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The Impact of Vocabulary Ability on Word Learning in a Playful Intervention Setting

Mon, April 20, 10:35am to 12:05pm, Virtual Room


Many vocabulary interventions aimed at low-income children have exhibited limited success (Wasik et al., 2016) perhaps because they typically teach words through shared book reading, a method shown to have moderate impacts on vocabulary acquisition (NELP, 2008). Teaching words solely through book reading may not be powerful enough to improve the vocabulary ability of at-risk children (Neuman et al., 2011). Moreover, a Matthew effect has been noted by literacy researchers (e.g., Duff et al., 2015); children who demonstrate heightened word knowledge learn a greater number of vocabulary words compared to children who know fewer words. What if we could increase the effectiveness of interventions for children with limited vocabulary? Perhaps we could boost word learning by taking advantage of research showing that children learn best from playful and interactive contexts in which they are active, engaged, and participating in meaningful interactions with adults and other children.

The current project did just this, by comparing teaching words through book-reading and play. Teachers in state- and federally-funded, low-income, preschool programs taught 60 difficult words (ex: caution, gunwale) to students (N = 238; Mage = 54.03 months) over seven months. Vocabulary words were embedded into storybooks that teachers read aloud to students and into playful learning activities that included small-group games, large-group games, music, socio-dramatic play, and a touchscreen game. Some words were taught only in book-reading, others only during play. Students’ growth in knowledge of the target vocabulary items was assessed before and after the intervention. Children’s self-regulation ability and general vocabulary knowledge (PPVT) were measured prior to start of the intervention (Dunn & Dunn, 2007).

A logistic regression predicting correct responses on an experimenter-created receptive measure of vocabulary demonstrated that, after controlling for the effects of self-regulation, children’s growth from pre- to post-test on words taught in book-reading was moderated by their PPVT score indicating that children with greater vocabulary learned more target words, B = 0.005, SE = 0.002, p = 0.054. However, after controlling for self-regulation ability, this moderator effect of PPVT score on children’s target word growth was not found for words learned from any of the play activities, B = 0.003, SE = 0.002, p = 0.214. That is, children’s vocabulary skill did not impact their learning of the target words that were taught through the playful learning activities. Playful learning permitted children to experience and retain the meanings of the new words.

These results suggest that playful and interactive pedagogies used to teach words may be particularly effective for children with low vocabulary, who are most at risk for future academic problems. Future research should continue to examine play as a method for word learning and which types of play might be the most effective.