In the spirit of blogdom, I’ll try to make this one as reader-friendly as I can—even though it’s going to deal with research on raising language abilities.
My chief gripe with a lot of educational research is its lack of coordination with cognitive science taken as a whole. For instance, in my last blog, which suggested that we spend more time learning about specific domains of knowledge (and the Tier 3 words that go with them) and less time learning domain-general words, I deliberately refrained from criticizing the research that has persuaded so many textbooks and teachers and to focus on Tier 2, domain-general words. My main criticism of that research is that it doesn’t fit with the totality of what other researchers—mainly cognitive scientists—have learned about language growth. I didn’t stress that critique. I did not want to attack the work of serious scholars whom I like and respect.
But what the heck; a lot is at stake in the way English language arts (ELA) teachers spend their classroom time, especially in the critical early years, and when so much class time—two hours a day in many schools—is being devoted to ELA.
Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, has written an exemplary book about the skeptical ways teachers should look at research claims. I wish all teachers and administrators would read it. It would save them a lot of wasted energy and disappointments. But there’s another kind of skepticism that only experts in a field are able to muster, and that’s when some research findings don’t quite fit the body of relevant research taken as a whole. That is what’s wrong with the current widespread emphasis on the explicit study of Tier 2 words. Research does show that students learn more of such words when they study them. (Surprise?) But that research hasn’t answered one obvious question: Could even more progress be made by spending class time in quite a different way? Being in my ninth decade, and having been interested in this topic for at least six of those decades, I have studied a wide range of psycholinguistic research. My hunch about the answer to that question is: Yes, there are far better and faster ways to induce language growth in our students.
In this blog, I want to discuss three kinds of research from the field of psycholinguistics that elevate my hunch to a good bet. There probably are methods that promise much faster growth than focusing too much on Tier 2 words and other aspects of language that are not specific to any particular domain.
(1) Pride of place should go to the work of John Guthrie at the University of Maryland. For many years he and his colleagues have sponsored studies of a method he calls “Concept Oriented Reading Instruction”—CORI for short—whose methods have shown outstanding language gains by focusing ELA classes on academic subject matter for extended periods of time. Using control groups, and rather high experimental standards, he has shown that focusing on actual knowledge domains increases student interest, motivation, general vocabulary, and ability to read strategically.
Guthrie and his work are highly respected among educational researchers, but have had little widespread impact on textbooks or classroom practice. Here’s an early study showing CORI to be superior to traditional instruction and a later one showing CORI to be superior to both strategy instruction and traditional instruction.
(2) Another important line of research in the same vein has been led by Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education. They have been interested, like Guthrie, in how a durable focus on specific domains of knowledge can increase language growth across domains, especially when developed through computer-assisted “knowledge communities.” Their work has emphasized listening and speaking as much as reading (which is important because research has shown that listening and speaking have significant educative value). One study, in which students studied several topics (including plants, light, and medieval times) over four semesters in grades 3 and 4, found an impressive pattern of vocabulary growth. As the chart below shows, not only were students using lots of new words, in the 3rd and 4th semesters—when the students were in 4th grade—more than half of their new words were above grade level:
(3) For my last example, I cite a recent research report from Diana Arya, Elfrieda Hiebert, and P. David Pearson—all distinguished scholars. I mention it last, not just because it’s the most recent, but also because it helps put the other research findings in a larger context. What was most impressive about this research was that it surprised the researchers—often a mark of significant work. Here’s how the researchers summarized their hypotheses and results:
The present study was designed to address the question of whether lexical or syntactic factors exert greater influence on the comprehension of elementary science texts. Based on previous research on text accessibility, it was expected that syntactic and lexical complexity would each affect students’ performance on science texts, and that these two types of text complexity together would additionally impact student performance. In order to test this hypothesis, 16 texts that varied in syntactic and lexical complexity across four different topics were constructed. Students read texts that ranged in complexity, each from a different topic.
Contrary to our hypotheses, syntactic complexity did not explain variance in performance across any of the four topics….
Lexical complexity significantly influenced comprehension performance for texts on two of the four topics, Tree Frogs and Soil, but not for texts on Jelly Beans and Toothpaste. This finding was consistent across all participant groups, including ELLs. A possible explanation is that prior knowledge of vocabulary, rather than any established index of word frequency, determines how difficult a lexically complex text will be for a student.
These results are at odds with the notion that the usual measures of sentence structure (and/or length) and vocabulary are reliable ways to determine the “right” reading level of a text for a child.
On the other hand, their findings are consistent with other work in language study, as Arya, Hiebert, and Pearson were quick to point out. It fits with findings by researchers such as Walter Kintsch, Thomas Landauer, Donna Recht, and Wolfgang Schneider that prior knowledge of and familiarity with a topic, as well as context, trump vocabulary level and verbal strategies in language comprehension.
Given enough familiarity with a topic, children are able to make correct guesses about words they have never seen before. They are also able to disentangle complex syntax if their topic familiarity enables them to grasp the gist of a text.
This kind of finding further fits with the student progress reported by Guthrie, Scardamalia, and their colleagues, for it suggests that when students stay on a specific domain long enough to become familiar with it, then their domain-general language abilities increase remarkably. They correctly guess the meanings of words they have not seen before; they disentangle complicated syntax much more readily, and thus learn its more general conventions. In short, the study by Arya, et al., strongly reinforces the general principle that the way to make fast progress in language growth is to study specific domains and thus their words more than domain-general words. (Of course, language is a domain highly worthy of study, too.)
Needless to say, the implications of these studies reach well beyond my prior blog about preferring instruction in domain-specific Tier 3 words. That was another way of preferring the study of specific domains; there’s no good way of learning a domain without learning its terms, and vice versa.
Taken as a whole, the three lines of research I just summarized recommend a revolution in the way we try to foster language growth. The language class needs to become a knowledge class, and it needs to stay on topic long enough to induce domain familiarity. There’s no inherent reason why all 3rd and 4th graders should not experience the rapid, above grade level vocabulary growth reflected in the chart above, which, best of all, includes kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. After all, if you stay on a topic long enough, disadvantaged children will gain topic familiarity also, and begin to catch up.