Research Highlight 2: The Language Teachers Use Influences the Language Students Learn

2nd grade students eagerly listening to a read-aloud by their teacher

Teacher Vocabulary Use and Student Language and Literacy Achievement

The Power of Teacher Talk

We know that the explicit teaching of unfamiliar words that students will encounter in written text is important. But what about the language that is used by teachers throughout the school day? What implicit learning opportunities are constrained or afforded through the model of the language that a teacher uses while teaching, and what are the impacts on student learning?

The importance of indirect or incidental language experiences in a classroom is emphasized in this study. And this and other research reviewed in the paper suggests that enriching linguistic environments are particularly beneficial for young readers or those who struggle with reading.

We’ve explored previously the importance not simply of “rich language” use (what does that even mean?) but of exposure to and use of a very particular kind of language: decontextualized language. This is the language of narrative, of conversational turn-taking and discussion around ideas and things, the more abstract language of written text. The content, form, and use of such language takes us beyond that of the immediate moment, beyond our own already delimited feelings and experiences, and into a realm of interpersonal and cultural thought, knowledge, and perspectives.

We can engage our children with this decontextualized language even before they leave the womb. They hear us tell stories and sing and begin to attune to our rhythms. Then when we can hold them in our arms, in our wraps, in our laps, we respond encouragingly to their babbling to tell them about the world, and we read picture books to them, showing them beautiful artwork that brings words alive. In classrooms, we read to our children with greater intention and a systematic approach, teaching them ideas and words before, during and after our carefully chosen texts, we instruct them in how to write what they can see or hear, and kids begin to automate the regular and irregular algorithms that sort letter-sounds and concepts into words.

Indirect or incidental language experiences can provide students with exposure to and use of new vocabulary and grammatical structures. When teachers use a variety of forms of language in their speech, they can provide students with opportunities to hear and learn new kinds of language, new kinds of ideas, and new kinds of feelings and viewpoints. Teacher talk can provide students with models in how to use these different types of language. When teachers use clear and concise language, they show students how to communicate more precisely and efficiently. When teachers give students opportunities to respond to questions or to participate in discussions around shared texts, topics, and themes, they provide students with opportunities to practice using that language to demonstrate and deepen their understanding of that new knowledge.

The Research Paper

This study focused on second-grade classrooms. To gather the language data, the 2nd grade teachers wore a “language environment analysis (LENA) digital language processor to record a full day of instruction twice per month throughout the school year. The researchers then analyzed segments of the language they used directed to students using Systematic Analysis of Language Transcripts (SALT) transcriptions.

The study revealed something incredibly important: teachers who used more academic words had their students achieve higher vocabulary levels by the end of the year.

Yet use of academic words was extremely uncommon in this sample of 64 teachers and 619 students, despite having a curriculum that included specific grade-level academic words: “On average, teachers used common words, with 87% of the words used by teachers on the list of the 1,000 most frequently used words in the English language. Academic words were used only 1% of the instructional time on average, suggesting very little input for students for these more school-based words.”

The researchers furthermore found that it's not just about the quantity of words but the quality and relevance to the subject matter being taught. Importantly, they found that the “academic word use by teachers continued to predict student vocabulary outcomes even once teachers’ expressive vocabulary was considered. In other words, the relationship is not explained by some students having teachers with a higher overall vocabulary. All teachers who used more academic words in their instruction and discussion had students with higher vocabulary at the end of the school year. Second, the relationship was not different for students of varying incoming vocabulary abilities.”

This is therefore a potentially high impact influence on learning for the kids who need it the most.

What was also interesting was that they found that ELA and math were regularly taught, usually daily, while science and social studies were taught significantly less across all the schools. “Thus, students received language input largely through ELA and math instruction during an average school day.” In this study, the teachers used a variety of ELA curricula (Wonders, Journeys, and others), some of which are not systematic in how they approach building knowledge and language.

Why I think this study is important

While not expanded upon in this paper, the lack of more content and disciplinary focused instruction across a week clearly bears implications for their finding on the lack of academic words that students were exposed to at large. There was a paper a while back that this reminds me of, a 2020 analysis from Fordham Institute, in which they found, counterituitively, that “Increased instructional time in social studies—but not in ELA—is associated with improved reading ability.”

We may thus be going astray if we’re merely expanding or reworking literacy blocks without simultaneously boosting up the academic knowledge and language that students gain from discipline specific study and the reading, writing, and talking around strategically selected texts that build cumulative and coherent bodies of knowledge.

Furthermore, this study also found that the proportion of less common words used was highest in math classes. This suggests that math could be an unexpected hotspot for academic vocabulary and language development – which makes sense when you think about it. The language needed for mathematical thinking and discourse is precise and specific to the discipline. And yet the opportunity to explicitly teach language and literacy through math is not often fully leveraged.

I should be clear that this study (and the authors make this clear) is correlational, not causational, and “does not suggest that filling instruction with academic words would mean even higher vocabulary achievement.” Another limitation of the data in this study is that it “did not allow for consideration of students' utterances or conversational exchanges between a variety of communication partners which could also be of interest in a future study.”

And that in fact connects to the findings of our last research highlight, which was on the importance of automatization in learning a new language. The more that children can hear, see, speak, and write the new words and ideas they are learning, the more those words and ideas will stick.

All in all – this is the kind of research that I think every teacher should be aware of. Every word we use in our speech (or signing), and every word we put before them in the texts we select can inhibit or expand what our kids can learn. Discuss... #literacy #language #research #vocabulary #automatization #implicit #explicit