Sunday, April 3, 2011

Supporting Early Vocabulary Development within an RTI Framework (Coyne)

This post is courtesy of Michael Coyne, associate professor in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut and a Research Scientist at the Center for Behavioral Education and Research. His research on beginning reading and early vocabulary instruction and intervention is funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Michael is a former special educator in public schools. His publications include a useful guide for teachers:  Effective Teaching Strategies That Accommodate Diverse Learners.  

RTI Supports
Schools are increasingly implementing response to intervention (RTI) or tiered systems of support in an attempt to more effectively and efficiently meet the beginning reading needs of all students, especially those students who are at risk for experiencing learning difficulties. Although there are many different components associated with RTI supports, central features include a) consistent high quality classroom, or Tier I, instruction, b) universal screening of all students using measures that are predictive of response to Tier I instruction, and 3) small group intensive, or Tier II, intervention that supplements classroom instruction for students identified as at-risk by screening measures (National Center on Response to Intervention, 2010).

Tiered intervention approaches provide a powerful framework for supporting student learning and practices associated with RTI have evidence of accelerating student achievement (Gersten et al., 2009). To date, however, the vast majority of RTI efforts have focused on increasing students’ beginning reading skills (e.g., phonemic awareness, alphabetic knowledge, decoding). We believe, however, that the field needs to think beyond decoding to how we can support other areas of early literacy, such as vocabulary development, within an RTI approach (Coyne et al., 2010).

Over the last six years we have been engaged in a program of research dedicated to developing and evaluating instructional strategies to support kindergarteners’ vocabulary development. Our approach to instruction includes directly teaching target vocabulary within storybook reading activities (Coyne, McCoach, & Kapp, 2007; Coyne et al., 2009). Key features of our instructional approach include, (a) supporting vocabulary development within oral language experiences, (b) providing students with multiple exposures to target vocabulary across varied contexts, and (c) encouraging students to process words deeply through rich and extended discussions (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). As our research has progressed, we have learned a great deal about both the benefits of providing vocabulary instruction and intervention to young students as well as the challenges of supporting those students who are most at risk for language and literacy difficulties.

Classroom Vocabulary Instruction
In one of our initial studies we investigated the efficacy of providing extended classroom vocabulary instruction to kindergarten students within the context of storybook reading activities (Coyne et al., 2010). A total of 123 kindergarten students across three schools with high populations of at-risk learners participated in the 18-week study. In the extended instruction group, classroom teachers implemented vocabulary activities during whole class instruction. Each vocabulary word was introduced within the context of a storybook reading and reinforced in postreading activities that promoted extended dialogic interactions with the words. Our primary finding was that students who received the extended vocabulary instruction outperformed their peers who did not receive the instruction on both proximal measures of target word knowledge (assessing knowledge of the taught words) as well as transfer measures of generalized language and literacy.

Differential Response to Classroom Vocabulary Instruction
We were also interested in whether the classroom vocabulary instruction was more beneficial for some students than for others. We knew that many children enter school with limited experience with language and literacy (Hart & Risley, 1995) and that overall vocabulary knowledge measured prior to the start of instruction often predicts students’ response to instruction (e.g., Coyne et al., 2009; Penno Wilkinson, & Moore, 2002), so we examined the relationship between students’ initial receptive vocabulary and our outcome measures. We found that initial receptive vocabulary measured by the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) was strongly related to posttest performance on all of our measures. In other words, students with higher initial PPVT scores learned significantly more vocabulary from the classroom vocabulary instruction than those students with lower initial scores and the magnitude of this differential response was striking. Tier 1 vocabulary instruction by itself, therefore, seemed insufficient to close the vocabulary gap among students, and, in fact, may have helped to widen it.

Supplemental Vocabulary Intervention
These findings highlighted the limitations of implementing only whole class, or Tier 1, vocabulary instruction and motivated a new direction in our research. We began to recognize the need to conceptualize vocabulary supports within a multitier or RTI approach. We wanted to investigate the benefits of Tier 2 vocabulary intervention designed to supplement classroom-based vocabulary instruction for those students identified as most at risk for language and learning difficulties based on universal screening (Loftus et al., 2010). We were also interested in the feasibility of schools providing RTI vocabulary supports in authentic settings using existing resources and personnel.

In our most recent study (Coyne et al., 2011), a new group of 20 kindergarten classroom teachers across seven schools that served large numbers of students at risk for learning difficulties implemented Tier 1 vocabulary instruction using Elements of Reading: Vocabulary, a widely available evidence-based vocabulary program, based on the work of Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown (2007). We worked with all students during whole class instruction for 15–20 minutes per day, 5 days per week, over the course of the school year. All kindergarten students were screened in the fall with the PPVT to identify students who were most in need of supplemental vocabulary support (approximately 3–6 students per class). These students received Tier 2 small-group vocabulary intervention in addition to the classroom instruction for 15–20 minutes per day, 4 days per week. We designed the supplemental Tier 2 intervention to provide more explicit instruction with many opportunities for individual responses followed by immediate corrective feedback. The Tier 2 instruction was provided by school-based personnel (e.g., teachers, paraprofessionals, specialists).

We analyzed our data using a regression-discontinuity approach, which allowed us to estimate the benefit of the Tier 2 intervention for those students who were identified as at risk for not responding to the Tier 1 instruction by itself. Overall, we found that the at-risk students experienced statistically significantly greater vocabulary learning than would have been predicted if they had received only Tier 1 classroom support. Most importantly, the at-risk students who received Tier 2 intervention learned target vocabulary equally as well, on average, as their not-at-risk peers.

In summary, when we screened students on a measure that is predictive of the response to Tier 1 vocabulary instruction and provided at-risk students with supplemental supports, their word learning was comparable to their not-at-risk peers. At least for the target words, we were able to substantially counteract the vocabulary learning gap. However, these gains came as the result of a sizeable investment in instructional time and resources. Students received double the amount of instructional dosage (4 hours versus 2 hours per week) and received intervention in small groups of 3–4 that required allocating additional staff time.

The need for early intervention and prevention efforts in early literacy extends beyond supporting students’ code-based skills. We know that students enter kindergarten with “meaningful differences” in vocabulary knowledge (Hart & Risley, 1995), and these differences grow larger over time even as vocabulary knowledge becomes more and more critical to reading success (Biemiller & Slonim, 2001). Moreover, although there is growing evidence that classroom-based, vocabulary instruction that is direct and extended supports learning, it is not equally effective for all students. Therefore, we believe that schools should conceptualize vocabulary instruction and intervention within an RTI or multitier approach. It is only with supplemental intervention at high levels of intensity that students at risk of language and literacy difficulties will make progress that will allow them to begin to decrease, or even intercept, the vocabulary differences between them and their peers who are not at risk. 

A note from the editor: This post summarizes research findings and teaching tips reported in Coyne, Capozzoli, Ware, and Loftus (2010). For more details, read the entire article. In addition, several guest authors have discussed ways to help young children develop vocabulary. In the sidebar, under Posts by Guest Authors, see entries by Biemiller, Cavanaugh, Graves, and Paulson. For suggestions on how to help impoverished or undereducated parents become partners in early literacy development, read the post by Michele Berg.

  • Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (2007). Increasing young low-income children’s oral vocabulary repertoires through rich and focused instruction. Elementary School Journal, 107, 251–271.
  • Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford.
  • Biemiller, A., & Slonim, N. (2001). Estimating root word vocabulary growth in normative and advantaged populations: Evidence for a common sequence of vocabulary acquisition. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 498–520.
  •  Coyne, M. D., Capozzoli, A., Ware, S., & Loftus, S. (2010) Beyond RTI for Decoding: Supporting Early Vocabulary Development within a Multitier Approach to Instruction and Intervention. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 18-21.
  • Coyne, M. D. (2011, July). Supporting early vocabulary development within a multi-tier approach to instruction and intervention: A regression discontinuity study. Paper accepted at the Society for the Scientific Studies of Reading Annual Conference.
  • Coyne, M. D., McCoach, D. B., Loftus, S., Zipoli, R., Ruby, M., Crevecoeur, Y. & Kapp, S. (2010). Direct & Extended Vocabulary Instruction in Kindergarten: Investigating Transfer Effects. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 3, 93-120.
  • Coyne, M. D., McCoach, D. B., Loftus, S., Zipoli, R., & Kapp, S. (2009). Direct vocabulary instruction in kindergarten: Teaching for breadth vs. depth. Elementary School Journal 110, 1–18.
  • Coyne, M. D., McCoach, D. B., & Kapp, S. (2007). Vocabulary intervention for kindergarten students:Comparing extended instruction with embedded instruction and incidental exposure. Learning Disabilities Quarterly, 30, 74–88.
  • Gersten, R., Compton, D., Connor, C. M., Dimino, J., Santoro, L., Linan-Thompson, S., et al. (2009). Assisting students struggling with reading: Response to intervention and multi-tier intervention for reading in the primary grades. A practice guide (NCEE 2009-4045). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved March 31, 2011 from
  • Hart, B., & Risley, R. T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
  • Loftus, S., Coyne, M. D., McCoach, D. B., Zipoli, R., & Pullen, P. (2010). Effects of a supplemental vocabulary intervention on the word knowledge of kindergarten students at-risk for language and literacy difficulties. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 25, 124-136.
  • National Center on Response to Intervention (March 2010). Essential Components of RTI – A Closer Look at Response to Intervention. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, National Center on Response to Intervention.
  • Penno, J. F., Wilkinson, I. A. G., & Moore, D. W. (2002). Vocabulary acquisition from teacher explanation and repeated listening to stories: Do they overcome the Matthew Effect? Journal of Educational Psychology, 94, 23–33.


  1. Thank you, Michael. You make a good case for providing young at-risk readers with a vocabulary boost--beyond the instruction their verbally proficient peers get. It is exciting to see models that are successfully bridging the verbal divide!

    You say, "Students received double the amount of instructional dosage (4 hours versus 2 hours per week) and received intervention in small groups of 3–4 that required allocating additional staff time."

    Question: There is the concern that the students will "pay the price" for extended word-level instruction in content knowledge. Did you find a way to combine world knowledge with word knowledge to some extent?

  2. JB Burnett4/04/2011

    Do you recommend any storybooks? How do you decide which books to read?

  3. Sherri4/04/2011

    Good timing! We are in the process of planning now for next year. Thank you, Dr. Coyne.

  4. Thank you for this important post Michael and Susan.

    A fundamental premise of RTI is that before identifying individuals as having reading difficulties, it must be shown that their reading problems persist after having been provided with “generally effective classroom instruction” (Fuchs, Mock, Morgan, & Young, 2003, p. 159). Agreement with this premise may be easier to find than agreement on the minimum criteria for such instruction.

    I am very pleased to Coyne et al. (2010) assert that early literacy instruction should address more than phonemic awareness, alphabetic knowledge, decoding. I heartily agree that explicit vocabulary instruction is one aspect of early literacy instruction that should be emphasized.

    My starting assumption is that instruction of the written word should accurately represent the structures and conventions by which English spelling has evolved to represent meaning. References we can use to test the linguistic accuracy of instruction include the classic, uncontroversial accounts of English orthography Carol Chomsky (1970) and Richard Venezky (1970; 1999). By this linguistic yardstick, morphology (and thus also its interrelationship phonology)represents a clear omission of instruction recommended by RTI. Recent reviews of morphological instruction highlight the importance of this omission. Our meta-analysis of 22 morphological interventions in Review of Educational Research (Bowers, Kirby & Deacon, 2010) found that the less able studnets and younger students (pre-school to Grade 2) gained the most from morphological interventions. The subsequent review by Goodwin & Ahn (2010) didn’t address the effects by age, but they also found the strongest effects for less-able students.

    Such evidence should motivate researchers and educators to investigate ways to integrate morphological instruction into early literacy instruction. Most, (but not all!) of the interest in morphological instruction targets older grades. I will end by pointing to some films illustrating examples of early morphological instruction in action for your consideration. Besides strategies for teaching morphology in young grades, these clips will illustrate the obvious role of morphology for vocabulary instruction -- a link Susan regularly makes explicit in Vocabulogic.

    This link shows a clip of a Grade 1 and 2 students illustrating a way we can help young students engage with the underlying morphological and graphemic structure of words with word sums and a morphological matrix ( for the base KNOW.

    This link provides a short clip with a child announcing the structure of a word sum. And this link shows a series of clips of a lessons introducing morphological matrices and word sums to a Grade 1 class.

  5. References for previous post

    Bowers, P. N., Kirby, J. R., & S. H. Deacon. (2010). The effects of morphological instruction on literacy skills: A systematic review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 80, 144-179.

    Chomsky, C. (1970). Reading, writing, and phonology. Harvard Educational Review, 40 (2), 287–309.

    Coyne, M. D., Capozzoli, A., Ware, S., & Loftus, S. (2010) Beyond RTI for Decoding: Supporting Early Vocabulary Development within a Multitier Approach to Instruction and Intervention. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 18-21.

    Fuchs, D., Mock, D., Morgan, P. & Young, C. (2003) Responsiveness-to-Intervention: Definitions, Evidence and Implications for the Learning Disabilities Construct. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 18, 157-171.

    Goodwin & Ahn, (2010) A meta-analysis of morphological interventions: effects on literacy achievement of children with literacy difficulties. Annals of Dyslexia, 60, 183-208.

    Venezky, R. (1970). The structure of English orthography. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton.

    Venezky, R. (1999). The American way of spelling. New York: Guilford.

  6. Thank you for this post. I completely agree! Now I have some research to back up my intuition. :)

    We are looking to expand our RtI program next year to include vocabulary intervention in Tier 2. Our student body is 95% EL, and many our students' weak vocabulary knowledge inhibits their reading. This article would indicate that we are on the right track!

    I'm glad you provided the name of the vocabulary program that was used for the Tier 1 students (Elements of Reading: Vocabulary) in the study. What program would you suggest for Tier 2? Or, would you just suggest reading intervention with vocab-rich leveled texts + explicit vocab instruction?

  7. Mike Coyne4/16/2011

    Thanks, all, for the thoughtful comments - I'm sorry it's taken me a while to respond. I'll respond to everyone at once, below:

    Susan - you bring up a really important point - whenever we provide students with some sort of targeted intervention that supplements general classroom instruction, schools have to make difficult decisions about when to provide this support (i.e., What will students "miss" during intervention?) and also how to leverage personnel and resources to provide the intervention (i.e., Who will deliver the intervention? How will we free up their time?). In my experience, these types of logistics are often the most challenging aspect of RTI for schools to pull off.

    An interesting story ... One of our schools was really excited about the vocabulary intervention, but they were disappointed that they wouldn't be able to continue implementing it the following year. The reason? "Our district has told us that we need to do RTI next year." RTI, according to the district, was a supplemental phonemic awareness/decoding intervention. The school just couldn't figure out how to leverage the time and personnel to provide small-group targeted interventions in more than one area of literacy (e.g., vocabulary AND phonics). I'm not sure how schools do that either...

    JB - We choose storybooks that are appealing to kindergarteners as read-alouds --books with great stories, beautiful pictures, interesting/fun/engaging language, and characters or themes that are relevant and compelling to the population of students we are working with. (Basically just really good books!).

    One thing to keep in mind - because we are reading books aloud to the kids, we are able to choose stories that include language, vocabulary, and ideas at a level of sophistication far beyond what beginning readers can decode. I think this is key to early vocabulary instruction.

    We have focused on narrative stories, but other research teams have been very successful at using expository and information books as a context for vocabulary instruction and intervention in kindergarten and first grade. (Which I think is very promising in the early grades - especially given Susan's point about developing both word and world knowledge)

    Sherri - thanks for your generous comment. I'm glad the post was helpful!

    Peter - thanks so much for talking about the importance of morphological instruction in the early grades - particularly for students who may be at risk for experiencing language and literacy difficulties. I really think that incorporating this type of instruction into early intervention and prevention efforts will be critical to ensure successful outcomes. I've struggled, however, with what this should look like, especially in K and Pre-K with the most at-risk students. Your work (and your examples) have been most enlightening and important - thank you.

  8. Hi Rebecca,

    My apologies. Michael responded to all the comments BEFORE your great question was posted, but due to a glitch in comment moderation, his comment showed up AFTER yours. I think his response to JB might address your question.

    Thanks for the feedback and best wishes for your work!


  9. Thank you Susan! This helps to answer my questions. We're about to figure out how to best provide support to our EL students- I'm hoping we'll have enough resources for vocabulary intervention...but budgets are so tight.

    best, rebecca

  10. I hear your concern about budgets, Rebecca. So sad. That's one reason I started Vocabulogic.

  11. I hadn't ever heard of response to intervention but it sounds like a good process to help kids learn to read. It seems like a lot of kids have a hard time learning to read. It is good to know that there are programs that can help those kids that are having a hard time. Do you find that this approach has a lot of success?


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