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Subject:

Some Findings on the Academic Vocabulary Skills of Language-Minority Community College Students

From:

Dan Kern <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Open Forum for Learning Assistance Professionals <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 7 May 2009 07:26:50 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

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Volume 6, Issue D ::: February 04

Some Findings on the Academic Vocabulary Skills of Language-Minority
Community College Students

 

by Maricel G. Santos
"The vocabulary first of all, especially when it's long words, it gets me
confused and it make me feel like if I don't understand one word, then I
wouldn't understand the other ... that would [make] me stop, like ok, this
is getting me crazy!" 

This comment was made by Louie (a pseudonym), a 20-year old Vietnamese
community college student, when asked what he found most challenging about
reading his academic textbooks. Louie's frustration with the vocabulary
demands of his college reading is likely shared by many language-minority
students who are making the transition from English as a second language
(ESL) coursework to content courses designed for native English speakers.
For students who are new to a content area such as psychology, technical
words like cognitive, dissociation, and psychoanalysis present a challenge.
For students who are not yet proficient reading academic texts, academic
words - such as nonetheless, illustrate, and proportion, that are commonly
used in textbooks across a range of subject areas (Nation, 1990; Coxhead,
2000) - may also be unfamiliar. While the meanings of technical words are
often reinforced by class lectures and discussions, students may be expected
to already know the meanings of academic words (Farrell, 1990). Knowledge of
academic words has been found to differentiate academically well-prepared
from under-prepared college students from all backgrounds (Kuehn, 1996). 

Many adult English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) practitioners
recognize the link between reading comprehension and vocabulary growth
(Anderson & Freebody, 1981; Nagy, 1988). However, it's not always clear
which words we should teach language-minority students to prepare them for
college-level reading. In a study of typical community college textbooks, I
found that one out of every six words, or roughly 16 percent of the words in
the textbook sample, were academic words (Santos, 2000). This proportion
confirmed for me the importance of this area of word knowledge in college
reading, particularly in light of research indicating that readers often
struggle to read independently when about two percent of the words in a text
are unknown (Carver, 1994). The prevalence of academic vocabulary in college
reading material is one of the reasons I decided to focus my doctoral
dissertation on the academic vocabulary skills of language-minority
community college students. The language-minority students in the study were
either enrolled in advanced ESOL classes or in their first semester taking
regular content courses at a community college in urban New England. In this
article, I describe the general design of the study and highlight some
findings that may help adult basic education (ABE) and ESOL practitioners
understand how academic words can be taught and learned effectively. 

The Study
There were two parts to my study. In part one, I administered an academic
vocabulary test called the University Word Levels Test (Beglar & Hunt, 1999)
to the community college students. The sample included language-minority
students in advanced ESOL, language-minority students in introductory
psychology classes, and native English-speaking students enrolled in the
same introductory psychology class. These data allowed me to examine how the
academic vocabulary knowledge of language-minority students compared to that
of native English-speaking students and to explore student characteristics
that might be related to differences in academic word knowledge. In part two
of my study, I worked with a focal group of 10 language-minority students. I
interviewed them about their reading habits and perceptions of academic
reading. I also examined the kinds of strategies the students used to figure
out unknown words in an academic text and probed how well they knew academic
words. My analysis of vocabulary assessment and interview data yielded
several observations. I highlight four trends here:

1 The native English-speaking students exhibited stronger academic
vocabulary skills than the language-minority students in introductory
psychology classes who, in turn, performed better than the language-minority
students in advanced ESOL classes. This is not a surprising finding: we
would expect language-minority students to still be developing their English
vocabulary knowledge. However, there was a narrower gap in performance
between language-minority students enrolled in introductory psychology
classes and their native English-speaking peers than between
language-minority students in introductory psychology classes and
language-minority students in advanced ESOL classes. This is encouraging as
it suggests that these language-minority students, who have 'transitioned'
beyond the need for ESL classes, have indeed developed their academic
vocabulary skills.

2 On average, General Educational Development (GED) recipients demonstrated
slightly weaker academic vocabulary skills than high school graduates, a
trend observed for both language-minority and native English speaking
students. This gap in academic word knowledge, however, was most marked
among language-minority students enrolled in introductory psychology. This
finding may provide some basis for directing vocabulary instructional
services to language-minority students who are GED recipients and enrolled
in mainstream courses.

3 Language-minority community college students with greater breadth of
academic word knowledge also demonstrated greater depth of academic word
knowledge. In other words, students with larger English vocabularies were
able to identify more possible meanings and uses for words than students
with smaller English vocabularies. Depth of academic word knowledge is
important because words often have multiple meanings depending on the
contexts in which they appear (Nagy, 1995; Read, 1998). (For example, the
word field can be used as in "to plant corn in a field" or as in "the field
of medicine" or "to field questions from the press.") Knowing only one
meaning might hamper students' reading comprehension: previous studies have
shown that learners will cling to a familiar meaning even when the meaning
does not fit the broader context of the reading material (Huckin & Jin,
1987). These findings suggest that deepening students' understanding of
words they already knew - not just teaching them more words - would be a
productive route to vocabulary development (Lewis, 2000).

4 Finally, language-minority students with relatively stronger academic word
skills were not consistently better at inferring word meanings in context
than students with relatively weaker academic word skills. On the other
hand, students with weak academic word skills were generally unsuccessful in
their attempts to figure out word meanings in context. In other words, good
academic vocabulary knowledge does not guarantee successful inferencing, but
without it, successful inferencing is less likely. This is likely because
students who do not know enough of the surrounding words in an academic text
will struggle to infer the meaning of a particular word (Stahl, 1999). I
found this to be true for language-minority students in both advanced ESOL
classes and mainstream content courses. This suggests that students will
need to continue strengthening their word inferencing skills even after they
have transitioned into mainstream classes. 

There appear to be a range of academic word skills (e.g., breadth of word
knowledge, depth of knowledge, word inferencing skills) that can help focus
academic word learning and teaching. With these findings, I hope to provide
an empirical basis for prompting new thinking in the ABE/ESOL field about
the need for and nature of academic vocabulary instruction for college-bound
language minority students. 

References 
Anderson, R. C., & Freebody, P. (1981). "Vocabulary knowledge." In J.
Guthrie (ed.), Comprehension and Teaching: Research Reviews (pp. 77117).
Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Beglar, D., & Hunt, A. (1999). "Revising and validating the 2000 Word Level
and University World Level Vocabulary Test." Language Testing, 16(2),
131-162.

Carver, R. (1994). "Percentages of unknown words in text as a function of
the relative difficulty of the text: Implications for instruction." Journal
of Reading Behavior, 26(4), 413-437.

Coxhead, A. (1998). "A new academic word list." TESOL Quarterly, 34(2),
213-235.

Farrell, P. (1990). Vocabulary in ESL: A Lexical Analysis of the English of
Electronics and a Study of Semi-technical Vocabulary. Dublin, Ireland:
Centre for Language and Communication Studies. (ERIC Document Reproduction
Service No. ED332551)

Huckin, T. & Jin, Z. (1987). "Inferring word meanings from context: A study
in second language acquisition." In F. Marshall (ed.). ESCOL'86. Columbus,
OH: Ohio State University Department of Linguistics.

Kuehn, P. (1996). Assessment of Academic Literacy Skills: Preparing Minority
and Limited English Proficient (LEP) Students for Post-secondary Education.
Fresno, CA: California State University, Fresno. (ERIC Document Reproduction
Service No. ED415498)

Lewis, M.(ed.) (2000). Teaching Collocation: Further Developments in the
Lexical Approach. London: LTP.

Nagy, W. (1988). Teaching Vocabulary to Improve Reading Comprehension.
Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Nation, I. (1990). Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Boston, MA: Heinle &
Heinle Publishers.

Read, J. (1998). "Validating a test to measure depth of vocabulary
knowledge." In Kunnan, A.J. (ed.). Validation in Language Assessment:
Selected Papers from the Seventeenth Language Testing Research Colloquium,
Long Beach. (pp. 41-60). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Santos, M. (2000). Analyzing Academic Vocabulary and Contextual Cue Support
in Community College Textbooks. Unpublished qualifying paper, Harvard
Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA.

Stahl, S. (1999). Vocabulary Development. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.




 

Dan Kern

AD21, Reading

East Central College

1964 Prairie Dell Road

Union, MO  63084-4344

Phone:  (636) 583-5195

Extension:  2426

Fax:  (636) 584-0513

Email:  [log in to unmask]

 

Instruction begins when you, the teacher, learn from the learner. Put

yourself in his place so that you may understand what he learns and

the way he understands it. (Kierkegaard)

 

 


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