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Literature Review – Pamela Spycher

Lesli Nevarez

National University

Completed as partial requirements for TED690

Prof. Darryl Wyatt



Teaching Performance Expectation (TPE) 3 is Understanding and Organizing Subject Matter for

Student Learning Content Specific Pedagogy. The fifth element of TPE6 addresses teacher’s

ability to design and implement explicit academic language instruction to increase the knowledge

of students from a variety of language acquisition. Pamela Spycher in her article “Learning

Academic Language through Science in Two Linguistically Diverse Kindergarten Classes”

summarizes a study between an intentional five week long intervention for science academic

language in a kindergarten classroom compared to a control classroom taught by the same teacher

with an implicit approach. This paper reviews some of the study and findings.

Today’s teachers are asked to instruct a rigorous curriculum that can quickly swallow

classroom time. Additionally students are asked to read at a young age and often there is a focus

on words per minute and the skills that increase this number. Pamela Spycher (2009) says

“Despite the clear relation between vocabulary and comprehension, however, vocabulary

instruction is not always a priority in early elementary classrooms.” (p. 360) Her theory is that a

student’s understanding of new concepts is directly tied to their understanding of the academic

vocabulary used and the student’s ability to apply the new language in their answers.

In general there is an understanding that ELs need vocabulary support, but academic

language is not just for a specific subject. Especially in the early elementary grades, educators

should not assume that students understand Tier 2 (i.e. describe, explain, etc.) or Tier 3 (i.e.

pollen, chrysalis, metamorphosis, etc.) academic vocabulary. Spycher (2009) notes that “the

language used in homes is functional for that context but may be different from language

expectations in school.” (p. 361) This point of view indicates that all students can benefit from

direct vocabulary instruction.

Most educators will agree that there is a need to explicitly teach ELs new vocabulary at

the beginning of a lesson or even introduce it at an earlier time before the lesson. Pamela Spycher

completed a study that takes it a step further. She examines the effect of explicit science

academic language instruction on both ELs and non-ELs for a kindergarten classroom compared

to a second classroom with the same teacher, but no explicit language instruction.

Spycher developed a single type of academic vocabulary lesson, chose 20 target science

words to focus on in the 5 week long intervention, and instructed the teacher in how to use the

lesson with the students. She used several methods of assessment to test receptive vocabulary and

expressive knowledge of the vocabulary before and after the intervention.


The study shows small gains in academic language knowledge and usage for the control

class ELs and non-ELs; however, there were much greater statistical gains in both receptive and

expressive vocabulary knowledge for the classroom that had implicit academic vocabulary

intervention. “The results also showed that children who knew more intervention words on the

posttest ESVA and also used the words on the CISU were better able to express their

understanding of the science concepts addressed than children who did not know or use the

words.” (Spycher, 2009, p. 373)

Too often the pressures of teaching the curriculum to a given pacing guide push aside

critical instruction in areas such as academic language. While this can be time consuming, the

benefits to all students regardless of their language background can be seen in this study. If we

stop and consider, it makes sense that students need to not only hear new vocabulary in context,

but also have the chance to explore the definitions of these new words, use them outside of the

lesson, and be given the time to draw connections that will allow them to remember, recall, and

use the academic language daily and retain the information for future lessons.


Spycher, Pamela. (2009). Learning Academic Language through Science in Two Linguistically

Diverse Kindergarten Classes. The Elementary School Journal, 109(4), 359-379.