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With right lessons, non-native kindergarteners learn vocabulary faster than native English-speakers

University of Chicago Press Journals

An important study from The Elementary School Journal explores vocabulary development at the kindergarten level among English-only students (EOs) and English-language-learning students (ELLs) who speak another language at home. Analyzing rates of target word acquisition and overall vocabulary development, the study found that students learning English as a second language picked up general vocabulary more quickly and target vocabulary words at the same rate as native English-speaking kindergarteners.

"This study contributes to knowledge about vocabulary instruction by investigating the effects of a vocabulary intervention with children from a variety of backgrounds," writes Rebecca Deffes Silverman, who conducted the research while at Harvard University and is now at the University of Maryland. Past studies have identified vocabulary as the "single most encountered obstacle" for English-language-learning students, Silverman points out, and vocabulary is also the primary determinant of future reading comprehension.

Taking into account that kindergarteners comprehend oral language instruction at a much higher rate than they can read, Silverman developed and implemented a multidimensional vocabulary program incorporating storybook reading and opportunities to say vocabulary words aloud in five kindergarten classrooms. Three of the classrooms were mainstream English, in which both English-only kindergarteners and English-language learners were enrolled. One was structured immersion, in which only ELLs were enrolled. The last classroom was bilingual Spanish-English, attended by both EO and ELL children.

After fourteen weeks, English-language-learning students knew 19 more words on a picture vocabulary assessment than they knew before the program, while native English-speaking students knew 14 more words than before. Similarly, on an oral vocabulary test, English-language-learning kindergarteners could provide definitions for 21 more words than they could before the program, compared to 17 more definitions for the native English-speaking kindergarteners.

Also, though native English-speaking kindergarteners knew more of the target words before the program, there was no difference in knowledge of target words between the English-learning and English-only kindergarteners either immediately after the program or during follow-up six weeks later.

"My study shows that ELLs can grow in general vocabulary at a faster rate than EOs," writes Silverman. "This may indicate that ELLs can eventually catch up to EOs in overall vocabulary knowledge, and it may also suggest that the structure of vocabulary intervention could provide the instructional focus that leads to narrowing the language gap between ELLs and EOs."


For more than one-hundred years, The Elementary School Journal has served researchers, teacher educators, and practitioners in the elementary and middle school education. ESJ publishes articles dealing with both education theory and research and their implications for teaching practice. In addition, ESJ presents articles that relate the latest research in child development, cognitive psychology, and sociology to school learning and teaching.

Rebecca Deffes Silverman. "Vocabulary Development of English-Language and English-Only Learners in Kindergarten," Elementary School Journal, 107(4), 365-383.

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