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

2019 programme of EAL workshops

We are delighted to announce our continuous professional development programme for 2019, which aims to enhance the support for EAL pupils.

  • 13 February: Language for learning – going beyond vocabulary (by Jean Conteh and Dianne Excell)
  • 6 March: Supporting new arrivals and new to schooling students in mainstream lessons in secondary schools (by Georgina Vince)
  • 27 March: International New Arrivals: EYFS principles for all ages (by Louise Wood)
  • 17 April: Using the Home Language to enrich EAL support (by Saiqa Riasat)
  • 8 May: Making words work to support mathematical understanding and reasoning (by Thérèse O’Sullivan)
  • 12 June: How do we know it works? Approaches and tools for evaluation (by Dea Nielsen)
  • 3 July: Identifying and supporting EAL children who may have speech, language and communication needs (by Anne McCaffrey)

All events are free. Details will be published via our Events page.

Recordings and materials will be made available to download from our Events page after each EAL workshop.

These workshops are funded by an excellence and innovation fellowship from the Leeds Institute in Teaching Excellence.

Referential communication and executive function skills in bilingual children

THE PROJECT

Referential communication and executive function skills in bilingual children” is a research project that was funded by the Leverhulme Trust between September 2012 and May 2015.  The team comprised Cecile De Cat (principal investigator), Ludovica Serratrice (co-investigator), Sanne Berends and Furzana Shah (research assistants).

The aims of the project were

  1. to extend previous findings on the relationship between key executive function skills (cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control and working memory) and language experience to bilingual children who have unbalanced exposure to two languages;
  2. to gather new information on the role played by language proficiency, bilingual experience and SES on the above subset of executive function skills and on referential abilities;
  3. to develop our understanding of the linguistic and non-linguistic contextual variables affecting children’s referential choices (visual context, awareness of differences in perspective between speaker and listener, and linguistic factors affecting a referent’s prominence).

We targeted a highly heterogeneous group of children, in terms of socio-economic status and bilingual experience.  There was a total of 28 home languages in our sample: Punjabi (21%), Urdu (17%), Arabic (9%), Spanish (6%), French (8%), Bengali, Cantonese, Catalan, Dutch, Farsi, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Kurdish, Mandarin, Marathi, Mirpuri, Nepalese, Pashto, Polish, Portuguese, Shona, Somalian, Swedish, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tigrinya (each of the latter representing less than 5% of the data).

There was a total of 174 children in the final sample (including 87 monolinguals).  The children were between 5 and 7 years of age at the time of testing.  The amount of bilingual experience varied substantially across children, ranging from very little experience in the home language (in the “almost monolingual” children) to clear dominance of the home language (in children for whom English was the weaker language).

MAIN FINDINGS

  1. A bilingual advantage in cognitive (executive function) skills was only found in the inhibition task.  The main child-related predictors of performance were age, socio-economic status, self-monitoring, and amount of home language experience. Using a novel method of analysis, we identified a critical threshold of home language experience for the bilingual advantage (correcting for age, socio-economic status and self-monitoring). Most of the children above that threshold came from households in which both parents spoke the home language with their children all the time. See De Cat, C., Gusnanto, A., & Serratrice, L. (2017). Identifying a threshold for the executive function advantage in bilingual children. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 1-33. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0272263116000486 or for open access: Paper available here.  This paper received the Albert Valdman award for outstanding publication in Studies in Second Language Acquisition for the year 2018.
  2. The language proficiency of bilingual children varies considerably (developmentally and across individuals). We measured different aspects of EAL children’s proficiency in English (focusing on interpreting and repeating complex sentences, and on aspects of vocabulary knowledge). Our analyses show that children’s performance in English proficiency tests is influenced by the amount of experience of English they have had over their lifetime. Using a new method of analysis, we found that children between the ages of 5 and 7 who had been exposed to English for 60% of the time over their lifetime had “caught up” with their monolingual peers. Passivity in the home language does not have a “protective” effect on school language proficiency. Children’s environment (as reflected by the socio-economic profile of their family) also has an impact. See https://osf.io/f5q98/ for the full paper, or the summary of our findings on OASIS. 
  3. Children’s ability to communicate information effectively is influenced by the same factors in bilingual and monolingual children. In 5- to 7-year olds, the ability to take the perspective of the listener into account depends on whether the relevant information is presented visually or verbally. At that age, children are generally not able to adapt to the fact that their interlocutor is not able to see what they can see, but those with better inhibition skills are able to take into account the information previously shared verbally with their interlocutor.  English proficiency was also a strong predictor of performance in our tasks, which put some bilingual children at a disadvantage. But bilingual children were as informative as monolinguals when proficiency was controlled for. See Serratrice, L. and De Cat, C. (2019). Individual Differences in the Production of Referential Expressions: The Effect of Language Proficiency, Language exposure and Executive Function in Bilingual and Monolingual Children. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. 

Is younger always better for second language acquisition?

by Tamara Sorenson Duncan & Johanne Paradis

When it comes to learning a second language, it is a common assumption that younger is better. However, this belief has not stood up to empirical investigations of bilingual development. For immigrant and refugee children, early introduction of English can undermine bilingualism by jeopardising their first language. Furthermore, older children tend to learn a second language more rapidly than their younger peers and not the reverse. As further evidence against this old adage, we will present data from 89 immigrant and refugee children who are at the onset of their schooling in Canada. These data revealed that foreign-born children, as well as older children, have advantages both in their first language (L1) and in English (i.e., achieved higher L1 scores and performed better on an English narrative task). As such, these findings further call into question the push to introduce English as early as possible for preschool-aged newcomer children. Earlier may not always result in the expected benefits for children’s English development and indeed may come at a great cost to children’s first language skills.

You can access the author’s recent presentation from the 1st Annual Conference on Child Language Acquisition Research in Alberta (CLARA) here

What sources do teachers use to access research? Please consider filling in this 15-min survey: is.gd/teacherresearc…

RT @ReadingShanahan: Are we teaching reading comprehension? I don't think so and here is how we can change that to be more effective.… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…

RT @mrlockyer: WHEN #EduTwitter is BRILLIANT: I ask for EAL support, and not only do the same two names appear again and again (… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…