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Scammacca, N. K., & Stillman, S. J. (2018). The effect of a social studies–based reading intervention on the academic vocabulary knowledge of below-average readers. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 34(4), 322–337.

Summary by Hsuan-Hui Wang, Paul Steinle, and Dr. Stephanie Stillman

Overview & Study Background

Several theoretical frameworks, including the Simple View of Reading (Catts, Hogan, & Adlof, 2005; Hoover & Tunmer, 1993; Hoover & Gough, 1990), direct and inferential mediation model (DIME; Ahmed et al., 2016; Cromley & Azevedo, 2007), and reading systems framework (Perfetti & Stafura, 2014), have suggested that vocabulary knowledge plays a more significant role in reading comprehension in later developmental stages. Middle school students may encounter learning challenges because academic vocabulary consists of more advanced Tier 2 words, which are used across content areas, and Tier 3 words, which are discipline-specific (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2013; Nagy & Townsend, 2012). Meanings of these two types of words may be unfamiliar to students and may possibly hinder comprehension and learning.

Questions remain regarding the degree to which increasing academic knowledge of vocabulary can improve content acquisition as well as reading comprehension more broadly. Since 2010, more interventions that include a vocabulary component have been implemented in content-area instruction, specifically testing vocabulary and comprehension interventions in the subject of social studies (Scammacca & Stillman 2018). One such intervention, the Promoting Adolescents’ Comprehension of Text (PACT) program (Vaughn et al., 2013; 2015), was found to be effective for improving eighth-graders’ content area knowledge and reading comprehension in a randomized control trial (RCT).

Another factor that can affect content area knowledge and reading comprehension outcomes is depth of vocabulary knowledge; that is, the difference between a superficial awareness of a word’s meaning and a deep understanding of a word’s definition. Several studies have shown evidence that teaching word meanings in depth can be effective in improving comprehension (Beck, Perfetti, & McKeown, 1982; Carlo et al., 2004; Lesaux, Kieffer, Faller, & Kelley, 2010; Silverman, 2007). However, the relationship between vocabulary knowledge depth and reading comprehension among middle school students with below-average reading skills is still not well understood and worthy of further research.

Study Purpose & Research Questions

Based on the PACT intervention, Swanson et al. (2017) designed a more intensive version with smaller class sizes, increased duration, and higher fidelity of implementation for eighth-graders with below-average reading skills. The goal of Scammacca and Stillman’s (2018) secondary analysis of data collected in Swanson et al. (2017) was to explore the relationship between depth of vocabulary knowledge, academic content learning, and reading comprehension.

The researchers intended to answer three research questions:

  1. Is the PACT intensive intervention more effective than typical instruction in developing academic vocabulary depth among middle school students with below-average reading skills?
  2. What is the relationship between vocabulary depth, social studies content acquisition, and reading comprehension among middle school students with below-average reading skills?
  3. Are scores on more difficult vocabulary items more strongly related to content acquisition and reading comprehension than scores on easier vocabulary items?

Methods

Study Design & Sample

The original study, Swanson et al. (2017), was conducted at a middle school in a suburban, mostly Hispanic, middle to middle-lower class community. An RCT was conducted to examine the effect of the PACT intensive intervention for middle school students with below-average reading skills. A total of 108 students were identified as below average readers based on their low scores on the state reading test and confirmed by below-average scores on the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Test. Students with below-average reading ability were identified and randomly assigned to social studies classes that received the PACT intensive intervention or classes that received business-as-usual (BAU) instruction. After study consent was obtained, 45 students were placed in the treatment group and 33 were placed in the comparison group.

Measures

Modified assessment of social studies knowledge

The MASK, a modified version of the Assessment of Social Studies Knowledge, developed for PACT and validated in Vaughn et al. (2013), was conducted at pretest and posttest. The MASK consists of four subtests: vocabulary recognition, vocabulary recall, social studies content acquisition, and social studies reading comprehension. Only vocabulary recall was not implemented in the pretest because the words were unfamiliar to students and researchers did not expect them to provide correct responses.

Intervention and fidelity of implementation

Students in treatment and comparison conditions both received 45 minutes of social studies instruction 5 days per week for one academic year. Teachers in both conditions taught the same content following the state and district standards. Teachers in the treatment condition used five components consistent with previous PACT interventions: an overarching question that activates background knowledge, in-depth vocabulary instruction of essential words, guided reading and discussion, planned review of vocabulary, and collaborative learning during comprehension activities. Teachers in the BAU condition were free to use instructional approaches that represented their typical instructions.

The presence of PACT components in the BAU classes were monitored by the research team to prevent crossover. Overall, the treatment teachers showed high fidelity to PACT components, and the BAU teachers showed low implementation of PACT components.

Secondary Analysis Questions and Findings

  1. Did middle school students with below average reading skills assigned to the PACT intensive intervention develop more academic vocabulary depth than students assigned to BAU?
  • Students in the PACT classes performed significantly higher than students in the BAU classes on both vocabulary recognition and recall measures. In addition, more students in BAU classes than in PACT classes demonstrated unsuccessful learning on word meaning items.
  1. What was the relationship between vocabulary depth, social studies content acquisition, and reading comprehension among middle school students with below-average reading skills?
  • A linear regression showed that post vocabulary recognition was a significant predictor of social studies content knowledge. Vocabulary recognition and recall accounted for 51% of the variance in social studies content knowledge. For social studies reading comprehension, both vocabulary recognition and recall were significant predictors and accounted for 54% of the variance in content knowledge.
  1. Are scores on more difficult vocabulary items more strongly related to content acquisition and reading comprehension than scores on easier items?
  • A linear regression analysis indicated that the score on the easier vocabulary items was a significant predictor of social studies content knowledge and reading comprehension, whereas the score on the more difficult vocabulary items did not predict content knowledge or reading comprehension. Performance on easier vocabulary items was more strongly related to social studies content acquisition and reading comprehension than performance on more difficult vocabulary items.

Limitations

There were several limitations to this study. First, the sample size was relatively small, which limited the use of more advanced statistical methods for analysis of the results. Second, no English learners or students in special education participated in the treatment classes, which affects the interpretation of the results, as students with more severe reading difficulties were not present. Another limitation is that variations in the MASK vocabulary measures were small and may have limited the sensitivity to students’ vocabulary knowledge levels. Finally, this study was within the context of social studies classes with a focus on American history, which may limit generalization to other academic content areas.

Implications for Practitioners

  1. For content area teachers, it is critical and effective to integrate vocabulary instruction into content area learning for middle school students with below-average reading skills. The PACT intervention provided an example framework for teachers who aim to integrate vocabulary instruction and improve students’ content area learning.
  • Students in the PACT intervention were provided with multiple opportunities to learn the meanings of words and to practice the words in contexts, in peer-learning, and in TBL activities. Aligned with previous studies (Given, Wasserman, Chari, Beattie, & Eden, 2008; Kennedy, Thomas, Meyer, Alves, Lloyd, 2014; Lesaux, Kieffer, Kelly, & Harris, 2014) and existing theories (Beck et al., 2013; Nagy & Scott, 2000), PACT instruction with multiple exposures to academic words were effective in improving vocabulary learning.
  1. Findings validated theories on the relationship among vocabulary knowledge, reading comprehension, and content learning. For content area teachers, it is crucial to recognize the essential role of academic words to content area reading. Utilizing research-based practices that expand students’ vocabulary may benefit reading comprehension outcomes.
  • A positive predictive relationship among vocabulary knowledge, reading comprehension, and content learning among students with below-average reading skills was confirmed in the Scammacca and Stillman (2018) study, indicating that vocabulary is crucial to improving comprehension, as articulated by the simple view of reading (Catts et al., 2005; Hoover & Tunmer, 1993), DIME model (Ahmed et al., 2016; Cromley & Azevedo, 2007), and reading systems framework (Perfetti & Stafura, 2014).

References

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Scammacca, N. K., & Stillman, S. J. (2018). The Effect of a Social Studies–Based Reading Intervention on the Academic Vocabulary Knowledge of below-Average Readers. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 34(4), 322–337.

Silverman, R. (2007). A comparison of three methods of vocabulary instruction during read-alouds in kindergarten. The Elementary School Journal, 108, 97–113. doi:10.1086/525549   

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Swanson, E., Wanzek, J., Vaughn, S., Fall, A. M., Roberts, G., Hall, C., & Miller, V. L. (2017). Middle school reading comprehension and content learning intervention for below-average readers. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 33(1), 37–53.

Vaughn, S., Roberts, G., Swanson, E. A., Wanzek, J., Fall, A.-M., & Stillman-Spisak, S. J. (2015). Improving middle-school students’ knowledge and comprehension in social studies: A replication. Educational Psychology Review, 27, 31–50. doi:10.1007/s10648-   014-9274-2

Vaughn, S., Swanson, E. A., Roberts, G., Wanzek, J., Stillman‐Spisak, S. J., Solis, M., & Simmons, D. (2013). Improving reading comprehension and social studies knowledge in middle school. Reading Research Quarterly, 48, 77–93. doi:10.1002/rrq.039