Vocabulary Improvement Program for English Language Learners and Their Classmates, Fourth Grade: 4th Grade

Vocabulary Improvement Program for English Language Learners and Their Classmates, Fourth Grade: 4th Grade

by Teresa Lively, Maria Carlo, Catherine Snow, Diane August

Now teachers can give their students the crucial vocabulary practice they need with this curriculum, which is proven equally effective for English-language learners (ELLs) or students whose first language in English. This program uses an innovative approach to help students build a "toolbox" of skills to decipher unfamiliar words' meanings. Ideal for classrooms


Now teachers can give their students the crucial vocabulary practice they need with this curriculum, which is proven equally effective for English-language learners (ELLs) or students whose first language in English. This program uses an innovative approach to help students build a "toolbox" of skills to decipher unfamiliar words' meanings. Ideal for classrooms with both English- and Spanish-speaking ELLs, the curriculum combines teacher-directed instruction with cooperative group learning and individual activities for vocabulary reinforcement. An age-appropriate, 18-week curriculum used for 30 minutes a day. Includes step-by-step Teacher's Guide.

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Excerpted from pages xiii - xvii of Vocabulary Improvement Program for English Language Learners and Their Classmates: 4th Grade, by Teresa Lively, Diane August, María Carlo, Catherine Snow

Copyright © 2003 by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


The Vocabulary Improvement Program (VIP) is a research-based program designed to enrich the vocabulary of fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade students by utilizing a combination of strategies aimed at various aspects of vocabulary knowledge—word definitions, recognizing words in context, awareness of the multiple meanings of words, word associations, and cognates for native Spanish speakers.

The VIP was initially designed for classroom teachers working with heterogeneous groups of children, consisting of English-only students and Spanish-speaking English language learners; however, the program would be equally effective in English-only, Spanish-only, and English as a second language classrooms as well as for an extended age range.

In accordance with research indicating words are best learned from rich semantic contexts, the target vocabulary words are embedded in brief, engaging reading passages. Each lesson of the curriculum focuses on a relatively small number of vocabulary items (12–14 per lesson) that students at each level are likely to encounter repeatedly across texts in different domains, including literature, science, social science, and written material outside of the classroom. Although the focus is on only a few words each week, the curriculum's activities help children make semantic links to other words and concepts and thus attain a deeper and richer understanding of each target word's meaning as well as learn other words and concepts related to the target word. Thus, the curriculum is designed to increase students' breadth and depth of word knowledge. In keeping with research-based best practice, the lessons also teach students to infer meanings from context and to use roots, affixes, cognates, morphological relationships, and comprehension monitoring as tools to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words wherever they are encountered.

Throughout the lessons are features that research has found to effectively build children's vocabulary. First, teachers are encouraged to use the vocabulary-building strategies learned during the VIP lessons in subject-matter instruction throughout the day. The curriculum includes mini-lessons (Teacher Tips) for teachers to help them accomplish this. Minilessons include, for example, how to help students do the following: infer meaning from text; attain richer, deeper understandings of word meanings; use cognates; understand multiple word meanings; and use roots and affixes.

Second, most of the activities combine teacher-directed instruction and cooperative group learning, a format that works well with heterogeneous groups of students.The activity begins with teacher explanation and modeling of the activity, followed by whole group practice, and then cooperative group work. At the conclusion of each activity, or concurrently with the group work, the teacher pulls the students together to report on their work, with teacher feedback and help when necessary.

Third, the program uses Spanish-speaking English language learners' first language in a few lessons to bolster students' vocabulary knowledge and text comprehension. One of the homework assignments in the fifth-grade curriculum entails students asking their parents about family immigration experiences.These conversations take place in the home language.

Fourth, almost all of the lessons involve collaborative and cooperative learning between English language learners and English-only students. For example, in activities that require students to use contextual clues to select the correct target word to complete a sentence, heterogeneous groups of students work together to arrive at the correct answer.The cooperative group work on cognates depends on the expertise of the Spanish-speaking English language learners. One of the strongest features of the intervention is that it provides opportunities for English language learners to converse in English with fluent English speakers in a meaningful way.

Fifth, homework assignments reinforce class learning. For example, in Word Wizard, students record the use of target words encountered outside of class (at home, on the television, with friends), present the "found" sentences to their classmates, and may post the sentences in a class book. As homework assignments, students also generate new sentences, complete crossword puzzles, and work on contexting activities that use the target words.

Sixth, teachers assess students at the end of each lesson to monitor students" instructional progress. Finally, every fifth lesson is a review so students have an opportunity to consolidate what they have learned.


The target words are drawn from and embedded in a variety of literary genres.The words for the fourth-grade curriculum are drawn from Arnold Lobel's Fables.The words for the fifthgrade curriculum are drawn from A Journey to the New World: The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple by Katheryn Lasky (from the Dear America series) and Immigrant Kids by Russell Freedman.The words for the sixth-grade curriculum are drawn from New Kids in Town: Oral Histories of Immigrant Teens by Janet Bode and The New York Times "Here and There" series on immigration, which has been modified for sixth-grade students. These texts were chosen both for their appeal and their ability to expose students to a variety of literary genres.

At each grade level, the curriculum consists of 10 lessons. Each lesson is composed of eight days, with the exception of two review lessons that are composed of five days each. The review lessons use new activities to review all of the words learned in the previous four lessons.

Each lesson follows a similar format. During the first day of each lesson, the teacher introduces a story and helps students predict the story line and connect the story to their background knowledge. During the second day, through teacher-directed classroom discussion, students learn the definitions for the target words and how to infer word meaning from text for a subset of these words.

The third day is devoted to building depth of word meaning through engaging activities that encourage students to process new word meanings. For example, in one "deepprocessing" activity from the fifth-grade curriculum, students interview each other using questions that contain the target words (e.g.,What has caused the most torment in your life? Name three things that commonly arouse a teacher's anger?) The fourth and sixth days provide students with tools that can be used in any setting to decipher the meanings of unfa- miliar vocabulary. For example, children work on cognates and morphological relationships and learn to use affixes, roots, cognates, and comprehension monitoring.

During the fifth day of the lesson, students work in heterogeneous cooperative groups on word contexting activities to build depth of word meaning.They are given sentences with a missing word and are directed to select the correct target word based on the sentence context and then to explain why they have selected that particular word.

During the seventh day, students share sentences they have recorded for Word Wizard, an activity that encourages students to listen and look for vocabulary outside the context of the classroom. During the eighth day, students complete an assessment of the lesson's target words so teachers can monitor the students' progress.


Contexting Activities

According to Stahl (1999), because most words are learned from context, good vocabulary instruction should simulate learning from context.Toward this end, each lesson begins with an exercise in which students infer the meaning of specific words from the text for that week. Words are deliberately selected to ensure there are enough clues for students to determine the meaning.

On the fifth day of the lesson, students further develop their inferencing skills by working in small, heterogeneous groups on contexting activities. Each group is challenged to figure out the correct target words for sentences that support the words' meaning and then to explain why the answer makes sense. Note that students have already learned the definitions of the target words.This activity is intended to give students practice inferring meaning from text and building depth of word meaning.Two examples follow (target words to be located by the students are italicized):

  1. "I think my teacher symbolizes Colombia. She represents the country, language, and the country's traditions."
  2. "When the new boy was asked a question in English, he felt foolish and embarrassed. The teacher humiliated the boy accidentally because he didn't know the boy had recently come from the Dominican Republic."
Teachers also help children use strategies outside of the specific vocabulary lessons. Because some passages don't have enough clues to help figure out what a word means, students are taught to
  1. Note context clues (if any)
  2. Determine if there are enough context clues to figure out a target word's meaning and, if so, provide a plausible meaning and explanation for why the meaning is plausible Introduction
  3. Ask a friend or use a dictionary if the context does not support the word's meaning. Ideally, teachers model this process throughout the day on a variety of sentences with different levels of supporting context.
Deep Processing

One of the most difficult tasks in vocabulary instruction is to encourage students to process new words at a deep level. By this, we mean providing opportunities for students to make semantic links to other words and concepts and thus attain a deeper and richer understanding of a word's meaning. Beck and colleagues (1982, 1987) have suggested that one way to have students make these connections and process words more deeply is through answering questions about target words to indicate that they have a clear understanding of their meaning and then to write a sentence that uses the word in a related way. The curriculum modifies this strategy by selecting the target words from the curriculum text, teaching students the word meanings prior to the activity, and engaging students in activities to use the words in novel ways.

The curriculum also adapts well-known games in order to build depth of word meaning. For example, in Charades, students have to act out a target word's meaning for their team. In Word Bee, team members work together to define a target word given and then present the definition to classmates for approval. In Word Substitution, team members replace a target word presented in a sentence with another word or phrase that means the same thing. In Word Guess, the teams of students attempt to guess a target word with the fewest clues possible.

To help students process words more deeply outside the vocabulary activities, teachers are trained to use similar strategies in a less structured way throughout the day. For example, if teachers encounter the target word degree in science, they may ask for the definition of the word in its scientific context as well as what the word may mean in other contexts (math, literature, or geography).They may then ask students to think up new sentences on the spot using various definitions of the target word.

Using Cognates (for Spanish-Speaking English Language Learners)

Cognates are a rich source of information for many English language learners, especially those whose first language is Spanish. Research has found that among English language learners with equal English vocabulary knowledge, Spanish vocabulary knowledge and ability to recognize cognates predicted English reading comprehension, indicating students were making use of cognate relationships in English reading (Nagy, Garcia, Durgunoglu, & Hancin-Bhatt, 1993).

In one activity that helps students learn more about cognates, the class is divided into four heterogeneous groups. Each group is given four or five Spanish words and a passage from Fables. Students must locate the corresponding English cognates for the Spanish words. In each group, English-only students receive help from their Spanish-speaking classmates. Utilizing the Spanish-speaking students' knowledge of Spanish, the group verifies that the English word means the same thing as the cognate.

Structural Analysis

Some reading researchers (Dale & O'Rourke, 1986; Nagy & Anderson, 1984; Stahl, 1999) have argued that one of the best ways to expand a child vocabulary is through "structural analysis" or helping children recognize the parts of words and what these parts mean. For example, the word unfruitful has the prefix un-, the root fruit, and the suffix -ful. Other words, such as snowman, are compounds of two words. Because children enjoy word play and games with words, the curriculum includes a number of games to teach roots and affixes.

In teaching structural analysis, the curriculum keeps several issues in mind. It avoids "phantom" prefixes, such as re- in reality, so that students will not look for "little words in big words" (leading to such mistakes as finding moth in mother and fat in father). In developing the exercises, we recognized that some suffixes are relatively easy to teach, such as -ness and -ity. Others, such as -tion, have meanings that are more abstract and are difficult to convey. Finally, where possible, we begin with words that are already familiar to the students.


There is no better predictor of school success than reading comprehension. Nor is there a better predictor of reading comprehension than vocabulary knowledge. Vocabulary development is a lifetime project in which we are constantly expanding and deepening our understanding of words. Children need to learn the definitions of words but also need to learn strategies to decipher meaning when they encounter unknown words.Therefore, in this program the students learn a relatively small number of vocabulary items (12–14 per lesson) while the focus is on strategies that will generalize to contact with other words.Through the course of this program, students learn strategies such as structural analysis (root words and affixes), multiple meanings, cognates, and inferring meaning from context.Teachers and students who participated in the project expressed their appreciation enthusiastically.

The ideas for the vocabulary improvement activities were initially drawn from the literature on vocabulary acquisition and from classroom teacher suggestions.They were further developed through pilot testing and extensive teacher–researcher collaboration. The curriculum was implemented in fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms for more than 2 years, rigorously tested, and found to be highly effective. More specifically, a multivariate analysis of variance was performed on the dependent measures for which scores were available in both the fall and spring of each year to test the effects of predictor variables—school in which the program was implemented, language status (English-only or English language learner), and treatment. VIP was found to improve children's performance in three areas: knowledge of the words taught, knowledge of word analysis, and comprehension of texts including challenging words. Furthermore, the curriculum was effective with children who speak English as a second language as well as with English-only children. Finally, 2 years of exposure to the vocabulary intervention had a greater effect on outcome measures than 1 year.

Meet the Author

Teresa Lively, M.S., has had a lifelong appreciation for the power and magic of words. This regard for words extended into her love of the Spanish language that developed during the 2 years she resided in Mexico as a child and again as a teenager. She can recall her struggles when first confronted with a new language and how these difficulties precluded communication with peers and completion of her schoolwork. She remembers equally well the satisfaction she experienced as her ability to understand and communicate increased. As part of this natural progression, during a 14-year bilingual teaching career, Ms. Lively realized that children's academic success is greatly influenced by the breadth and depth of their vocabulary knowledge. Therefore, in her classroom she emphasized learning the meanings of new words while encouraging both native English speakers and English language learners to develop a curiosity and appreciation for vocabulary. Ms. Lively resides on the California coast. She enjoys spending time with her husband, who supports her passions and keeps her laughing, two wonderful grown children, and loyal friends who encourage her life journey. She is currently completing a doctoral program in clinical psychology.

Diane August, Ph.D., is an independent consultant as well as a senior research scientist at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C. At the Center for Applied Linguistics, she directs a large, federally funded study investigating the development of literacy in English language learners. She is also the Staff Director for the National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Children and Youth. As an educational consultant, Dr. August has worked in the areas of literacy, program improvement, evaluation and testing, and federal and state education policy. She has been a senior program officer at the National Academy of Sciences and Study Director for the Committee on Developing a Research Agenda on the Education of Limited English Proficient and Bilingual Students. Dr. August worked for 10 years as a public school teacher and school administrator in California. Subsequently, she served as Legislative Assistant in the area of education for a United States Congressman from California, worked as a grants officer for the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and served as Director of Education for the Children's Defense Fund. In 1981, she received her doctorate in education from Stanford University, and in 1982, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship in psychology, also at Stanford.

Maria Carlo, Ph.D., is a psychologist studying bilingualism in children and adults. Her research focuses on the cognitive processes that underlie reading in a second language and on understanding the differences in the reading processes of bilinguals and monolinguals. She is Co-principal Investigator on a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)-funded project that investigates the transfer of reading skills from Spanish to English among primary school children. This research seeks to understand the role played by the native language in the development of second-language literacy. Dr. Carlo has written articles and book chapters on the role of mother-tongue literacy in the second-language literacy, and on the literacy assessment of bilingual learners. She received her doctorate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Dr. Snow is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She received her doctorate in psychology from McGill University and worked for several years in the linguistics department of the University of Amsterdam. Her research interests include children's language development as influenced by interaction with adults in home and preschool settings, literacy development as related to language skills and as influenced by home and school factors, and issues related to the acquisition of English oral and literacy skills by language minority children. She has co-authored books on language development (e.g., Pragmatic Development: Essays in Developmental Science, co-authored with Anat Ninio [Westview Press, 1996]) and on literacy development (e.g., Unfulfilled Expectations: Home and School Influences on Literacy, co-authored with Wendy S. Barnes, Lowry Hemphill, Jean Chandler, and Irene F. Goodman [iUniverse.com, 2000]) and has published widely on these topics in refereed journals and edited volumes. Dr. Snow's contributions to the field include serving on several journal editorial boards, as co-director of the Child Language Data Exchange System for several years, and as editor of Applied Psycholinguistics. She served as a board member at the Center for Applied Linguistics and was a member of the National Research Council Committee on Establishing a Research Agenda on Schooling for Language Minority Children. She also chaired the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, which produced a report that has been widely adopted as a basis for reform of reading instruction and professional development. She currently serves on the NRC's Council for the Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education and is President of the American Educational Research Association. A member of the National Academy of Education, Dr. Snow has held visiting appointments at the University of Cambridge, England, Universidad Autónoma in Madrid, and The Institute of Advanced Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and has guest taught at Universidad Central de Caracas in Venezuela, El Colegio de Mexico, Odense University in Denmark, and several institutions in The Netherlands.

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