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November 11, 1996

McLaughlin awarded $900,000 to study vocabulary development in bilingual children

[Picture of Barry McLaughlin] Psychology Professor Barry McLaughlin is teaming up with 24 fourth- and fifth-grade teachers--several from local schools--to conduct a major three-year study of the vocabulary development of bilingual children.

McLaughlin has received a $900,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research to conduct the investigation. Working with colleagues from Boston and Washington D.C., McLaughlin will develop a program for enhancing the vocabulary and literacy of children whose first language is not English. The program will be distributed nationally, an effort that will be overseen by Sharon Maxwell, a teacher at DeLaveaga Elementary School in Santa Cruz.

"Vocabulary is a key to successful reading and to successful academic learning generally," says McLaughlin, who calls a child's vocabulary "the best predictor of academic success."

"In spite of excellent programs and devoted teachers, many children for whom English is a second language have trouble doing well in American schools," he said.

McLaughlin, who recently directed the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning at UCSC, pointed out that studies of native English-speaking children show that they make enormous strides in vocabulary growth during elementary school. Researchers estimate that children learn around 3,000 new words every year during their school career, says McLaughlin, adding that the average fifth grader encounters almost 10,000 different words that he or she does not know.

"Imagine the burden this places on a child learning English as a second language," McLaughlin said. "These children have to catch up with classmates who are constantly learning more and more words. We want to see to what extent they succeed in doing this."

The study will look not only at the size of the child's vocabulary, but also at the child's depth of understanding of the meanings of words. McLaughlin gave the example of the word "run." In English, we say "The clock runs," "The boy runs," "His nose runs," "Her stockings run," "The computer program runs." The child has to learn all of the multiple uses of such English words.

"This study will be the first to look at vocabulary development over time in bilingual children," said McLaughlin. "It will also be one of the first to look at both breadth and depth of vocabulary knowledge."

McLaughlin's collaborators are Catherine Snow, a professor of education at Harvard University, and Diane August, senior program officer at the National Academy of Sciences.

Teachers will be key to the success of this project, says McLaughlin. Local participating teachers include Radeene Anguiano, Lucy Davis, Jeanette Guerrero, and Alison Woolpert at DeLaveaga Elementary School and Joyce Gil-Osorio, Freya Kidner, Adrienne McGuire, and Margaret Ysselstein at Bay View Elementary School in Santa Cruz. Principals Diane Cardinalli of DeLaveaga and Dan Cavanaugh of Bay View expressed enthusiasm for the project.

"This is an exciting project for us," said McLaughlin. "It's a very concrete instance of cooperation between university researchers and teachers. We hope this work improves the literacy skills of all children."

--Jennifer McNulty