From the Desk of Ann Kummer
English Learner students (Els) are children who usually come from homes where English is rarely or never spoken. They are part of a very diverse group in that they represent numerous languages, as well as a variety of cultures, nationalities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. ELs make up a large and ever-growing segment of the school-age population in the United States.
Because these students require specialized instruction, not only in English, but also in their academic courses, they pose a significant challenge to our educational system to meet their needs. This challenge is even more acute when the student also has an underlying language disorder. Fortunately, this article, by Dr. Celeste Roseberry-McKibbin, provides important information regarding this challenge and specific strategies that can be used to support students’ academic vocabulary.
By way of introduction, Celeste Roseberry-McKibbin received her Ph.D. from Northwestern University. She is a Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at California State University, Sacramento. Dr. Roseberry is also currently a part-time itinerant speech pathologist in San Juan Unified School District where she provides direct services to students from preschool through high school. Dr. Roseberry’s primary research interests are in the areas of assessment and treatment of culturally and linguistically diverse students with communication disorders as well as service delivery to students from low-income backgrounds. She has over 70 publications, including 17 books, and has made over 600 presentations at the local, state, national, and international levels. Dr. Roseberry is a Fellow of ASHA, and winner of ASHA’s Certificate of Recognition for Special Contributions in Multicultural Affairs as well as the Excellence in Diversity Award from CAPCSD. She has received ASHA’s Honors of the Association. She received the national presidential Daily Point of Light Award for her volunteer work in building literacy skills of children in poverty. Dr. Roseberry lived in the Philippines as the daughter of Baptist missionaries from ages 6 to 17.
This course is geared to public school speech-language pathologists (SLPs) who serve English Learners with Developmental Language Disorder. Specific, research-based strategies for developing their academic vocabulary skills are provided.
Now…read on, learn, and enjoy!
Ann W. Kummer, PhD, CCC-SLP, FASHA, 2017 ASHA Honors
Browse the complete collection of 20Q with Ann Kummer CEU articles at www.speechpathology.com/20Q
20Q: English Learners and Developmental Language Disorder -
Strategies to Develop Academic Vocabulary Skills
After this course, readers will be able to:
- Define and describe Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) in English Learners
- List specific strategies for developing academic vocabulary skills in English Learners with DLD
- Describe practical strategies for developing the phonological awareness skills of English Learners with DLD
1. Can you give me current facts about English Learner students in our schools today?
There are five million students in U.S. schools who meet the definition of English Learners (ELs) under Title III. There are about 12.1 million students who are not ELs but are speakers of different languages other than, and in addition to, English. That is about 23 percent of our K-12 student population, or one in five students nationally (National Education Association, 2022).
2. What are some challenges they are experiencing that I need to know about as an SLP?
Children from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds who are ELs often perform quite well in school, especially if their families are not dealing with other challenges such as poverty or unemployment. Being a proficient bilingual has many cognitive, linguistic, and social advantages. Children who become proficient bilingual, well-educated adults enrich society in a wide variety of ways and are sought after as potential employees in the U.S. and abroad.
However, some ELs experience difficulty in school (Paradis et al., 2021; Rosa-Lugo et al., 2020; Roseberry-McKibbin, 2022a). Unfortunately, American schools are not providing adequate support for typically developing ELs who are struggling academically (Fumero & Tibi, 2020; Roseberry-McKibbin, 2022b). According to the U.S. Department of Education (2020), only 9% of ELs nationwide met reading proficiency standards in fourth grade in 2017 and only 5% met reading proficiency standards in 8th grade.
3. Why are so many EL students struggling in school?
Even for ELs who read proficiently, factors such as poverty, low parental education, and low second language (L2) skills create a risk of broader academic difficulties (Collins & Toppelberg, 2021; Mesa & Yeomans-Maldonado, 2021; Owens, 2020). One major reason that ELs are educationally vulnerable is that many come to kindergarten (or later grades) speaking little or no English and must learn academic information in this new language. Often, schools do not support or accommodate these students successfully (Rosa-Lugo et al., 2020; Westernoff et al., 2021). There are few bilingual classrooms that teach English while supporting the continued development of the children’s first languages (L1s). Instead, most classes in American public schools are taught in English only, with few if any special provisions for ELs (Kan et al., 2020; Kohnert et al., 2021; Roseberry-McKibbin, 2022a). This can lead to language loss in L1 and leave students vulnerable to academic difficulty as they struggle to learn L2 or English.
4. The pandemic cannot have helped this situation. How has the pandemic impacted students worldwide?
The World Literacy Foundation (2022) tells us that during the Covid-19 pandemic, schools were closed down in more than 190 countries. The education of 1.27 billion children and youth was disrupted, and 63 million teachers in over 165 countries were impacted. The Covid-19 global pandemic brought to light the inequities and injustices in our society in a new and profound manner, exposing the oppression, exploitation, and marginalization of numerous groups of people. Many of these groups were composed of culturally and linguistically diverse individuals who experienced significant hardship that was magnified by the pandemic. Hate crimes against ethnic groups increased, and more people began to demand sweeping societal changes. Children have been pulled out of school to work to support their families.
5. Specifically, how have ELs in the United States been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic?
According to the National Education Association (2022) the pandemic hit our ELs very hard. There was difficulty with remote access and having digital devices and internet access in order to be able to participate in online classes. Instructions were usually given in English, and parents often did not have the digital or linguistic ability to support their children academically. In addition, many parents were frontline workers who were forced to work outside the home and leave their children unsupervised. These challenges made a difficult situation even harder for ELs in the U.S. Many fell behind academically, especially in the area of academic vocabulary knowledge.
6. Please describe specifically the nature of the difficulty experienced by many typically-developing ELs in the area of academic vocabulary even before the pandemic.
Some ELs know fewer English vocabulary words than monolingual English speakers, and they know less about the meaning of these words (Green et al., 2015). Wood et al. (2020) analyzed the vocabulary skills of typically developing ELs and several other populations. They discovered that these ELs used fewer academic words in their expository writing. Bialystok et al. (2010) found in their study that bilingual children knew fewer words in English than did comparable monolingual English speakers. Thus, even typically developing ELs may need to accelerate their academic vocabulary learning just to catch up to monolingual English-speaking peers.
7. The challenges experienced by ELs in the U.S. are numerous. What if they have Developmental Language Disorder in addition to all these challenges? Can you describe DLD in EL students?
Research has found that in students with DLD across language groups, there are two major areas of weakness: language knowledge and cognitive processing skills. Recent research has emphasized the need to strengthen cognitive processing skills in ELs with DLD as a foundation for increasing language knowledge (Kohnert et al., 2021). Cognitive processing skills that need to be strengthened are selective attention, processing speed, and working memory (Delage & Frauenfelder, 2020; Ebert et al., 2012, 2014, 2019; Fumero & Tibi, 2020; Guiberson & Rodriguez, 2020; Jackson et al., 2020; Park et al., 2020; Smolak et al., 2020).
8. In therapy with ELs with DLD, should we be working on cognitive processing skills as well as language skills to support the development of academic vocabulary?
Research shows (Ebert et al., 2019; Park et al., 2019; Park et al., 2020) that it is helpful to strengthen both language knowledge and cognitive processing skills (e.g., attention, processing speed, working memory) when supporting the development of academic vocabulary in ELs with DLD. This would support these learners’ success in achieving ELA standards at grade level and promote attaining competence within the overall general education curriculum standards. Improving cognitive processing skills can promote the development of both the first language and English in EL students with DLD. In other words, it is important to strengthen the child’s underlying learning system by improving working memory, processing speed, and selective attention as a foundation for building stronger language skills. This is true for bilingual as well as monolingual children with DLD.
9. What types of challenges are experienced by EL students with DLD in terms of learning academic vocabulary?
Research has shown that many ELs with DLD have academic vocabulary deficits. For example, the research of Sheng et al. (2012) with typically developing Spanish-speaking children and those with DLD showed that 65% of the DLD group had semantic deficits in comparison to 14% of typically developing students. Many bilingual children with DLD had sparsely linked semantic networks. For example, they have difficulty with precise definitions of vocabulary words, defining these words in vague, general, and concrete ways. They often do not know any synonyms for vocabulary words that they do know (Mesa & Yeomans-Maldonado, 2019, 2021; Owens, 2020). Kan et al. (2020) studied preschool children with DLD who spoke Cantonese as an L1 and English as an L2, concluding that their vocabulary skills in Cantonese were lower than those of typically developing peers. Because lack of vocabulary knowledge impacts every area of academics, EL students with DLD who have working memory problems and weak vocabulary skills are especially at risk for difficulties in accessing English Language Arts curriculum. Thus, it is important to examine evidence-based strategies that have been shown to be successful in supporting vocabulary development in ELs with DLD. It is especially important to strengthen academic vocabulary skills (Rosa-Lugo et al., 2020; Westernoff et. al., 2021).
10. I’ve heard that teaching content area cognates can facilitate faster academic vocabulary development. Can you describe this and give some specific examples? What studies support this?
Researchers have recommended teaching content-area cognates if possible to support increasing language skills in EL students with DLD (Dam et al., 2020; Fumero & Tibi, 2020; Kohnert et al., 2021; Sheng et al., 2016; Squires et al., 2020). For example, many words in Spanish are quite similar to their English counterparts. Professionals can leverage students’ Spanish skills as a foundation to teach new words in English. When teaching geometry to Spanish-speaking students, for example, professionals can use cognates such as angle (ángulo), triangle (triángulo), sphere (esfera), and parallel lines (lineas paralelas). A geography teacher can point out such cognates as gulf (golfo), arid (arido), and volcanic (volcanico). In addition to teaching content-area cognates, SLPs can reinforce new vocabulary words by providing multiple exposures to words and active engagement in learning these new words. Payesteh & Pham (2022) studied Spanish-English bilingual 5-11 year olds with DLD. Vocabulary testing revealed that they performed better on cognate words in terms of expressive vocabulary.
11. What is another specific strategy I can use to support students’ academic vocabulary development?
For EL students with DLD, it is critical to teach vocabulary through multiple exposures to words and active engagement in learning these new words. Storkel et al. (2017) stated that for children with language impairment, 36 exposures to a new word was ideal to promote word learning in order to accommodate working memory deficits. Though the research of Storkel et al. (2017) was conducted with monolingual children with DLD, one can infer that bilingual children with DLD might benefit from multiple exposures to new words as well. Developing rich vocabulary skills positively impacts a number of areas (Dam et al., 2020). For example, one study found that larger L2 (English) vocabulary contributed to ELs’ greater use of complex sentences (Paradis et al., 2017). De Anda and colleagues (2022) found that the use of multiple exemplars of new vocabulary words in both languages is best practice when helping bilingual children learn new words. It is ideal if Tier 2 vocabulary words are targeted in intervention.
12. Tell me more about Tier 2 vocabulary words.
In order to incorporate the English Language Arts Standards into vocabulary intervention, experts today agree that “Tier 2” words should be targeted (Moore & Montgomery, 2018; Rosa-Lugo et al., 2020). Tier 1 words are the most basic, common words that many students acquire automatically from their environment (e.g. clock, happy, play). Tier 3 words are highly specialized, and the frequency of their use is low (e.g., peninsula, isotope, radiation). Tier 2 words are high frequency words that are found across a variety of domains (e.g., measure, evaluate, fortunate, coincidence, similar); instruction relating to the use of these words is most productive and efficient. There are many online resources to guide professionals to lists of appropriate Tier 2 words. For example, Coxhead (2021) has a comprehensive list that is available online (https://readingwise.com/blog/vocab-update-tier2-and-academic-word-list).
13. Can you share any recent studies that give practical strategies for effectively teaching Tier 2 words to bilingual students with DLD?
Levin et al. (2022) taught new vocabulary to 11 Swedish-speaking students with DLD (average age=14 years old). This was done in the students’ classrooms as part of their scheduled lessons in Swedish. In the study, students were presented with 20 Tier 2 words under two conditions. It was found that the “rich practice” condition was most effective. Rich practice is characterized by:
- The teacher summarized the gist of the story orally while presenting pictures supporting the main content.
- The teacher read the story out loud while the text remained visible on the interactive board.
- The teacher provided a detailed, student-friendly definition of the target word shown on the board.
- Students had to answer multiple choice questions about the word.
- Students had a paper where they had to draw a line from the target word to its corresponding definition.
- The teacher provided a definition and students wrote the corresponding word on paper.
- Subsequent lessons were similar and contained a review of previous words taught.
14. Are there any ways to make it easier for students to learn these words?
Professionals can help students learn Tier 2 words by connecting these new words with ones that students already know, thus building on students’ prior knowledge. One way to accomplish this is through teaching synonyms. For example, if a student says, “I feel lucky that I got to go to Disneyland,” the professional can say “Oh, you feel fortunate that you got to go to Disneyland. Fortunate is a college word for lucky.”
15. What are some other types of Tier 2 words that I can teach students to help them succeed academically?
It is also important to teach students vocabulary words that are critical for following directions, completing worksheets, and understanding the content of the subject matter emphasized within the classroom. For example, students need to understand words such as before, after, and next. Standardized tests of academic achievement often use words such as compare, contrast, define, describe, and enumerate. Professionals need to ensure that students understand exactly what these words mean and that students can answer test questions accurately when these words are used.
16. How can I incorporate classroom curriculum into my therapy easily and efficiently in the midst of my busy schedule? I don’t really have time to collaborate with teachers.
As a part-time itinerant SLP in the schools, I ask students to bring their English language arts books to their therapy sessions. We use the current story they are reading to target Tier 2 vocabulary, reading comprehension, and phonological awareness among other skills. I have done this with students from ages 5-16, and it is highly successful. Teachers love it because I’m supporting what they are doing in the classroom. In addition, it takes little to no planning on my part!
17. You hear so much about the importance of phonological awareness with students with DLD. How does it relate to vocabulary development of EL students with DLD?
Phonological awareness can be defined as the ability to reflect on and consciously manipulate the sound system of a language. Phonological awareness is related to spelling, reading, and writing achievement (Pratt et al., 2020; Soto et al., 2020) Participating in activities to build phonological awareness helps these students perform more successfully in the classroom; vocabulary skills benefit from these phonological awareness activities (Goldstein et al., 2017).
Because of the reciprocal nature of vocabulary and phonological awareness skills, EL students with DLD need activities to stimulate the development of phonological awareness to support building vocabulary knowledge (Lonigan, 2007; McGregor & Duff, 2015). Research has shown that there is a reciprocal relationship between phonological awareness and vocabulary skills, with growth in one area positively impacting the other (Goldstein et al., 2017; Einarsdottir et al., 2016; Rosa-Lugo et al., 2020).
18. Can you cite specific research studies that support your premise that work on phonological awareness skills facilitates vocabulary development in ELs with DLD?
Einarsdottir et al. (2016) carried out a longitudinal study in Iceland with 267 Icelandic-speaking subjects. The subjects’ phonological awareness skills were tested initially when they were between 5;4-5;10 years old. The researchers contacted these subjects when they were 18-19 years old and gained permission to view their performance, in Icelandic and math, on national tests in 4th, 7th, and 10th grades. Einarsdottir et al. (2016) found that subjects’ phonological awareness test scores at 5 years old strongly correlated in every grade (4, 7, 10) with math and Icelandic language scores (including vocabulary). The researchers concluded that early intervention for deficits in phonological awareness skills is crucial for later academic success, which includes grade-level knowledge of academic vocabulary. Pratt et al. (2020) studied the emergent literacy skills of Spanish-speaking children with DLD and compared them with the skills of matched typically developing peers. The study found that subjects with DLD performed significantly worse than controls on a battery of emergent literacy measures. The study concluded that it is important to target both phonological and print awareness in young Spanish-speaking children with DLD.
19. What are some specific phonological awareness skills that students need?
To promote the growth of phonological awareness skills in ELs with DLD, SLPs can have students do the following (Einarsdottir et al., 2016; Goldstein et al., 2017; Roseberry-McKibbin, 2022a):
- Count the number of words in a sentence.
- Count the number of syllables in a word.
- Count the number of sounds in a word.
- Identify rhyming words.
- Use sound-blending skills to form words from individual sounds (e.g. “d-o-g; what is that?”).
- Identify the first sound in a word.
- Identify the last sound in a word.
20. I’m so busy! Can you please give me specific, practical ideas that I can use on Monday morning for teaching Tier 2 vocabulary words? I could use some pre-written objectives as well!
Teaching Vocabulary Hierarchy for English Learners with Developmental Language Disorder
Annual Goal: The student will demonstrate increased receptive and expressive knowledge of Tier 2 vocabulary words.
Short-term objective 1: When the clinician verbally presents Tier 2 target vocabulary words, the student will point to pictures of these words with 80% accuracy.
Clinician: Marisol, point to increase.
Student: Points to a picture of something getting bigger or larger.
Short-term objective 2: When the clinician holds up a picture and says, “Does this picture show something increasing?” the student will verbally or nonverbally indicate yes or no with 80% accuracy.
Clinician: Does this picture show something increasing?”
Student: Verbally or nonverbally indicates yes or no.
Short-term objective 3: When the clinician gives a 1-2 sentence verbal description of a target word/concept and provides the student with 2 choices of answers, the student will verbally supply the correct answer with 80% accuracy.
Clinician: “Listen. This word means that something is getting bigger or larger. Is it decreasing or increasing?”
Short-term objective 4: When shown pictures of target Tier 2 vocabulary words, the student will give verbal, one-word labels with 80% accuracy.
Clinician: (shows a picture) “Anak, what’s this doing?”
Short-term objective 5: When asked to define a target vocabulary word, the student will give a 5+ word verbal description with 80% accuracy.
Clinician: “Mario, what does 'increase' mean?”
Student: “Increase means that something gets bigger or larger—like you have more of it.”
Short-term objective 6: When given a school item target vocabulary word, the student will use the word in a sentence with 80% accuracy.
Clinician: “Carlo, please use the word increase in a sentence.”
Student: “Increase means to have more or get bigger.”
Short-term objective 7: When presented with a paragraph or word list containing the target vocabulary word, the student will find and read the word out loud with 80% accuracy.
Clinician: “Josefina, look at this story. Please find the word 'increase' and read the word to me after you find it.”
Student: Finds the word 'increase' and reads it aloud.
Short-term objective 8: When asked to spell a target vocabulary word, the student will spell the word out loud with 80% accuracy.
Clinician: “Jaime, please spell the word 'increase'.”
Student: Spells the word aloud.
Short-term objective 9: When given a target vocabulary word, the student will write a sentence containing the word with 80% accuracy.
Clinician: “Estera, please write a sentence using the word 'increase'.”
Student: Writes a sentence containing the word 'increase'.
Short-term objective 10: With 80% accuracy, the student will count the number of words in a sentence that he has written or in a sentence that is prewritten that contains the target vocabulary word (e.g., a sentence using the word increase)
Clinician: Look, Carla, please count how many words there are in this sentence.
Student: (counts the number of words)
Short-term objective 11: When given a target vocabulary word, the student will identify the number of syllables in the word with 80% accuracy.
Clinician: Nina, how many syllables are in the word 'increase'?
Short-term objective 12: When given a target vocabulary word, the student will identify the number of sounds in the word with 80% accuracy.
Clinician: Emilio, how many sounds are in the word 'increase'?
Short-term objective 13: When given a target vocabulary word and asked to supply a word that rhymes with it, the student will do so with 80% accuracy.
Clinician: Francisco, can you give me a word that rhymes with 'increase'?
Short-term objective 14: When the student hears the SLP say a target vocabulary word phoneme by phoneme, the student will demonstrate word blending skills by stating the whole word with 80% accuracy.
Clinician: Montero, what word is this? I-n-c-r-ea-se.
Short-term objective 15: When given a target vocabulary word, the student will identify the first sound in that word with 80% accuracy.
Clinician: Listen, Michaela. Increase. What is the first sound in that word?
Short-term objective 16: When given a target vocabulary word, the student will identify the last sound in that word with 80% accuracy.
Clinician: Listen, Viktor. Increase. What is the last sound in that word?
References and Recommended Readings
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