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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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