Integrating Technology and Interactive Learning Logs to Improve Vocabulary Acquisition in Fourth Graders in an Area of Poverty

Polly Westfall, Union Elementary School, Brunswick County Schools


Farr, R., Conner, J., Haydel, E., & Munroe, K. (2013). The Word Up Project Multisensory Instruction to Build Vocabulary Proficiency and Reading Skills. Educational Research Institute of America

What this study was about: The Word Up Project of Flocabulary combines a multi-sensory learning experience using music and rhyming text to increase the the acquisition and retention of academic Tier Two vocabulary words. It has been proven that the audio component is especially effective for ESL and Special Education populations where the raps promote the benefit of hearing the pronunciation of the words. The high-interest hip-hop raps appeal to students of the twenty-first century, providing them with a real emotional connection to their learning. Students of all backgrounds find the program to be motivating and engaging. The Word Up Project has a writing component, which allows the students to have a deeper understanding of the words and encourages higher-order thinking. Many researchers believe that in order for a student to learn something, he or she must encounter it between eight and ten times (Marzano, 2003: Nagy, 1998). Experts believe the Word Up Project meets this criterion, as students have multiple exposures to the words. The article also explained that certain groups of students, particularly socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, English Language Learners, and struggling readers benefit the most from explicit vocabulary instruction.

Why is this Relevant to my Study: The Word Up Project is exactly what I am trying to accomplish with my action research project, although I plan to add the component of using different graphic organizers and a variety of games and activities to go along with the Word Up Project. I was encouraged to read that using the multi sensory approach should help the three specific populations mentioned, including socioeconomically disadvantaged students. I agree that using a multi-sensory approach to learning meets the needs of all learners, no matter what their learning styles or ethnicities may be. I will be interested seeing if all cultural backgrounds will relate well to the hip-hop music associated with Flocabulary. I agree that having the pronunciation would be a real plus, since many students struggle to decode words. I am excited about reading more about his program. This was a valuable resource for me to use with my action research project.

Hank, N and Deacon, N. (2008) Building Vocabulary in High Poverty Schools. Literacy Today, volume 310, 1-3.

What this study was about: These researchers were determining if vocabulary development of children in an impoverished setting could improve with a focus on intentional language development before, during, and after reading. The study compared the findings of a group trained in questioning strategies to engage students in conversations to expand their use of vocabulary with a group of teachers who had not received the same training. Both groups were given the same reading materials to use, so the findings would not be altered due to the types of resources used. Teachers were taught to elaborate on words used by the students. The methods used by these researchers to improve vocabulary acquisition included active listening, modeling rich vocabulary, and providing more accurate feedback. Teachers in the control group did not respond to their students with the same type of intentional conversation or elaboration. The study showed a significant gain in the intervention groups’ assessments compared to the control group. It also stated that the intervention groups’ scores compared with national averages for the grade level, even though these students were from a low income area. The richness of the language used in the intervention group by the teacher was the key factor in the success of the students. This method could be used by teachers in high poverty areas to expand the vocabulary of their students.

Why this is Relevant to my Study: Although the students in this study were younger than my fourth grade students, I am teaching in a school with poverty. Many of my students have limited life experiences beyond their own communities. I am trying to determine if I can help my fourth graders acquire vocabulary to improve their overall reading comprehension. Since this study showed a method for vocabulary acquisition during reading, it relates quite well to my study. This article was interesting because it stressed the importance of intentional focus on vocabulary development. In this project the teacher’s actions were the cause for the increase in vocabulary, but I am planning to use technology as the motivating factor to increase vocabulary.

Hansel, L. (2014). Closing the Gaps: Challenging Texts Supported by Intentional Instruction.Illinois Reading Council Journal Vol. 42, No. 3

What this study was about: This study was about the importance of using challenging texts with low income students. The author stressed the importance of taking more time to discuss the words and images in a deliberate method using fiction and nonfiction. By focusing on the topic for two to three weeks, students have time to digest and retain the material. Chrys Dougherty (2013), a senior research scientist with ACT explained the importance of early learning, especially when trying to close achievement gaps. He states that “students who already know more about a topic often have an easier time learning additional information on the same topic, and early exposure to knowledge can stimulate students to want to learn more. . .” The study relayed that if all elementary schools focused on building students' knowledge and vocabulary, our students would have a greater chance of getting ready for college. It talked about the dismal statistics that a 4th grader in a high-poverty school who is far behind in reading has just a 7% chance of catching up by 8th grade. This article stated that there is too much emphasis being placed on reading “just right” books and comprehension and not enough time being spent on challenging texts. Low income students lack opportunity not capacity to be on grade level. The author states, “To build vocabulary, students must be immersed in texts.” The author argues that students who read books at their “just right level” often remain in lower level books, never being challenged and their growth year to year is limited. With Common Core, the teacher needs to give more support and explanation when using difficult text to differentiate to meet the needs of struggling readers. The author says that “only 22% of 4th- and 5th-grade teachers start with the texts; 73% focus on the strategies” when teaching reading comprehension. Instead, students would be better served if the focus shifted to more challenging text. The author believes that essential knowledge, vocabulary, and concepts can only be taught with certain carefully selected and sequenced texts.

Why this is Relevant to my Study: The researcher in this study wanted to determine if a child could retain new vocabulary words by relating a new word to a visual image that was meaningful, creating some kind of connection to the student in an attempt to aid the student with reading comprehension and retention. I want to do a similar study; however, I want to include a technology piece to help my students acquire vocabulary words. The research in this study was interesting, as it supported a theory that retention of linguistic information or vocabulary words is increased when there is a use of highly aesthetic, content and concept specific, visual representations. I believe my students will benefit from the time we will devote to an intentional vocabulary study. Since my students will be focusing on Tier Two words, it will help them read "on grade level" material, rather than focusing on "just right" books that may be below grade level.

Pinkerton, N. (2010) The Visual Aspect of Vocabulary: Increasing Comprehension and Retention. The Institutional Review Board of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Volume 10, 111

What this study was about: The researcher in this study wanted to determine if a child could retain new vocabulary words by relating a new word to a visual image that was meaningful, creating some kind of connection to the student in an attempt to aid the student with reading comprehension and retention. The research in this study was interesting, as it supported a theory that retention of linguistic information or vocabulary words is increased when there is a use of highly aesthetic, content and concept specific, visual representations. This particular study was focused on a kindergarten class using vocabulary words from one of the Fancy Nancy books. Students were given the exact same pretest and posttest to determine the retention of three specific vocabulary words. Using visual representations to accompany the words, the researcher found that the students were able to build background knowledge necessary to assist them when comprehending the Fancy Nancy books. Since the students were not only shown an illustration for each word, but also given a verbal definition, they were able to then articulate the word and understand its meaning. This strategy was used as a catalyst to provide the students with a mental visual aide to strengthen a linguistic concept.

Why this is Relevant to my Study: Although the students in this study were younger than the students in my study, the research was focused on elementary school learners and the students’ acquisition through pictorial representations of vocabulary words used to strengthen reading comprehension. The researcher was concerned about building schema with her students through varied pictorial representations which is similar to my intent. Instead of just using pictures, however, I plan to utilize computer-based vocabulary instruction which will stimulate the students’ brains through a multi-sensory approach to learning. The author of this study did mention that she did not have a control group to compare her findings with those of a group who did not use the pictorial representation. The use of a control group is one of my concerns for my action research. I want to be able to get accurate information to determine if the computer-based vocabulary instruction is truly making a difference in the students’ comprehension or if there are other factors to consider. This researcher constantly focused on the importance of tying vocabulary to schema in order to give the reader the tools needed to understand the story. This is my goal with my project, as well. Another similarity is the way the data was collected. Students were given the exact same pretest and posttest to determine the retention of three specific vocabulary words. I will also be using a pretest/posttest method to evaluate my students, however, my fourth graders will be learning ten words each week. The author's visual strategy was used as a catalyst to provide the students with a mental visual aide to strengthen a linguistic concept. I believe my research will take this approach, but it will be even stronger because the students will be using a multi-sensory approach to learning vocabulary. I do agree with the author's use of pictorial representations to aid in vocabulary acquisition.

Pullen, P., Tuckwiller, E, Ashworth, K., Lovelace, S, and Cash, D. (2011) Implementing Intensive Vocabulary Instruction for Students at Risk for Reading Disability. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice.Vol. 26, No. 3, 145 – 157.

What this study was about: This article focused on the low literacy levels in the United States. It referred to the 2009 study in the Nations Report Card stating that 33 percent of students are reading below what is considered the basic level of achievement measured by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). It claimed that 33% of fourth graders in this country are achieving at the proficient or the advanced levels. The article shared the importance of vocabulary development for at risk students, noting the lack of background knowledge that the majority of the students. It pointed out that there are three new studies on the acquisition of vocabulary presented by different researchers, especially with older elementary students. Pictorial representations were once again noted as an important tool for students when learning new vocabulary in order to give the students an aid to make a connection to the written word. Vocabulary was only one of the factors mentioned in the article for improving reading comprehension.

Why this is Relevant to my Study:
This article was very applicable to my interest in vocabulary acquisition. The author mentioned three new studies by different researchers into ways that students acquire and retain vocabulary to help with their reading comprehension. It is my goal to read these three studies so that I will have the most up to date research for my action research project. I find it fascinating that once again pictorial representations were being used to aid in the visual representation of specific tier two vocabulary words, but there was no mention of using computer-based learning to aid in the acquisition of vocabulary words. Our students are growing up in the digital age, so allowing them to use computers and tablets when building schema seems like a natural way for them to build vocabulary. All of the research mentions the importance of making connections and targeting specific words to aid in the understanding of what is being read. I believe my action research project will take the learning to a new level of understanding.

Salinger, T. (2003) Helping Older, Struggling Readers.Preventing School Failure, vol. 47, 79-85.

What this study was about: This article focuses on students who are struggling readers in fourth and fifth grade. Much of our country’s focus on reading instruction has geared around students in grades K through 3, but when students are in the fourth grade they are expected to be proficient readers, able to read for understanding. Many of our nations’ fourth graders do not have the skills needed to orchestrate reading at more advanced levels with more difficult text. The article mentions the students’ abilities to build their arsenal of reading, writing, speaking, and listening vocabularies to be equipped to read. The article states that students need to understand the power of the written word, and take an interest in the word’s meaning. This includes noting synonyms for a particular words, as well as antonyms that do not apply. Students must learn to clarify new words based on their knowledge of existing words. The National Reading Panel (2000) suggests that this is called building “word consciousness”. “When children are interested in words and motivated to learn new words, they perceive a new purpose for reading and for listening.” Quality vocabulary instruction enhances the child’s understanding of words, developing greater reading comprehension which is the ultimate goal of reading. The researcher suggests that teaching vocabulary prior to assigning content area reading will give students the background knowledge they need to engage in more challenging reading assignments. Students not only need to learn definition through dictionaries and thesauruses, but they also need to learn the meanings of idioms, phrases, and colloquial expressions. This article states that upper elementary students still need direct, purposeful instruction to help them make sense of what they are reading.

Why this is Relevant to my Study: This article was well aligned with my own action research project because I will be working with fourth graders in a rural setting and this study talked about struggling readers in fourth and fifth grades. Although the article was not entirely focused on vocabulary acquisition, it stated the importance of direct instruction for older students to help them prepare to read more challenging reading material. I know that I will have students reading below grade level, but I want them to be equipped to read nonfiction material that is more challenging than the text at their instructional reading level. By focusing on intensive vocabulary instruction through varied computer programs such as Flocabulary, I will be giving my students the direct instruction they need to build schema, filling the holes that are there due to a lack of experience with concepts. My ultimate goal is reading comprehension, but I believe a focus on specific vocabulary words is the best way to attain better retention. My students will be engaged through a multi-sensory mode using technology, but they will be required to read, write, think, speak, and listen using the specific words. I believe this multi-faceted approach will help the students increase their overall vocabulary retention.

Big Take-aways: Overall Conclusions to Inform my Project
I enjoyed reading all of the articles and would like to continue to research other articles relating to my topic of vocabulary acquisition through technology components for students in rural settings or in settings of poverty. The study from the Nation’s Report Card in 2009 showed that there is much work that needs to be done in the area of reading. I noticed that there were numerous studies about vocabulary during the seventies and eighties, but in the nineties through the first part of the millennium, vocabulary instruction was moved to the back burner. Since I have been a teacher for over thirty years, this was no surprise to me. I have watched as reading instruction has changed throughout the years.

There were numerous articles about vocabulary acquisition in poverty-stricken areas. All researchers agreed that a lack of time is one of the factors that has been a problem when it comes to vocabulary development. Gone are the days of looking up the definition of ten vocabulary words in a dictionary and taking a test on those vocabulary words at the end of the week. Rote memorization does not work for children in low poverty areas because they have no relationship to the words and their meanings. Every article talked about the importance of using pictorial representations to help students build background knowledge. By aiding in the development of schema, students are more informed and can find better success when reading for knowledge. Intentional teaching is important, as mentioned by every article. Using a multimodal approach will be the best approach to reach the needs of all learners.

I was interested in reading about how the other researchers used control groups to determine accurate results in their studies. I am still struggling with the best way to accurately assess the effect of the technology on my students unless I have a control group that is not using the same vocabulary acquisition. Two of the studies included pre and posttests similar to the format that I am planning to use. I do think this will be the best way for me to measure the retention of the vocabulary words. I also want to include the writing component, so the students will have the opportunity to listen, read, write, talk, speak, and listen when learning new vocabulary words through programs such as Flocabulary. The articles also talked about the importance of varying instruction to keep the interest of the students. I plan to vary the type of graphic organizers that I use, but I also intend to use best practices when it comes to the type of mind map that will aid in retention of the words.

I was especially interested in reading about the Word Up Projects. It is supported by many renowned educators including Marzano as a best practice for 21st century learners. Using a multi sensory approach to vocabulary acquisition, students of all races and ability levels respond well to the engaging songs. The raps are meant to be repeated giving students the repetition they need to succeed with the words. The study shows that the Word Up Project has been successful in aiding three populations that I have in my own class, low socioeconomic levels, struggling readers and English as a Second Language.

The articles were insightful and challenged my thinking in regards to my action research project. Since I am planning to determine if students can retain vocabulary words and improve reading comprehension when acquiring specific words through the use of technology, I was thrilled to find the article showing that the use of technology has been a successful teaching strategy to help students learn vocabulary words. Our students are living in a digital age. They are so comfortable with different types of technology. Tablets, laptops, and iPods are trickling into our classrooms at different speeds in different areas. Most children have some type of computer, tablet, or smartphone in their home now. In rural areas, technology moves slower than in more urban settings but we are doing our best to equip our students, so they will be prepared for their futures.