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Esther Geva
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Esther Geva Research Lab

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researchersVocabulary Development in ESL Students: What Develops and How Can It Be Enhanced?

Vocabulary is a pivotal aspect of oral language, reading comprehension and writing. On average, a native speaker of English (NSE) school student acquires 900-1000 root word meanings per year (Biemiller, 2008).

However, regardless of factors such as access to English as a Second Language (ESL) support, parental education, or cultural issues, ESL students would need to acquire vocabulary at a faster rate in order to catch up with their NSE peers.

It is also important to remember that unlike NSE children, who come to school speaking the societal language, typically, ESL students need to acquire their oral and literacy skills concurrently (Chall, 1996). Moreover, research in our lab indicates that ESL students’ academic vocabulary continues to lag behind their NSE peers for many years (Biemiller & Boote, 2006; Jean & Geva, submitted), even when they have reasonable everyday, English proficiency).

Yet, no research has examined systematically various components of vocabulary development of ESL students who have immigrated to an English-speaking environment at the upper elementary level. ESLs who are recent immigrants may not have a sufficient repertoire of English academic root words and of morphologically complex words, necessary for understanding academic texts (though they may have a well developed vocabulary knowledge in their home, or first acquired language (L1)). This may be a key component of leaving school early (Ferguson et al, 2005).

Relatedly, there is no research on the potential effects of language typologies on the development of vocabulary in ESLs. For example, it is not known whether the course of vocabulary development is similar in ESL students whose respective L1s vary in terms of similarity to English (e.g., consider Spanish vs. Chinese), nor is it known how knowledge of specific vocabulary in the L1 relates to vocabulary development in the L2 (Genessee & Geva, 2007).


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