Teaching and Language Facilitation Techniques Associated with Preschoolers' Vocabulary Growth

Investigator: Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez

Funding: Hellman Fellowship Award

Graduate Student Researcher: Janet Garcia Mercado

Graduate Student Contribution: Christa Mulker Greenfader 

Early vocabulary predicts later academic outcomes, including reading comprehension. Reading comprehension difficulties are associated with a wide range of negative life outcomes, including school drop-out, unemployment, and mental health problems. Helping students develop broad and deep vocabularies as early as possible is essential, particularly in light of how prominently vocabulary is featured in the new California Common Core State Standards. The achievement gap is well-documented between children from non-native English speaking homes, a population commonly known as English language learners (ELLs), and children from low­ income homes, compared to their peers who are English monolingual and from middle- and upper-income homes, respectively, with limitations at the vocabulary level emerging as a key impediment to school success.  Learning two or more languages is not, in and of itself, a risk factor for academic difficulties, but low socio-economic status affects child development via academic, neurocognitive, socio-emotional, and physical health outcomes, with the effects being greater for very young children than for older children and adolescents. This is of grave concern as Latino children from Spanish-speaking homes-the largest and fastest growing segment of the ELL and U.S. population-are now the largest single group of poor children in the U.S.

Research conducted in authentic preschool environments will provide insight into classroom language practices to identify instructional techniques associated with preschoolers' vocabulary growth. At the K-12 level, studies shows that monolingual English speakers and ELLs immersed in language-rich environments demonstrate vocabulary growth and that explicit teaching of individual words relates to positive vocabulary outcomes. But we know very little about the nature of this relationship for students at the preschool level, and especially for ELLs. This study, which will serve as the foundation for a program of research on principles of vocabulary instruction and intervention for preschoolers, anchored on the needs of ELLs, is guided by two interrelated aims: (a) monitor the development of preschoolers' Spanish and/or English early literacy, specifically vocabulary, over the course of a school year, and (b) examine language use and language interaction styles in the classroom. The study is being conducted in collaboration with a large Orange County preschool serving substantial numbers of ELLs from Spanish-speaking, low-income homes.