Word learning interventions for EAL pupils, a systematic review

by Emily Oxley

Emily has recently completed a PhD investigating vocabulary acquisition in children with more than one language. She conducted a systematic review of word learning interventions for children with English as an additional language, and carried out an experimental word learning study comparing EALs and children who only speak English.

What is a systematic review?

A systematic review is a very thorough way of searching the current literature without bias. You decide upon search terms and enter these into databases of research papers. From there you end up with thousands of results that you filter according to an inclusion and exclusion criteria. This gives you a much more manageable amount of papers to read in depth and include in your review.

How many papers did your review include?

After screening my results, I was left with a total of 18 studies to review. 17 of these studies were conducted in the USA and one in the UK. All studies included children with EAL from a variety of language backgrounds. The most common language spoken was Spanish.

What were the results of the studies?

The results of the studies suggested that explicit vocabulary training in context can produce word learning gains for EALs. When new words are explicitly taught within a curriculum, EALs can learn at the same rate as their peers who only speak English. Storybook reading alongside adult led questioning and discussion can lead to vocabulary growth with younger children. However explicit vocabulary teaching in this review showed larger comparative vocabulary gains than storybook related interventions. Two studies showed no intervention effects across measures; implicit acquisition through television viewing and sign supported English instruction.

What are the conclusions to the study?

The study provided more evidence that children with English as an additional language start school with a lower English vocabulary than their monolingual peers. Early interventions are recommended in first years of schooling for EAL children so that they will not fall further behind. Most interventions in this review have shown to reduce the vocabulary deficit.

Were there any limitations?

Yes- because most interventions in this review were carried out in the USA, it may not be possible to replicate their techniques in the context of the United Kingdom. Due to the homogenous sample of first languages in the USA, many of the interventions were able to use the first language to help bridge the gap. Language backgrounds of children in the United Kingdom are diverse so this causes additional constraints. In addition, it is not generally possible to know a child’s underlying L1 vocabulary in the UK, whereas in the USA there are standardised Spanish first language vocabulary measures which can be used.

What are the future directions?

This review has shown that we are really in need of randomised control trials for school aged EAL children in the United Kingdom. There is so much still to learn about children with English as an additional language, and although research in this field is growing in the UK, it is still in its relative infancy compared to the USA