Building bilingual children's vocabularies: How much teaching do we really need to be doing here?

We know that bilingual children’s vocabulary predicts long-term literacy outcomes. In this study, teachers taught higher-level English words (e.g., illness, clung, fierce) through storybook reading activities to low-income second graders* who spoke Spanish at home. The complete word lists, books used, and an example lesson are in the article’s supplemental materials. Each word was taught by one of three methods:

  1. Extended instruction: Teachers pre-taught words in English and Spanish and provided additional examples and practice during and after reading
  2. Embedded instruction: Teachers defined words in English during story reading and provided songs and writing practice after reading
  3. Control: Teachers read words in the story but provided no additional explanation

Children learned the most words through extended instruction (the one with the most examples). But, the authors pointed out what we all know—there are soooo many words for children to learn, and only so much time to teach them. Luckily, the less intensive embedded instruction method also led to good learning compared with the control condition. In the real world, this level of teaching may be good enough.

*Note that the authors didn’t assess children’s L1 (Spanish) language ability, so we don’t know how many children (if any) had developmental language disorder (DLD). See here for guidance on diagnosing DLD in bilingual children, here for tips for giving vocab tests to children with DLD, and here for more resources on bilingual intervention. 

August, D., Artzi, L., Barr, C., & Francis, D. (2018). The moderating influence of instructional intensity and word type on the acquisition of academic vocabulary in young English language learners. Reading and Writing, 31, 965–989. doi:10.1007/s11145-018-9821-1