A Case Study of English Learners' Acquisition of Academic Vocabulary in a High School English 1 for Speakers of Other Languages Classroom



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Background: Recently, 9.6% of public-school students in the United States were identified as English learners (ELs), nearly doubling from 4.9% in 2000. The U.S. Department of Education reports that the graduation rate for ELs is 66%, compared to the national rate of 85%. Low academic achievement and low performance on state-mandated tests reveal that ELs are lagging behind their monolingual peers, causing the achievement gap to widen and seem impossible for students who see dropping out as their only option. Given this rapidly growing demographic, it is imperative that high school ELs are provided effective content and language instruction utilizing methods that support the acquisition of academic vocabulary deemed essential at the secondary level. Purpose: The purpose of this action research study was to determine what instructional practices contributed to the acquisition of academic vocabulary of ELs. The research question guiding this study was: What practices increase academic vocabulary growth among high school English learners? Methods: A qualitative research approach was employed by the researcher, who was also the teacher of record, to garner a better understanding of what instructional practices positively affected learning of academic vocabulary. The key idea in this design was to develop an in-depth analysis of a group of students and to explain how they built vocabulary knowledge. Participants included five newcomer ELs enrolled in an English 1 for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) course that provided sheltered instruction to promote the development of English language proficiency, incorporating elements such as building background knowledge and integrating speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills into each lesson, for students that had been in the country for less than a year. These students were selected through purposeful sampling based on their enrollment in the course at the beginning of the school year. Examined techniques that the teacher-researcher used to teach vocabulary included explicit, systematic instruction that focused on cognates, repeated exposure to key words, and pre-teaching essential vocabulary. Over the course of a five-week period, the teacher-researcher collected data through observation notes, including a reflective journal documenting daily interactions and instructional practices, artifacts consisting of weekly student work samples, and numerical data in the form of a pre-test and two-unit quizzes. The researcher manually coded data as themes arose, allowing codes to emerge during the data analysis. Triangulated data from these sources was reviewed by the ESL Coordinator who determined themes resonated with her experience in the area, thus serving to increase the validity of the study and ensure the absence of bias on the part of the teacher-researcher. Results: The results showed that the greatest factor contributing to an increase in vocabulary acquisition was the co-construction of meaning that took place among participants during independent work activities, including creating vocabulary books and writing original sentences incorporating new vocabulary words by sharing and discussing their work with each other. This student to student interaction served to build students’ confidence in their ability to read, write, and speak in English. Results also revealed that instruction that focused on recognizing cognates facilitated cross-linguistic transfer in students’ learning of English academic vocabulary. Conclusion: The findings suggested that explicit vocabulary instruction enhanced students’ second-language acquisition empowering them to become more confident in their ability to speak, read, and write in English.



English learner (EL), academic vocabulary, academic language, Latinx, second language (L2)