KU News Service

Study: Focus on vocabulary can boost students' reading

Wed, 01/09/2013

LAWRENCE — There’s an old saying in education that first you learn to read, then you read to learn. A University of Kansas professor has authored a study highlighting the importance of focusing instruction early in a child’s life on vocabulary and understanding what is read, not only on aspects of word recognition, which are the hallmarks of “learning to read." Attention to vocabulary and understanding text early in students’ school careers can help them develop the ability to comprehend text better.

Diane Nielsen, associate professor of curriculum and teaching, conducted a study with 28 kindergartners at a high-poverty, urban school who were all behind their classmates in aspects of language development. Students took part in a 12-week storybook-based intervention in which they focused on vocabulary and narrative (story) understanding. At the end of the intervention, they made significantly greater gains in vocabulary and narrative skill — two key elements of reading comprehension success — than students with similar needs who did not participate.

“As important as word recognition is, and it’s super important, vocabulary needs to be given as much emphasis,” Nielsen said. “It is essential that children learn to quickly decode words, but if they don’t understand the meaning of the words, then their ability to understand the overall meaning of a story or other text will be compromised. And comprehension should always be the ultimate goal of reading.”

Research has long shown that many kindergartners enter school with limited vocabulary knowledge and other language skills behind those of their peers, and a large portion of those who do come from poor backgrounds. This not only puts them behind their peers in reading achievement, it often leads to children being designated for special education when they should not be.

Nielsen, whose study was published in the journal, Reading Psychology, took place over the course of 12 weeks with students who were behind their peers on standardized measures of language development and narrative. Three times a week the students spent 30 minutes in a small group, storybook-based lesson, preplanned by Nielsen. A graduate student, who provided the instruction, taught selected words then read a story stopping to emphasize those words and asking the children their meaning. Elements of stories, such as character and story events, were also focused on before and during the book reading. In ensuing sessions, the students discussed or demonstrated the meaning of words and engaged in activities to emphasize story elements, such as by retelling and acting out the stories.

The students and their peers in a control group were tested before and after the intervention. As expected, the students in the intervention made significant gains in vocabulary scores, as they were explicitly taught as a part of the lessons. However, the intervention students also made larger gains on narrative understanding measures, including their ability to retell stories, a way to demonstrate story comprehension. Nielsen reported that narrative is also a much more difficult concept to teach than vocabulary words, which can be explicitly taught, illustrating the value of the intervention.

Nielsen suggested that the findings are important because students can often appear to be good readers in the primary grades, but when text becomes more demanding they can quickly fall behind. Such students may be able to identify and pronounce the words they are reading, but limited vocabulary knowledge and a general lack of understanding of how stories and other types of text work affects their comprehension. Even though the intervention students showed greater improvement than their peers, not all teachers will have time in their busy day to provide additional instruction as was the case in this study.

“It’s all well and good that the students in these intervention groups did well, but most teachers don’t have an extra hand to provide additional and separate instruction for the students who need it,” Nielsen said. “I like to think about ways we can support teachers to provide good solid instruction in vocabulary and narrative to all their students. Also, I think it really helps if we can all get kids to be ‘word conscious’ – get them excited about learning new words, show them that words can be ‘cool’ and get them thinking about words in many different contexts.”

Nielsen expanded this research to see if the success with a small group could be duplicated when the strategy to focus on vocabulary and narrative is delivered by the classroom teacher to an entire class. Her recently completed study, with a kindergarten teacher providing the instruction in a high-poverty urban school, demonstrated it was possible for many kindergarteners to make great gains with such focused instruction, even when delivered in a whole-group setting. Some children will still need additional help even after quality classroom instruction. For that reason, Nielsen suggested, it is important for schools to find ways to support the delivery of research-based interventions focused not only on aspects of word recognition but also on vocabulary and narrative, so that all children have the best possible chance of reaching their potential as readers in the long term.

Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner. See it here:
Rock Chalk! Junior Ashlie Koehn named KU's 18th Truman Scholar
Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening.

.@NYTimes columnist @WCRhoden will speak at a symposium about race and sports April 23.
Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.

One of 34 U.S. public institutions in the prestigious Association of American Universities
26 prestigious Rhodes Scholars — more than all other Kansas colleges combined
Nearly $290 million in financial aid annually
46 nationally ranked graduate programs.
—U.S. News & World Report
Top 50 nationwide for size of library collection.
23rd nationwide for service to veterans —"Best for Vets," Military Times