes per day: F(2, 52) = 3.72, p < .031. Teachers serving in predominantly low-income schools provided fewer vocabulary episodes than those serving in economically advantaged schools. The effect size was large and educationally meaningful (Cohen's d = 0.95).
On average, kindergarten teachers used their eight daily vocabulary episodes to teach 7.44 (SD = 3.72) different vocabulary words, suggesting that teachers rarely discussed the meaning of the same word more than once during the day. Vocabulary episodes were very brief, consisting on average of 2.50 (SD = 0.68) utterances by the teacher. The episodes were also intermittent, with low to moderate correlations across teachers’ vocabulary episodes from one observation to another.
Converging evidence across three approaches to analysis revealed that the majority of words explained by kindergarten teachers were considered common, easy, or basic. However, teachers serving in economically advantaged schools explained challenging words more often than teachers serving in economically diverse or low-income schools. Effect sizes for these comparisons (Cohen's d = 0.85–0.95) were large and educationally meaningful.
Teachers provided the greatest number of vocabulary episodes per minute during read-alouds, science, and social studies instruction when these subjects were taught. Yet, on average, teachers devoted less than 11 minutes per day to read-alouds, only about 2 minutes per day to science instruction, and 1 minute to social studies instruction. Median calculations revealed no science or social studies instruction at all in many kindergarten classrooms. Therefore, the subject areas that seemed most likely to support vocabulary instruction were least likely to be taught in kindergarten.
The purpose of this study was to develop a portrait of oral vocabulary instruction in kindergarten classrooms. The goal was to provide an in-depth description of the quantity and quality of oral vocabulary instruction provided by teachers serving in a range of SES contexts. My analysis revealed that vocabulary instruction in kindergarten consisted of single, brief word explanations by the teacher. These explanations occurred intermittently and were embedded across all contexts throughout the day. Teachers seemed to explain words to support students’ understanding of the immediate context; however, word selection did not reflect recommendations from previous research.
Taken together, these findings suggest that vocabulary instruction observed in a large group of kindergarten classrooms consisted of word explanations during teachable moments throughout the day with no evidence of more formal vocabulary instruction. I found that teachers serving in economically advantaged schools provided more of these teachable moments and addressed more challenging words than teachers serving in predominantly low-income schools. Therefore, rather than ameliorating or potentially closing the vocabulary gap, the current state of vocabulary instruction could potentially exacerbate this gap. Unfortunately, such inconsistent instruction and great disparity in opportunities to learn vocabulary may have long-term consequences for students’ literacy development and success in school.
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