Another Massive Vocabulary Study Finds No Gains, Massive or Otherwise

To make them easier to find, several items originally included in the now-defunct ‘This Week in Language Education’ series are being reposted over the next few weeks.

Jayanthi and colleagues  (2017 online; paywall) conducted a study – in what seems like an endless series of massive, federally-funded studies of this sort – to determine the efficacy of vocabulary instruction. The “pilot” study (Gerstner et al., 2010) (PDF) was a randomized controlled trial (RCT) involving 81 teachers and 468 first graders, bigger than most full-scale studies of any sort in education. That project included 20 hours of teacher training over the course of the school year on the intervention, which consisted of “rich” vocabulary instruction and comprehension strategies. Students were tested at the end of both first and second grade.

No statistically significant differences were found on oral vocabulary, reading vocabulary, or “passage” comprehension (actually measured by a cloze test, and thus mostly a word recognition test). No differences were found on an oral reading test, either.

Undaunted, the research group doubled down and launched the present study, another RCT focussing this time just on vocabulary instruction. This project involved 212 teachers across 61 schools, with a student sample of 1,680 first-graders. The teachers received 12.5 hours of training over the school year. Similar student assessments were given as in the pilot study, minus the Woodcock-Johnson “passage” comprehension test.

The results: “[T]here were no significant impacts (sic) on any of the individual measures. Effect sizes were all close to zero” (p. 21-22, in press manuscript version). In fact, on two of the vocabulary tests, the effect sizes were slightly negative, but nonsignificant.

To be fair, vocabulary studies of this sort typically measure results on “curriculum-based” tests; that is, kids are tested on the words taught, not on a general vocabulary test. Still, the results are not encouraging, though consistent with the mostly dismal results this sort of instruction has on vocabulary acquisition and reading comprehension. (Note: The poor showing of vocabulary instruction hasn’t stopped the research team from trying it once again – third time’s a charm?)

The Impact of Teacher Study Groups in Vocabulary on Teaching Practice, Teacher Knowledge, and Student Vocabulary Knowledge: A Large-Scale Replication Study. Journal Of Research On Educational Effectiveness.

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