Effects of Comprehensive Vocabulary Instruction on Title I Students’ Metacognitive Word-Learning Skills and Reading Comprehension, The

Effects of Comprehensive Vocabulary Instruction on Title I Students’ Metacognitive Word-Learning Skills and Reading Comprehension, The

Lubliner, Shira

This study examined the effects of a multifaceted, metacognitive vocabulary intervention on the reading comprehension and vocabulary achievement of fifth-grade children in one of California’s lowest performing Title I schools. Instruction was comprehensive, designed to facilitate encoding of student-selected words, mastery of clanfying strategies, and executive control of strategies that maximize word-learning proficiency. Strong gains in reading comprehension and vocabulary achievement and increased metacognitive skills were documented following the 12-week vocabulary intervention. Comparisons of Title I students’ scores and those of students in an above-average-performing school revealed large, significant differences before the intervention and small, nonsignificant differences following the intervention, suggesting a narrowing of the achievement gap.

The achievement gap between students of differing socioeconomic levels is one of the most persistent and frustrating problems that educators confront. Researchers have examined this problem extensively and have identified limited vocabulary as an important factor in the underachievement of children from economically disadvantaged homes (Bcckcr, 1977; Bicmillcr, 2004; Chall, 1983; Chall, Jacobs, & Baldwin, 1990; Hart & Risley, 1995, 2003; White, Graves, SL Slater, 1990). This problem begins early in childhood and becomes increasingly evident over time. Children with larger vocabularies find reading easier, read more widely, and do better in school. Conversely, children who enter school with limited vocabulary find reading difficult, resist reading, learn fewer words, and consequently fall further behind (Stanovich, 1986). Children with limited vocabulary lose ground each year they are in school (Chall et al., 1990). By the time they graduate from high school, these students know only one-fourth as many words as their academically successful peers (Smith, 1941).

There is a broad consensus among researchers that disadvantaged children (defined in this study as children who live in high-poverty homes and attend low-performing schools) need to learn more vocabulary and that vocabulary is highly correlated with reading comprehension (Baker, Simmons, & Kame’enui, 1995; Becker, 1977; Kuhn & Stahl, 1998; Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986; Stanovich, 1986). Does this correlation suggest that strengthening vocabulary instruction will improve the reading comprehension of disadvantaged children? The research does not provide a definitive answer to this question. The vocabulary literature suggests that the relationship between vocabulary instruction and reading comprehension is complex, and the results of vocabulary interventions are inconsistent in terms of improving reading comprehension (Baumann, Kame’enui, & Ash, 2003; Kuhn & Stahl, 1998). Some studies appear to support a causal relationship between vocabulary instruction and reading comprehension achievement. For example, Stahl and Fairbanks (1986) examined definitional and contextual approaches to vocabulary instruction and documented a large effect (.97) on word-specific measures of reading comprehension and a small effect (.30) on global comprehension as a result of vocabulary instruction. Other vocabulary studies documented children’s improved ability to execute specific skills, such as deriving word meaning from context or identifying morphological features of words, but found no evidence of improved reading comprehension (Baumann, Edwards, Boland, Olejnik, & Kame’enui, 2003; Baumann et al., 2002; Fukkink & de Glopper, 1998; Kuhn & Stahl, 1998; Tomesen & Aarnoutse, 1998).

The compelling need to strengthen the educational outcomes of disadvantaged children and the discrepant outcomes of vocabulary studies suggest that a different approach to the problem of limited vocabulary and poor reading comprehension may be warranted. We turn to cognitive strategy research in an attempt to identify successful methods of improving reading comprehension that may be adapted and applied to vocabulary instruction.

Cognitive theorists conceptualize learning as a series of information-processing tasks that the learner regulates through application of cognitive strategies (Gagne, 1985; Mayer, 1981; Weinstein & Mayer, 1986). Mayer (1981) provided a conceptual framework for cognitive strategy research, suggesting that learning is dependent on verbal knowledge (knowledge about something), procedural knowledge (how to solve the problem), and a plan of attack (a strategy to achieve the goal). Paris and his colleagues (Cross & Paris, 1988; Jacobs & Paris, 1987; Paris, 1984, 1986; Paris & Jacobs, 1984; Paris, Lipson, &Wixson, 1983) extended the work of the cognitive theorists, basing their “Informed Strategies for Learning” (ISL) on three dimensions of knowledge amenable to instruction: a) declarative: what is known in a propositional manner, b) procedural: awareness of the process of using cognitive strategies), and c) conditional: knowing why strategies are used and when a particular strategy is likely to be effective. In a series of ISL studies, the researchers documented significant gains in children’s reading awareness, use of strategies, and reading comprehension.

Another extensive research base confirms the effectiveness of teaching children to monitor comprehension and to implement cognitive strategies as a means of improving reading comprehension (Brown, 1985; Brown & Palincsar, 1985, 1986; Dole, Brown, & Trathen, 1996; Gambrell, Morrow, Neuman, & Pressley, 1999; Palincsar, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986; Palincsar & Brown, 1983, 1984; Pearson & Dole, 1987; Rosenshine, 1997). The National Reading Panel (NRP; 2000) found strong evidence supporting the effectiveness of cognitive strategy instruction, citing comprehension monitoring, multiple cognitive strategies, and reciprocal teaching methods as particularly effective.

Comprehension monitoring is often conceptualized as the global comprehension of text passages. However, the monitoring of word knowledge is an essential metacognitive step in the global construction of meaning. Words, according to Vygotsky (1978), are the smallest units of verbal thought, building blocks of meaning. It follows that teaching children to monitor comprehension of words and to regulate word-learning strategies may be a fruitful approach to vocabulary development. Teaching children to apply metacognitive skills to vocabulary acquisition is likely to strengthen both domains, reinforcing the connection between reading comprehension and vocabulary (Blachowicz, 1986).

Vocabulary experts (e.g., Nagy & Scott, 2000) have noted that metacognitive knowledge is a key factor in the implementation of word learning strategies and the transfer of word knowledge from one context to another. However, there is little evidence that the metacognitive methods found to be effective in the cognitive strategy research have been explicitly taught or systematically studied in vocabulary research. In one of the few studies in which metacognitive methods were explicitly taught (Dole, Sloan, & Trathen, 1995), the researchers provided high school students with vocabulary instruction addressing the declarative, procedural, and conditional dimensions of learning. Students learned to use metacognitive skills to monitor comprehension and clarify unknown words in a text, resulting in significant gains in vocabulary and reading comprehension. This study appears to be unique in its focus on a metacognitive approach to vocabulary instruction.

Comprehensive Vocabulary Development

Comprehensive Vocabulary Development (CVD), which was designed to extend the work of the cognitive theorists, provided disadvantaged fifth-grade children with a metacognitive approach to vocabulary instruction. Instruction focused on two types of metacognitive knowledge: self-appraisal of cognition (self-monitoring) and management of thinking (self-regulation) (Paris & Jacobs, 1984). The intent of instruction was to help children monitor comprehension of words and internalize and implement word-learning strategies to increase comprehension of natural texts. CVD was designed as a multifaceted vocabulary program, based on a convergence of the vocabulary research, that supported the effectiveness of mixed methods of instruction (Baumann, Kame’enui, & Ash, 2003; NRP, 2000; Stahl &. Fairbanks, 1986).

Classroom-Based Research

A number of highly regarded vocabulary studies describe participating students but provide very little information about the teachers or the training they received prior to administering the experimental treatment (Beck, McKeown, & Omanson, 1987; Beck, Perfetti, & McKeown, 1982; Tenkins, Matlock, & Slocum, 1989; Kuhn & Stahl, 1998). Other vocabulary studies report results of instruction provided by researchers or research assistants, who typically possess expertise related to the treatment far beyond that of typical classroom teachers (Bauman et al., 2003; Carnine, Kame’enui, &Coyle, 1984; Pressleyet al., 1984). Unlike classroom teachers, researchers have the luxury of focusing narrowly on the experimental treatment, with none of the responsibilities of managing an entire instructional program.

In contrast, the present study was designed to measure the effectiveness of CVD in a natural classroom environment, under conditions typically found in public schools. Classroom-based research (similar to action research) is distinguished from “scientific” research by a number of factors. Students are situated in intact classes and taught by their regular classroom teachers, rather than being randomly assigned to groups (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993; Zeichner, 2003). All participating students receive the same treatment as part of the normal curriculum in classroom-based studies, often precluding the establishment of a control group or counterbalanced design. Although this design does not conform to “evidence-based policy” (Whitehurst, 2003), it is consistent with the “ethics of inquiry” developed by scholars such as Hutchings (2002) and Shulman (2002). Confounding variables abound in classroom-based research. Researchers establish protocols governing the experimental treatment and the schedule of implementation but cannot fully control the context of instruction (Baumann, 1997). Participating teachers may vary in instructional effectiveness and fidelity to the experimental methods. Additionally, classroom-based research takes place in “real time,” and researchers must contend with constraints such as limited time for teacher training and frequent interruptions to the school schedule (Baumann, 1997; Mellor, 2001).

Classroom-based research is designed to improve educational outcomes for children by improving instruction in a particular way (Baumann, 1997; Catelli, Padovano, &Costello, 2000; Cochran-Smith &Lytle, 1993; Zeichner, 2003). Although student achievement is the outcome measure, teachers are the real focal point of classroom-based research. Teachers are active participants in all phases of the research, contributing to the development of materials needed to implement the experimental methods and delivering instruction to their students. Instructional effectiveness is the key to obtaining positive research results.

The goal of our study was to examine vocabulary instructional methods developed over many years of collaborative work with classroom teachers. The decision to use a classroom-based format derived from the belief that if a particular method is to improve practice, researchers must demonstrate how effective it is in the hands of regular classroom teachers in an authentic classroom context (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993; Pressley, 2003).

The Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study was to determine whether CVD, a multifaceted, metacognitive vocabulary program, would increase the reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition of fifth-grade students under natural classroom conditions. An additional purpose was to compare the achievement of the Title I fifth graders and fifth graders in an above average (AbAv) school before and after the CVD intervention.

Figure 1 depicts an overview of the CVD program used for this study, including the dimensions of knowledge, methods, and instructional activities.



Title I (experimental) group. The children in the experimental group attended one of California’s lowest performing Title I schools, located in the outskirts of a low-income urban community in Northern California. According to state achievement data, the school’s academic performance index (API) was a “2,” placing it in the lowest 20th percentile of elementary schools in California. When compared to schools with similar educational and demographic characteristics, the school was ranked “I,” the lowest possible ranking.

The students’ Stanford Achievement Test 9 (SAT 9) scores for the previous year were as follows: 5% advanced, 15% proficient, 20% basic, 15% below basic, 45% far below basic. The school was designated as an IIUSP School (Immediate Improvement for Under-performing Schools Program) and was under state mandate to improve student achievement.

Although 91 students attended the fifth-grade classes,, only 77 children participated in all testing and instructional components of the study. (This is a highly mobile school with large numbers of children moving in and out of the attendance area throughout the year.) Thirty-five of the children were boys, 36 were girls, and the remaining students were not identified by gender. All students in the three fifth-grade classes participated in the study, including those with limited English skills, learning disabilities, and erratic attendance patterns.

Comparison group. A class of 34 fifth-grade students from an above-average performing school in the same school district (API ranking of 7) was a comparison group. Thirty of the 34 students participated in all three sets of tests. Table 1 provides demographic data for the Title I and comparison students, known as the above average-performing group (AbAv). Large differences between the two groups of students are evident in terms of socioeconomic status, reflected by the percentage of students receiving free/reduced lunch, racial/ethnic diversity, and the percentage of students who speak English as a second language.

The AbAv students did not participate in any aspect of the study other than the reading comprehension and vocabulary testing, and they received “normal” vocabulary instruction during language arts based on the basal reader teacher’s guide. When asked for a description of her normal vocabulary activities, the AbAv teacher (a veteran teacher with more than 10 years of experience) reported that she provided children with a 20-25 word vocabulary list each week. She required the children to look up the definition of each word in the dictionary, use the word in a sentence, and memorize the definitions for a vocabulary test at the end of each week. The AbAv teacher also reported that she taught children the meaning of Greek and Latin roots based on a book of lists (Madsen &. Gould, 1994) and pointed out examples of context that supported comprehension.

Experimental group teachers. The Title I school’s reading specialist, a graduate student of the first author, recruited the three fifth-grade teachers to participate in the study. All of the teachers are women who were in their second year of teaching at the time of the study. The teachers were responsible for classes of approximately 30 children. The students rotated through three instructional groups taught by the teachers each week. Ms. T. taught social studies, Ms. S. taught writing, and Ms. J. taught science. The rotation classes were 45 minutes long and were taught an average of twice per week. The teachers provided all of the other instruction in self-contained classrooms.


The research design entailed two comparisons of reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition:

1) Matched instructional periods: Title I student achievement was compared during two instructional periods, 12 weeks in duration. Each child’s achievement was compared with his or her previous achievement during the same length of time with the same teacher. The only manipulated variable was the vocabulary development instruction (CVD) provided during the experimental period.

2) Comparison with above average performing group: Scores on the reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition tests were compared to AbAv students to evaluate the extent of the achievement gap at the beginning of the study, at the end of the 12-week control period, and at the end of the 12-week intervention (provided to the Title I students only).

Title I Group Procedures

Metacognitive tests and tests of reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition were administered three times during the study to the Title I students: in late September, in early January, and in early April. The control period extended for 12 weeks during the first half of the school year. During the control period, all three fifth-grade teachers taught vocabulary during language arts, based on the guidelines in the basal teacher’s guide. The teachers reported using instructional methods similar to those used in the AbAv group, providing weekly word lists and requiring children to look words up in the dictionary and use them in sentences. Additionally, Ms. T., the social studies teacher, reported that she focused on the vocabulary words that were highlighted in the social studies textbook, explicitly teaching particularly difficult words and asking the children to look up the rest of the words in the glossary. She also explained the meaning of other challenging words before children read each chapter in the textbook. In a lesson taught shortly before the end of the control period, Ms. T. asked the children to look up the new words that were highlighted in the book, including missionary, colony, colonist, and plantation. She also explained the meaning of words such as settlement, conquered, expedition, conquistadors, and conquest prior to reading the chapter. Ms. T. noted that she had taught these words before, but the children did not seem to remember the definitions and needed additional instruction in order to understand the chapter. The instruction that Ms. T. provided during the control period focused primarily on word definitions, similar to the traditional vocabulary instruction that Watts (1995) and Scott, Jamieson-Noel, and Asselin (2003) found to be predominant in the classrooms they studied.

The experimental period took place during a second 12-week period after winter break. The decision was made to teach the vocabulary development program during social studies because all three classes received the same instruction, based on the same book, and were taught by the same teacher. Ms. T, the social studies teacher, agreed to incorporate the vocabulary development program into her curriculum, so she was the primary recipient of the training. Ms. S. and Ms. J. asked to participate in the training as well so that they could reinforce the vocabulary acquisition strategies during their language arts instruction.

Teacher training. The first author conducted two two-hour training sessions on consecutive Wednesday afternoons in January. An additional two-hour training session was held a month after the beginning of the experimental period. The reading specialist and the three fifth-grade teachers participated in all of the training sessions. Teacher training incorporated metacognitive methods and research-based best practices into CVD lessons (Gambrell et al, 1999; Lubliner, 2001; Pearson & Dole, 1987; Rosenshine, 1997). The first author demonstrated key components of the CVD program and coached the teachers as they practiced using the experimental methods. The teachers were given CVD binders that contained a calendar of lessons (excerpt included in the Appendix), scripted lesson plans, blackline masters, and overhead transparencies to use for instruction. Several of the scripted lessons, developed by the first author, included short text passages designed to facilitate clarifying strategy instruction. The reading specialist helped prepare the materials.

Ms. T. taught the vocabulary development lessons to the students during 45-minute social studies periods. Although the intent was to provide three vocabulary development lessons per week, field trips, assemblies, and other interruptions interfered with the schedule. CVD instruction took place an average of twice per week during the 12-week experimental period.

Instruction. The CVD program included 12 modules (one to three lessons each) based on the district’s social studies textbook, Early United States (Boehm, Miramontes, Hoone, McGowan, & McKinney-Browning, 2000). Instruction focused on the development of children’s metacognitive skills, with the intent of strengthening vocabulary acquisition and reading comprehension. Each CVD lesson was scripted and followed a similar format. The teacher began by providing a rationale, explaining the importance of the strategy or method and how it would help the children’s vocabulary development and reading proficiency. The teacher modeled the method with simple text passages (included in the scripted lesson plans) and often used a think-aloud to help the children understand complex metacognitive skills. She provided opportunities for the children to practice and coached them as they attempted to implement self-monitoring methods and clarifying strategies. Once the children were comfortable with the newly learned methods, the teacher demonstrated how they could be used to make sense of words found in the social studies textbook. The children then worked in independent pairs, reading the textbook and implementing the method. At the end of the lesson, the teacher brought the children together to discuss the text and to review new vocabulary words that the children identified. The following lessons provide a closer look at the CVD approach to vocabulary instruction.

The first author taught a model CVD lesson (see Calendar of Lessons in the Appendix) to each of the fifth-grade social studies classes during the first week of the experimental period. The lesson, based on the Clarifying Cue Card, was designed to teach children to regulate the use of clarifying strategies to make sense of unknown words encountered in a text (see Figure 2). The Clarifying Cue Card comprises three clarifying strategies (Consider the Context, Study the Structure, and Mine Your Memory), a self-checking prompt (Substitute a Synonym), and two additional prompts (AsA an Expert and Place a Post-it) to be used when clarifying strategies are not effective. The first author explained the importance of learning to be an independent word learner and introduced the Clarifying Cue Card. She handed out an easy text (written at the third-grade level) and provided explicit instruction in the use of each clarifying strategy.

Dr. L. We’re going to use the book Monsters of the Deep to practice the clarifying strategies. Let’s start with the first paragraph on page two. I’m going to show you how to find hard words and to use the clarifying strategies to figure out what they mean. (Dr. L. placed a transparency containing the first page of the text on the overhead and read the following passage:)

Much of the world under the water is alien to us. Large areas of the world’s oceans and seas remain unexplored – deep, dark, and mysterious.

(Blake, 1996, p. 2)

(Dr. L. underlined the word alien on the transparency. ) I think that alien is a hard word, and I’m not sure what it means. I’ll try the strategy “mine your memory” because I’ve heard the word before. I remember hearing that aliens were strange people from outer space. So, I think alien must be something strange. Now, I’ll use the strategy “substitute a synonym” to make sure I understand the word. (Dr. L. substituted the word strange and read the sentence.) Much of the world under the water is strange to us. Yes, I think that makes sense.

After modeling the process of selecting hard words and clarifying them several times, the author invited the children to try the clarifying strategies. With a great deal of coaching and encouragement, some of the children attempted to clarify words from the text. Dr. L. asked the children to continue working on the text with a partner. She asked them to follow her example, reading and implementing clarifying strategies to make sense of difficult words found in the first few pages of Monsters of the Deep. The children found the metacognitive tasks of identifying unknown words (self-monitoring) and implementing clarifying strategies (self-regulating) very difficult, so the first author was not able to transfer the use of clarifying strategies to the social studies book during this first lesson.

In subsequent lessons, Ms. T. continued to provide clarifying strategy instruction. In the following CVD lesson, she introduced Stoplight Vocabulary to help the children learn to monitor and rank their levels of word knowledge (see Calendar of Lessons in the Appendix). Ms. T. began instruction by explaining the importance of “knowing what you know” and introduced Stoplight Vocabulary as a method to help the children learn self-monitoring skills. She asked the children to help identify important, conceptually challenging words from the text, which she listed on the Stoplight Vocabulary sheet (Figure 3) on an overhead transparency. Ms. T. passed out copies of Stoplight Vocabulary to the children and asked them to copy the words onto their sheets. She demonstrated on the overhead how to color the stoplights red for an unknown word, yellow for a partially known word, and green for a fully known word, to signify the appropriate level of word knowledge. Ms. T.’s CVD instruction was based on the following script:

Teacher Let’s look at the first word on the Stoplight Vocabulary sheet: conquer. (The teacher points to the word on the overhead.) I think I’ve heard the word before. I think it has to do with fighting and winning but I’m not sure exactly what it means. I’ll color it yellow. (The teacher colors the stoplight yellow.) The next word is expedition. I have absolutely no idea what that word means, so I need to color it red. (The teacher colors the stoplight red.) Navigate is the next word on the Stoplight Vocabulary list. I know this word very well and I can use it in a sentence. When I drive, my friend navigates, so we don’t get lost. I can color this word green. (The teacher colors the stoplight green.)

After modeling the use of the Stoplight Vocabulary sheet, Ms. T. invited children to follow her example, ranking several additional words in front of the class. Then she asked the children to finish filling in the Stoplight Vocabulary sheet independently. Once the children were comfortable selecting and ranking unknown words, Ms. T. provided instruction designed to transfer their metacognitive skills to the social studies book. She carefully modeled the process by reading aloud from the social studies book, stopping when she came to a difficult word, and ranking her level of word knowledge. The following is an excerpt of the lesson script:

Teacher I’m going to read the first paragraph of the chapter aloud. When I come to a hard word, I’ll stop, write it on my Stoplight Vocabulary sheet, and color in the stoplight to show how well I know the word. (The teacher reads the first sentence.) The Anasazi constructed homes on the cliffs in the Southwest. (The teacher thinks aloud.) Let’s see… I’m not sure what constructed means. I think I’ve heard it before and it means something like build. So, I’ll write it on the Stoplight Vocabulary sheet and I’ll color the stoplight yellow. (The teacher writes the word and colors the stoplight yellow.)

The children were taught to look for these stoplight words as they read the social studies chapter and were encouraged to change the color of their stoplights as word learning occurred.

Stoplight Vocabulary was based on prior research, documenting the effectiveness of teaching children to use metacognitive devices to rank their levels of word knowledge (Beck, McCaslin, & McKeown, 1980; Blachowicz, 1986; Dale, 1965; Stahl, 1986).

Subsequent CVD lessons were designed to provide a deeper understanding of each clarifying strategy, beginning with “consider the context” (word derivation from context), a strategy with an extensive, albeit equivocal, research base (Carnine et al., 1984,- Fukkink & de Glopper, 1998). The children were taught to be “context detectives,” identifying context clues that were next door (next to the target word), in the neighborhood (in the same paragraph as the target word), and far away (in a different paragraph). They also learned to identify examples of context that did not support comprehension, characterized in research as nondirective or misdirective context (Beck; McKeown, & McCaslin, 1983). The children were taught to Substitute a Synonym, a self-monitoring prompt, to determine whether their clarification of an unfamiliar word made sense.

Several CVD lessons focused on Study the Structure, a research-based strategy that utilizes morphological analysis as a method of vocabulary development (Baumann et al, 2003; Baumann et al., 2002; Nagy & Scott, 2000). Children were taught to identify base words, inflected endings, and affixes that provide clues to word meaning. Instruction in high-frequency Greek and Latin roots helped the children become familiar with word families found in the social studies textbook.

Additional CVD lessons included research-based vocabulary activities such as Main Idea Words (Beck et al., 1987), Signal Words, Word Sorts, Semantic Maps, and Word Scales (Nagy, 1988). Words selected for these instructional activities were primarily student-generated. Children identified unfamiliar words from the social studies book, ranking levels of word knowledge with Stoplight Vocabulary and listing the words in their Word Study Journals. Ms. T. selected key words that a majority of children colored red (completely unknown) on their Stoplight Vocabulary sheets for instruction. Vocabulary review and instructional games were included at regular intervals during the intervention, similar to activities included in prior research (Beck et al., 1982). All three fifth-grade teachers posted the Clarifying Cue, Card on classroom walls and reminded the children to use the clarifying strategies during independent reading.

In an instructional context similar to reciprocal teaching (e.g., Palincsar, 1983), children worked on most word-learning tasks in pairs or small groups. They were taught to AsA an Expert if they were unable to figure out word meaning, a prompt designed to encourage the collaborative construction of meaning. Place a Post-It was also a prompt to be used if none of the clarifying strategies was successful. Students were taught to mark the unknown word with an adhesive note so that it could be discussed when reading was completed.

Teacher Interviews and Observations

The first author interviewed Ms. T, Ms. S., and Ms. J. three times during the course of the study. She interviewed the teachers as a group prior to the beginning of the control period, discussing with them the types of vocabulary instruction they provided to their students. The first author also spoke individually with Ms. T. regarding the vocabulary instruction she provided to all three groups of students during social studies. The first author also observed Ms. T.’s class to gain additional information regarding Ms. T.’s “normal” vocabulary instruction. Once the experimental period began, Ms. E., the school’s reading specialist, observed Ms. T. at least once per week and monitored her implementation of the vocabulary intervention closely. Ms. E. reported a high level of fidelity to the experimental treatment.

The teachers were interviewed again, as a group, four weeks after the beginning of the experimental period. They commented on changes they observed in their students’ learning behavior. A separate interview was conducted with Ms. T. to obtain feedback regarding the CVD materials, the pace of instruction, and the effectiveness of the methods. Ms. E., who was present at the interview, helped revise the CVD materials in response to Ms. T.’s complaint that the pace of instruction was too fast for the students. Ms. E. and the first author changed the schedule of instruction, increasing the amount of time allocated for the metacognitive and strategy lessons.

The first author conducted interviews with each teacher at the end of the experimental period. All reported that they used CVD methods two to three times per week during language arts in time intervals that ranged from 10-20 minutes, so students received approximately 30 minutes per week of additional CVD instruction. In addition to oral interviews, the teachers responded in writing to the following three questions: a) How much time have you spent on CVD methods? b) How has your vocabulary instruction changed as a result of the CVD program? c) What changes have you observed in your students’ learning behavior when they are confronted with difficult words in texts?


The instruments described in this section were used to measure changes in the students’ metacognitive behavior, reading comprehension, and vocabulary acquisition. Each instrument was administered three times, as a pretest (Test 1), interim test (Test 2), and posttest (Test 3). None of the instruments contained vocabulary words or texts used for instruction.

Metacognitive test. The metacognitive test (Meta) was designed to measure children’s ability to identify unknown words in a text. A 200-word social studies passage that included a number of challenging words was given to the children. They were asked to read the text and circle any words they didn’t know. The texts were collected and the students were given a 20-item multiple-choice vocabulary test on the same challenging words included in the text passage. A match was scored for each word circled in the text (identified as unknown) and subsequently missed on the multiple-choice test. The purpose of the test was to measure the percentage of unknown-word matches before and after the CVD program.

Reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition test. The researcher-designed tests used in this study were based on passages from America WiIlBe (Armento, Nash, Salter, & Wixson, 1991), a fifth-grade social studies textbook no longer used by the district, and a variety of other social studies resources. Three parallel forms were constructed, each containing four social studies passages, approximately 200 words in length, followed by 12 to 13 multiple-choice questions. Readability of the selected passages (Fry, 1977) was 10th- to 12th-grade. The passages were rewritten in simpler language, resulting in uniform readability at an 8th- to 9th-grade level (it was not possible to reduce readability further without compromising content). Unfamiliar word density was evaluated based on the Living Word Vocabulary (Dale & O’Rourke, 1981), an instrument used to level words known by at least two thirds of the children in the LWV sample. Words leveled at sixth grade and higher were designated as “unfamiliar” in the design of these fifth-grade instruments. Dividing the total number of unfamiliar words by total running words in the four 200-word passages provided a percentage of unfamiliar words in each test form. The percentages of unfamiliar words were as follows: Pretest: 5%; Interim test: 5%; Posttest: 6%. Unfamiliar word density was determined to be relatively uniform across test forms, with slightly higher vocabulary demands in the posttest.

Each test form (pretest, interim test, posttest) included 30 comprehension items and 20 vocabulary items. Vocabulary items were drawn from the unfamiliar word list for each test form and were designed to measure children’s ability to infer the meaning of words included in the text passages. Comprehension items were designed to measure children’s ability to identify main ideas and to infer key points in the text. Figure 4 includes sample reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition items from the pretest.

The reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition tests were revised prior to the current study and pilot tested with another fifth-grade class. Evidence of reliability was collected from the pilot test, revealing alpha levels averaging .83 on the three forms of the comprehension section of the tests and .78 on the vocabulary acquisition section of the tests. Correlations between forms of the tests were also analyzed. Correlations averaged .78 between forms of the comprehension test and .68 between vocabulary acquisition test forms. Pilot results suggested reasonably consistent student performance on the three forms of the comprehension test and somewhat less consistent performance across three forms of the vocabulary test.


Metacognitive Test

Metacognitive test (Meta) scores were obtained by computing the percentage of unknown-word matches (the match between a word marked as unknown in a 200-word text and missed on a multiple-choice vocabulary test). Matches of unknown words were used for analysis because children had to actively circle words they did not know, an indication that they were monitoring their comprehension.

Results of the analysis indicated that children identified only 20% of the words that they missed on the multiple-choice test at the beginning of the control period (Meta 1 ), an indication that they were unable to monitor their own word knowledge. Metacognitive scores dropped on the second test (Meta 2), suggesting that little attention was being paid to self-monitoring in the fifth-grade classes during the control period. The posttest results (Meta 3) demonstrate substantial improvement in the children’s self-monitoring skills (38% of unknown words identified) following the experimental period.

Matched Instructional Periods: Reading Comprehension and Vocabulary Acquisition Tests

The reading comprehension test (30 items) and vocabulary acquisition test (20 items) were administered three times during the course of the study. Descriptive data for the Reading Comprehension (Comp) and Vocabulary Acquisition (Vocab) sections of the pretest (1), interim test (2), and posttest (3) are included in Table 3.

Data analysis for the reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition tests was conducted with aggregated scores from the three Title I classes. The children’s performance in reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition was examined in separate one-way repeated measures analyses of variance (ANOVA) with three levels of the repeated measures factor (test scores). The reading comprehension analysis indicated significant differences between levels [F(I1 72) = 90.58, p

The vocabulary acquisition analysis also indicated significant differences between levels [F(2, 72) = 34.54. p

In order to examine the differences that the pairwise comparisons of reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition achievement revealed, gain scores were calculated. The gain scores for the control period were compared to those of the experimental period, and effect size (Cohen’s d) measures analyzed.

Comparison of the children’s reading comprehension gain scores revealed greater gains and larger effects following the experimental period. Comparison of children’s vocabulary acquisition gain scores also indicated substantially greater gains and larger effects during the experimental period. Results of the analyses (Table 4) demonstrated that the Title I students made much more progress in reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition achievement during the experimental period than during the control period.

Comparison with the Above Average-Performing Group

The AbAv group’s performance in reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition was examined to provide a comparison with the Title I group’s achievement. Separate one-way repeated measures analyses of variance (ANOVA) were conducted with three levels of the repeated measures factor (test scores). The reading comprehension analysis indicated significant differences between levels [F(2, 23) = 18.68, p

The vocabulary acquisition analysis indicated significant differences between levels [F(2, 23) = 4.63, p

The analysis of gain scores (see Table 4) revealed that the AbAv children’s performance in reading comprehension increased during both instructional periods, with somewhat greater gains during the second 12-week period. The AbAv children’s vocabulary scores increased during the first instructional period and decreased during the second instructional period. The drop in scores during the second instructional period was an unexpected outcome that could not be explained.

Examining the Achievement Gap

The gain scores and effect size analyses provide evidence that the Title I children and AbAv children differed in terms of reading comprehension and vocabulary achievement patterns. T tests comparing reading comprehension and vocabulary scores for each of the three test periods were conducted to provide a deeper analysis of differences between the Title I children’s scores and those of children in the AbAv-performing school (see Table 5).

The t test comparing Title I and AbAv comp 1 scores, conducted before the study began, was significant, t(111) = 3.54, p

The second set of independent samples t tests were conducted after 12 weeks of regular instruction. The t test comparing Title I and AbAv comp 2 scores was significant, t(111) = 4.28, p

The third set of independent samples t tests was conducted at the end of the study, following the Title I students’ participation in the CVD intervention. The t test comparing Title I and AbAv comp 3 test scores was not significant, t(105) = 1.47 (eta^sup 2^ = .02). The t test comparing Title I and AbAv vocab 3 test scores was not significant, t(105) = 1.62 (eta^sup 2^ = .02).

Effect size measures (eta^sup 2^) indicated large differences in reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition between the groups at the beginning of the study. Differences between groups increased during the control period, when both Title I and AbAv-performing children were receiving normal instruction. During the experimental period the students in the Title I school received CVD instruction, while children in the AbAv-performing school continued to receive normal vocabulary instruction. Results indicated that differences in student scores at the end of the experimental period were small and non-significant in both reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition. The graphs (Figures 5 and 6) demonstrate increasing gaps in reading comprehension and vocabulary achievement during the control period and a narrowing of the achievement gaps between the Title I and AbAv children in response to the CVD intervention.

The Title I students were treated as a single group in all of the analyses up to this point. The rationale for this approach is that students in all three classes received the same treatment (the CVD intervention) administered by the same teacher (Ms. T.) during regularly scheduled social studies instruction.

When student achievement in reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition was disaggregated by class, a somewhat different picture emerged (see Table 6).

Two of the classes (Ms. S. and Ms. J.) demonstrated similar achievement patterns and substantial gains relative to those of the AbAv group (a single class). However, Ms. T.’s students, the lowest performing group at the beginning of the study, made less progress relative to the AbAv group than the other two Title I classes. Figures 7 and 8 provide a visual comparison of the different groups’ achievement.

The disaggregated data demonstrated that the four groups of students (three Title I classes and the AbAv group) differed considerably in terms of achievement on each test. A visual inspection of standard deviations revealed relatively consistent levels of variance, and an analysis based on Levene’s test for equality of variances demonstrated that the assumption of homogeneity of variances was not violated for either the comprehension or vocabulary tests.


Narrowing the achievement gap through vocabulary instruction is a complex undertaking. The vocabulary acquisition of low-performing children must be accelerated while self-monitoring and self-regulating skills are developed. Instruction must foster independent and word learning activities and purposeful engagement with texts, outcomes that entail major changes in students’ learning behavior. When we first visited this Title I school, the children demonstrated little engagement with words or texts. They sat passively as the teachers pointed out difficult words, explained word meaning, and assigned vocabulary activities based on the dictionary or social studies glossary. The teachers reported a great deal of difficulty involving the children in learning tasks. Model lessons conducted in the fifth-grade classes confirmed the children’s resistance to engaging with texts as well as their ingrained passivity. Although they were attentive during direct instruction, the students had difficulty responding when they were asked to try a word learning strategy. The first author modeled the strategy repeatedly and attempted to coax the children to try it. Finally, a student asked, “Why don’t you just tell us the words we don’t know, so that we can look them up like we always do?”

A great deal of patient, carefully designed instruction was necessary to wean the children from their passive classroom behavior. Interviews conducted at the end of the study suggested that all three fifth-grade teachers made substantial changes in their methods of vocabulary instruction. The teachers reported that they no longer assigned word lists and dictionary activities, but attempted to engage the students in metacognitive word-learning tasks. Ms. T. reported, “I really changed my vocabulary teaching to help support the use of clarification strategies. I really stressed to the kids that discovering what words really mean is important-they can’t just sound it out.”

Ms. S. stated, “I had never really thought about or asked students what they did when they didn’t know a word. Through these strategies, not only did I ask, I also taught [them] what to do.”

Although their initial attempts to provide CVD instruction were frustrating for the teachers and the students, the teachers continued to follow the curriculum with increasingly positive results. All three teachers reported that Stoplight Vocabulary was particularly effective in transferring responsibility for word learning to the children. Ms. T. noted that the children seemed to gain understanding of what it means to know a word as they adjusted the colors of the stoplights. She stated, “The stoplights hooked the kids. They can’t wait to change the colors !”

An indication that the students were becoming more independent word learners is found in the results of the metacognitive analysis. The percentage of unknown-word match scores (the number of words identified in the text that were subsequently missed on the multiple-choice test) nearly doubled from the pretest to the posttest, suggesting that the children’s self-monitoring skills were positively affected by instruction. The percentage of matches was still low at the conclusion of the study (38%), demonstrating a need for continued instruction and practice in comprehension monitoring. As Ms. J. noted, “I’d never realized how much they [the students] thought they knew, but didn’t.”

It is interesting to compare the results of the metacognitive test with a similar test described by Nagy, Anderson, and Herman (1987). The researchers gave the children a list, asked them to check the words they knew, and then tested them on the words with a multiple-choice test. They reported a high correlation (.70) between the words marked on the checklist and correct answers on the multiple-choice test. There is a substantial difference between this study and ours. It is possible that the researchers examined the metacognitive skills of more proficient group of children than those in our Title I study. It is also possible that children find identifying unknown words more difficult than selecting words that are known well enough for a multiple-choice test. The most likely explanation, however, is that identifying a word in a natural text is a much more difficult task for children than selecting a word on a checklist. This is an important distinction. Asking children to identify unknown words as they read a text is likely to be a better measure of underlying metacognitive skills because the task simulates proficient reading behavior. Skilled readers pause when they encounter an unknown word and apply strategies to restore comprehension. Although the students in our study identified a relatively small percentage of unknown words on the posttest (38%), they completed this task while reading a challenging social studies text.

The ultimate challenge of a vocabulary intervention is not merely to teach a set of words or skills, but to positively affect reading comprehension. The results of this study are encouraging. Posttest scores indicated significant gains and substantial effects in favor of the experimental period. Growth in reading comprehension scores was particularly noteworthy with an effect size of 1.03,-these gains were obtained using tests that measured global comprehension, rather than taught words. This is an important distinction, as the Stahl and Fairbanks (1986) meta-analysis demonstrated. Stahl and Fairbanks documented gains of .97 on texts containing taught words, and substantially lower gains of .30 on measures of global comprehension. The CVD study documented large gains in global comprehension, results that may positively influence educational outcomes across the curriculum.

The vocabulary acquisition literature does not provide compelling evidence that brief instructional interventions positively affect reading comprehension achievement, raising the question as to why this particular study produced significant results. One of the most important differences between this study and prior research is the emphasis on metacognitive word-learning procedures. The major thrust of this intervention was to change the teacher-student dynamic, providing children with self-regulating skills and word-learning strategies that they could implement during independent reading.

Another factor that may have contributed to the positive results is the comprehensive nature of the intervention, particularly in terms of clarifying strategy instruction. Three distinct strategies were taught (memory, context, and structure), each with a research-based rationale. The context and structure strategies have established research bases (Baumann et al., 2002; Baumann et al., 2003; Fukkink & de Glopper, 1998; Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985). The inclusion of memory as a clarifying strategy was based on research highlighting the importance of partial word knowledge and repeated exposures to new words in the acquisition of vocabulary (Baker et al, 1995; Carey, 1978; Nagy, 1988; Nagy, Anderson, &. Herman, 1987). Rather than leaving word learning during reading to chance, instruction was designed to teach word retrieval strategies systematically as a means of developing students’ word learning proficiency. The effectiveness of this strategy was underscored in poststudy discussions with students. When the children were asked which strategy was most helpful to them, the majority responded that they relied on Mine Your Memory most frequently in attempting to clarify unknown words. Individual children gave examples of hard words that they remembered from books, television shows, and conversations with adults. Children explained that prompting from the clarifying cue card helped them realize that they “kind of knew” many challenging words encountered during reading.

In addition to the inclusion of three distinct strategies, the intervention was designed to broaden the way each strategy was used. Instruction in word structure, for example, included inflected endings, prefixes, suffixes, base words, and Greek and Latin roots, exposing the children to a variety of structural clues. The intent was to provide structural clues that students could use strategically with a wide range of reading proficiency levels. The usefulness of this approach was confirmed in poststudy interviews with the teachers. They mentioned that prior to clarifying instruction, struggling readers often skipped lengthy words without realizing that they already knew the base words. Learning to identify familiar words with inflected endings such as -ed and -ing appeared to be helpful to these impaired readers, expanding their willingness to engage with texts. More proficient students, on the other hand, utilized a range of structural clues that had been taught, relying on prefixes, suffixes, base words, and Greek and Latin roots to infer word meaning.

The range of strategies available to students of different proficiency levels may also have contributed to the effectiveness of the intervention. An analysis of these strategies illustrates the cognitive demands that students encounter when attempting to infer word meaning from context, structure, or memory.

Mine Your Memory appears to be the most accessible clarifying strategy, implemented effectively by children of varying levels of reading proficiency. Although language exposure varies a great deal, most fifth-grade students encounter vast numbers of words in oral and written contexts. Accessing prior word knowledge and learning to apply partial word understanding may be a relatively easy strategic task.

Using structure to clarify unfamiliar words also draws heavily on prior knowledge. Children must recall the meaning of base words, roots, prefixes, and suffixes that are found in unfamiliar words. Clarifying based on structural analysis requires students to flexibly manipulate word parts and to draw inferences regarding the meaning of words encountered during reading. Structural analysis appears to be a somewhat more challenging clarifying strategy for children to implement than memory.

The derivation of word meaning from context appears to be the most complex clarifying strategy, requiring a range of skills. Students must understand the gist of text and draw inferences about an unfamiliar word. Context must be applied broadly and flexibly, often requiring students to examine word meaning in relationship to the sentence, paragraph, and text as a whole.

CVD instruction was designed to develop students’ cognitive flexibility in reference to strategy implementation. Children were taught how each strategy could be used and were given opportunities to practice successful strategy implementation. Then students were shown examples of how each strategy failed to work and were prompted to try additional strategies to infer word meaning. Students were also encouraged to verify their understanding of word meaning by substituting a synonym and thinking about whether a particular clarification “makes sense.” This method was designed to increase cognitive flexibility and persistence, -while providing multiple exposures to target words. The intent was to transform incidental word learning during reading into a deliberate, student-directed process.

The improved performance of the Title I children relative to the performance of the children from the AbAv school is encouraging. The academic performance indices of the two schools were vastly different (the Title I school was ranked 2 on a scale of 10 decile ranks, compared to the AbAv school’s ranking of 7), and Title I demographic data demonstrated a number of factors associated with the underachievement of disadvantaged students. For example, the Title I school had a much higher poverty level (65.5% free or reduced price lunch compared to 12.9%) and percentage of children who speak English as a second language (21.3% compared to 5.7%). The initial comparison of reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition scores indicated large, significant differences that grew larger during the control period. The final comparison revealed small, nonsignificant differences between the two groups of children. These results suggest that the Title I students’ scores improved relative to those of the AbAv students, and the achievement gap narrowed, following 12 weeks of CVD instruction.

Disaggregated reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition scores provide a different lens for viewing student achievement in the Title I school. Pretest vocabulary and reading comprehension scores suggest that the school inadvertently placed a higher concentration of very low performing students in Ms. T.’s class. Although these children’s reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition scores improved, they made less progress relative to the AbAv group than the other two Title I classes. Ms. J.’s and Ms. S.’s classes, also comprising disadvantaged, low-performing students, made noteworthy gains in reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition during the experimental period, approaching and in some cases exceeding the AbAv group’s scores. Differences in instructional effectiveness may have been a factor in the strong performance of Ms. J.’s and Ms. S.’s students. It is also possible that children with slightly higher initial literacy skills benefited more from the CVD intervention than very low performing students. Poor decoding skills, a factor that was not examined in the present study, may have limited the progress of Ms. T.’s students. Future research is needed to explore the factors that contribute to the progress of disadvantaged children of varying proficiency levels.

Practicality of Comprehensive Vocabulary Development Instruction in Schools

The results of this classroom-based study suggest that CVD can be readily implemented in schools. All instruction other than the model lesson was provided by regular classroom teachers, each with less than three years of teaching experience. The teachers learned to use CVD methods successfully with relatively little training, incorporating the methods into normal instruction, based on district-mandated textbooks. The children were given a total of 12 weeks of CVD instruction during social studies lessons (two 45-minutes lessons per week) and approximately 30 minutes per week of additional practice during language arts. The positive effect of this brief intervention on reading comprehension and vocabulary achievement suggests that comprehensive vocabulary development may be a practical and effective means of improving student literacy.

Limitations and Directions for Future Research

Several limitations must be considered in interpreting research results. Data analysis was based on researcher-designed instruments. The tests were carefully designed to address reliability and validity standards; however, additional work may be needed to improve the quality of these instruments. Additional research is needed to construct tests that are sensitive to instruction and accurately measure children’s reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition proficiency.

Another important limitation is the use of individual scores as the unit of analysis. The study examined the performance of children who were nested within intact classes, nested within schools. Individual scores were used as the unit of analysis because an insufficient number of group means was available for a multilevel analysis. Data analysis based on individual scores may have increased the possibility of Type I error, limiting the generalizability of research results. There were also substantial differences between the Title I and AbAv schools, introducing confounding variables such as school culture and socioeconomic status. These factors may have influenced student outcomes, suggesting that results of the study be interpreted with caution.

A number of limitations can be attributed to the classroom-based context of the study. For example, the fifth-grade children were situated in intact classes that differed substantially in terms of achievement. Classroom variables such as fidelity of implementation, time devoted to CVD methods, and possible differences in teachers’ instructional effectiveness could not be controlled. The Title I school presented a particularly challenging environment from a research perspective. Children moved in and out of the district and were frequently absent, resulting in fluctuating numbers of participants on each outcome measure. The design of the study had to altered because the school administrators and state-appointed IIUSP consultants insisted that all three classes receive the same instruction at the same time, precluding the establishment of a matched control group. Problems also arose in relation to the AbAv school. Access to classroom time was limited, precluding the administration of metacognitive tests to the AbAv students.

The issue of quantifying the time devoted to the experimental treatment presented a particular challenge in this classroom-based study. Research goals and instructional goals were not always congruent. All three fifth-grade teachers requested the CVD training with the intent of reinforcing the instruction provided by Ms. T. in other curricular areas. The decision to train all three teachers most likely maximized the effectiveness of the treatment, a highly desirable outcome from a pedagogic perspective. However, time devoted to CVD methods could not be precisely quantified, presenting a confounding variable in terms of the research. Additionally, the novelty factor cannot be ruled out, although it seems unlikely that children would have perceived the CVD methods to be a novelty beyond the first few weeks of instruction. Future research is needed to determine whether CVD methods would continue to be effective over an extended period of time.

The limitations associated with this classroom-based study underscore the importance of examining the CVD program more thoroughly. A replication study with a Title I control group would provide a basis of comparison with experimental group achievement. A study with randomly assigned experimental and control Title I groups and AbAv comparison groups could confirm the effectiveness of the instructional treatment.

A final limitation concerns the scope of the present study that precluded the inclusion of direct instruction of teacher-selected words. Time constraints due to scheduling conflicts and revisions to the CVD curriculum (providing more time to cover complex metacognitive and strategic skills) limited the intervention to methods designed to enhance independent word learning skills. It is clear, however, that children need to acquire a large body of words, not all of which will be encountered in grade-level texts at appropriate instructional intervals. Future research is needed to examine the effectiveness of a multifaceted program that includes metacognitive and strategic methods in addition to direct instruction of preselected, high-utility vocabulary words.

This classroom-based study was designed to examine the effectiveness of CVD instruction on disadvantaged children’s reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition achievement. The results of the study are encouraging, suggesting that a multifaceted, metacognitive vocabulary instruction may contribute to the improvement of reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition, thereby narrowing the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their more privileged peers.

Author Note:

The authors would like to thank Vicki Eversole for her help with the study.


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Shira Lubliner | California State University- Hayward

Linda Smetana | California State University-Hayward

Shim Lubliner is an assistant professor of teacher education at California State University, Hayward. She teaches methods courses to preservice teachers and also teaches in the graduate reading program. Her research interests involve vocabulary instruction and reading comprehension with a particular emphasis on projects designed to improve educational outcomes for struggling readers and English language learners. She can be reached at the Department of Teacher Education, California State University Hayward, 25800 Carlos Bee Blvd., Hayward, CA 94542. E-mail: shira.lubliner@csueastbay.edu.

Linda Smetana is an assistant professor of education at California State University, Hayward where she teaches courses in literacy instruction for preservice teachers. She also teaches advanced literacy courses for candidates in the reading and language arts specialist and master’s programs. Her research interests include strategies for teaching struggling readers as well as family literacy development. She can be contacted at the Department of Teacher Education, California State University Hayward, 25800 Carlos Bee Blvd., Hayward, CA 94542. E-mail: Linda.smetana(5)csueastbay.edu.

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