Vocabulary intervention for at-risk adolescents

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So much of our attention to word-learning is on young children. However, vocabulary is pivotal for adolescents, too. Across age ranges, there is “… evidence for an association between vocabulary knowledge and academic attainment…”.

In this treatment study, thirty-five 12–14-years-old kids, all in low-ability classes and not making expected progress, were enrolled for intervention. None were receiving SLP services at the time. However, when you examine the group’s standardized language scores, they overall had low-average/borderline language skills, with some higher and some lower than this.

Intervention consisted of 10 weeks of once-weekly, one-hour, small group sessions. The students were taught one targeted word per week. The targeted words were Tier 2—so abstract words that occur in multiple contexts, across the curriculum, and are thus have potential to be quite impactful. One word per week may not seem like much, but “…while the sessions targeted one word (e.g. evaluate), the session included information on related words (e.g. positive and negative) as well as derivatives (e.g. evaluation, evaluated)…” So there was a high level of intensity on one targeted word (previous research has shown this is necessary), but with extra vocabulary and morphological instruction, as well.

To teach the target words, intervention tasks included things like defining, using the words in sentences, concept mapping, experimental activities, and challenges to use the words in real life. And—GOOD NEWS!—all their session descriptions and activities are freely available online. No joke; you can go download and use all of them. See here. (Psst—there are also some great links out from this website, too, to other research-based resources, like this. It’s great stuff.)

So how did the researchers measure if the students had learned a word? Post-intervention vocabulary knowledge was measured using their Word Knowledge Profile (takes 10–20 minutes to complete, also available on their website, with scoring examples). Do note that, though their study showed correlation between the Word Knowledge Profile and the standardized language measures, the Word Knowledge Profile is not itself standardized.

Results showed that, “…participants significantly improved their knowledge of target words, as indicated by their increased ability to describe the targeted words’ meaning…”. The authors highlight the“…potential consequences of poor vocabulary skills for literacy skills and educational attainment,” and that, “…explicit teaching of such vocabulary is needed…”

Spencer, S., Clegg, J., Lowe, H., & Stackhouse, J. (2017). Increasing adolescents’ depth of understanding of cross-curriculum words: an intervention study. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1111/1460-6984.12309.