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February 7, 2005

Professor Studies Effects Of Vocabulary
Intervention On Young At-Risk Readers

Michael Coyne

Michael Coyne, assistant professor of educational psychology, has a grant to study vocabulary intervention with at-risk learners.

Photo by Melissa Arboy

In kindergarten and first grade, students learn vital reading skills, but vocabulary instruction is not generally stressed at this age. Could this be a mistake?

“Children need to know the meaning of words to be successful learners,” says Michael Coyne, an assistant professor of educational psychology.

He believes vocabulary skills taught as early as kindergarten can significantly help at-risk readers, and he has won a federal research grant to explore his hypothesis.

“We know from research that kids begin kindergarten with meaningful differences in vocabulary knowledge,” says Coyne, “and that gap grows bigger in the early grades.”

According to the researcher, reading out loud to students, common in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms, tends to benefit the children with already well-developed vocabularies, reinforcing the growing gap between them and children who have less well-developed vocabularies.

“Storybook reading is an important literacy activity in the early grades,” he says, “but discussing vocabulary words systematically isn’t done until the upper grades.”

He recommends incorporating more supportive vocabulary instruction into storybook reading activities for younger children.

Coyne first noticed the impact of vocabulary on reading success 10 years ago, when he was a special education teacher in an elementary school.

His interest led him to develop Project VITAL, which stands for Vocabulary Intervention Targeting At-risk Learners. The three-year research project is funded by a $686,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

The purpose of the project is to find a way to help young children develop vocabulary knowledge, especially students at risk of experiencing reading difficulties. This can be accomplished, according to Coyne, by providing simple, understandable definitions of words, using the words in the context of a story, and giving students a chance to talk about the words while relating them to their own lives and experiences.

The first phase of Project VITAL began last fall, with vocabulary intervention strategies developed and field-tested at the Batchelder School in Hartford and the Windham Center School in Windham.

Pat Delaney, a reading specialist at the Batchelder School, says they are “very excited to be working with Dr. Coyne,” and the school has added a program that gives younger students an opportunity to work with new vocabulary before reading.

“Acting out the meaning of words and seeing pictures is helping the children learn new words in a fun way,” says Delaney.

One of the most popular learning exercises, she says, is when students actually eat their words. For example, a teacher might take the word “apple” and spell it with apple slices to teach the word’s meaning through sight and taste.

The next two years will involve a carefully controlled classroom-based experimental study that tests the intervention strategies developed this year. The next step is to involve more schools in the intervention program.

Coyne’s ultimate goal is to produce strategies and tools that all teachers can use in their classrooms.