May 2022: Teaching High-Utility Vocabulary to English Learners

August, D., Uccelli, P., Artzi, L., Barr, C., & Francis, D. J. (2021, October 25). English learners’ acquisition of academic vocabulary: Instruction matters, but so do word characteristics. Reading Research Quarterly56(3), 559–582.

Summary by Dr. Pat Taylor


The current article presents the results of an efficacy study on the Acquiring Vocabulary in English intervention for English learners (ELs). Vocabulary is an important education outcome for ELs and monolingual English speakers. Vocabulary is also an important component skill for reading; in theory it impacts both word recognition and text comprehension. Additionally, vocabulary is critical for learning content.

The intervention in this study was designed to improve acquisition of high-utility vocabulary words. High-utility vocabulary words are words that have meaning across multiple contexts or content areas. Several aspects of the vocabulary intervention were novel. First, in addition to content words, such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives, the intervention included connecting words. Existing vocabulary interventions most typically target content vocabulary. However, connecting words also play an important role in content comprehension. Connecting words indicate the presence of relations between ideas in text (e.g., becausethereforemeanwhile) and are rarely included in interventions.

Second, the intervention differentiated content words based on their cognate status and their level of abstractness. When ELs encounter English words with similar phonology and meaning to a word they already know from their first language (e.g., the Spanish and English cognates inteligente and intelligent), it aids in learning the English word. The abstractness of a word is related to the extent that word represents something concrete or something that can be represented by a mental image. Third, the intervention was designed to promote growth in oral language beyond designated high-frequency words. The intervention utilized interactive shared reading with a goal of improving general vocabulary in addition to the targeted high-frequency words.

The study focused on the following four research questions:

  1. What were the effects of the intervention on ELs’ high-frequency vocabulary words?
  2. Did the effect differ on content words based on cognate or abstract status?
  3. Did the effect generalize beyond the words taught?
  4. Do the effects last 10 months after intervention?

Key Findings

The sample included 424 Spanish-speaking ELs in the second grade randomly assigned to treatment or control by classroom. For the first research question, the study found that the groups had comparable vocabulary test scores at pretest (45% and 46%) but that the treatment group outperformed the control group by 25% at posttest (81% vs 56%). For the second research question, the results show that the treatment group improved more than the control group in all categories. Broken down by category, the additional gains for the treatment group were 34% for concrete noncognates, 33% for abstract noncognates, 23% for concrete cognates, and 17% for abstract cognates.

For the third research question, the study used the oral vocabulary subtest of the TOLD, a standardized oral language test. At pretest the treatment group scored lower than the control group (13.7 vs. 15.9 items correct) but the difference was negligible at posttest (18.5 vs. 18.7 items correct) meaning the treatment group saw greater increase. The fourth research question asked if the effects of the treatment lasted over time, so the students were retested 10 months after the end of the intervention. While the difference was not as large after 10 months as it was immediately after intervention, the treatment group continued to score higher than the control group.


The findings in the current article extend a growing body of research on the development of vocabulary in ELs. It is impossible to explicitly teach all words because of the large number of words in the English language. Thus, questions about the relative effect of teaching certain kinds of words are highly relevant. In this study, the research team investigated a broader range of words than other studies, including connector words, and studied whether word characteristics impacted learning. The results indicated improvements across all combinations of cognate/noncognate and abstract/concrete. The same was true for connecting words. Given that verbal and text comprehension rely on knowledge of words from each of these categories, the intervention in this study demonstrates promising results for improving outcomes for ELs.