The Demographics

Campus Type:


Grade Span:


Enrollment by Race/Ethnicity:

  • African American 6.9%
  • Hispanic 42.0 %
  • White 42.9%
  • American Indian 0.3%
  • Asian 1.7%
  • Pacific Islander 0.1%
  • Two or More Races 6.1%

Enrollment by Student Group:

  • Economically Disadvantaged 53.0%
  • English Language Learners 23.6%
  • Special Education 7.8%

Mobility Rate:


Total Student Enrollment:



3rd Grade Language Arts and Social Studies

The Challenge

Vocabulary acquisition. For more than 90 years, numerous studies on vocabulary acquisition have convincingly demonstrated the substantial influence of vocabulary knowledge on improved reading achievement (Anderson & Nagy, 1991; Baker, Simmons, & Kame’enui, 1998; Biemiller & Boote, 2006; Davis, 1942; Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986). Stahl and Fairbanks suggest students with increased vocabulary knowledge perform higher on achievement tests than their peers with lesser vocabularies. Children with limited vocabulary knowledge in the third-grade are predicted to experience diminishing reading comprehension scores in later elementary years (Chall, Jacobs, & Baldwin, 1990). Bromley (2004), asserts comprehension, fluency, and achievement respectively benefit primarily from vocabulary knowledge. She reports problematic practices of vocabulary instruction due to the use of mechanical activities contained in basal and content manuals that provide low-level instruction as well as the unreliable context within or beyond a sentence. This creates a challenge for teachers when the number of words that students need to learn each year is vast; on average it is estimated that students should learn between 2,000 to 3,000 new words a year (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002; Nagy & Herman, 1987).

Teachers are challenged by both the need to accelerate vocabulary acquisition and selecting the most appropriate instructional design that engages, develops, and sustains learning for the long-term. Robust vocabulary instruction provides opportunities for students to develop an understanding of word meanings and improve comprehension. Understanding how learning occurs in the brain and is sustained over time is necessary for teachers to select and implement instructional strategies that will increase student knowledge and academic skills. Learning is an outcome of the recollection and application of knowledge through various contexts over extended periods of time. Strategies that evoke memory recall or retrieval contributes to the learning of new knowledge through the recovery of prior memories stored in the brain. Repeated retrieval of memories increases the accessibility to the memory in the future and both strengthens and accelerates learning. Butler et al. (2010), in their review of current research, found 1) higher frequency (repetition) of exposure (multiple) to targeted vocabulary words increased the likelihood that students will understand and remember word meanings; and 2) students who are exposed to explicit instruction of targeted vocabulary words expand their vocabulary knowledge.

The National Reading Panel of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD, 2000), in their report on teaching children to read, recognized the significance of vocabulary knowledge as one of the five major components of reading. The panel also concluded that vocabulary knowledge leads to higher gains in comprehension. The report offered implications for vocabulary application to increase reading skills in children:

  1. Vocabulary should be taught both directly and indirectly.
  2. Repetition and multiple exposures to vocabulary items are important.
  3. Learning in rich contexts is valuable for vocabulary learning.
  4. Vocabulary tasks should be restructured when necessary.
  5. Vocabulary learning should entail active engagement in learning tasks.
  6. Computer technology can be used to help teach vocabulary.
  7. Vocabulary can be acquired through incidental learning.
  8. How vocabulary is assessed and evaluated can have differential effects on instruction.
  9. Dependence on a single vocabulary instruction method will not result in optimal learning.

The Case

This case study offers evidence of the effect of increased vocabulary acquisition for 3rd grade English Language Arts and Social Studies students by applying the FASL’s Principles of Practice and Design Principles measured over a 10-week period. This study was initiated in the winter of 2015 after the FASL’s professional development institute. At the time of the study, the district was classified as a 5-A district serving more than 14,000 students. The campus served a diverse population of 53% Economically Disadvantaged, 23.6% English Language Learners, and 7.8% Special Education students. The English Language Arts (ELA) and Social Studies teacher in this study served students in elementary 3rd grade (N=38). The teacher’s goal was to raise the level of student academic achievement through vocabulary acquisition.

The Solution

Association. The teacher designed learning by helping students encode new knowledge by connecting it to prior knowledge. The teacher selected vocabulary words from language arts poems, read alouds, and social studies content. Throughout the week, the students participated in a variety of learning activities. The vocabulary words were introduced to the class associated with an image. An image associated to a vocabulary word was selected and displayed to generate curiosity and student inquiry. Without revealing the vocabulary words, students were subsequently asked exploratory questions to stimulate connections of the image to prior knowledge. Students, in turn, asked questions about the image to connect meaning. Through the process mental connections were made by associating the image of a word to the students’ ideas, emotions, or senses. The teacher would then reveal the word associated with the image and discuss the meaning. During the learning activities, students used prior knowledge to encode new knowledge through memory recall; making connections. Student learning through association, created mental bridges between prior and new knowledge in unique ways in order to synthesize learning.

Spacing through deliberate practice. Roediger III, (2014), states “retrieving knowledge from memory is more beneficial when practice sessions are spaced out so that some forgetting occurs before you try to retrieve again. The added effort required to recall the information makes learning stronger” (p.18). During this study, the teacher distributed student learning by spreading the repetition of content over a period of time. Every day, in 10-minute time blocks, students continued to practice the vocabulary words. The teacher spaced the time between these activities through the deliberate use of interleaving practice through repetition through the variation. The spacing distributed between the repetitive practice of the vocabulary words aided in the students’ long-term memory recall. Distributing the practice overtime, by its very nature, increases the difficulty of the task. This increases the level of processing creating longer-lasting and stronger memory retrieval. Each student task was performed over 10 minutes and then spaced over time. The day might begin with a 10-minute repetition of practice through variation and then a longer interval of time was spaced to 60-90 minutes later. As learning was spaced and repeated over longer periods of time, students’ memory recall improved.

Repetition through variation. Students continued to practice the vocabulary words as the teacher increased the complexity of the learning activities to deepen the level of rigor. She increased the level of difficulty by challenging her students to deeper levels of analysis using varied learning tasks by the repetitive exposure to the vocabulary. Some of the variation in learning activities included: matching the words to the pictures, memory matching games, matching the words to the definition, and matching the picture to the definition. During the next week, she would slowly increase the complexity of the repetition of practice and the level of analysis by having students analyze the poems in which the words were derived. Afterward, students wrote their own personal story applying the vocabulary words in their sentence creation. Students were exposed to the words at least two times a day. At the end of the week, the students were given a
10-question quiz in which they would have to fill in the blank of the correct word missing from the sentence.

The Outcome and Progress Measure

After the implementation of the FASL’s Principles of Practice and Design Principles of association, spacing, repetition, and variation of weekly vocabulary words, the overall student learning and retention of vocabulary knowledge increased. The teacher’s self-assessment of practice and observations of student learning and growth resulted in changes in instructional design, contributing to the students’ overall academic progress. Student progress was measured through both formative assessment and weekly summative assessments. Retention was measured by re-exposing students to prior vocabulary with new vocabulary on the weekly quizzes. Before implementing the design principles, the overall class scored, on an average, 78% on the end of the week vocabulary quizzes. Following implementation of the Learning Design Principles, the weekly class averages increased and were sustained at an overall average of 90% on their weekly quizzes. The vocabulary test scores increased by 15% overall over the 10-week period studied and the retention of previously learned vocabulary resulted in an 88% overall recall rate. The teacher also compared the progress of the gifted and talented and the special education students and found the achievement gaps closed significantly in which her special education students scores were “Now they’re fairly close, if it’s apart, it’s just two or three percentage points. Many of the special education kids are now scoring like my identified G.T.” At the end of the study, student vocabulary acquisition was improved through association, spacing with deliberate practice using repetition with variation to increase the difficulty of the learning task.


Anderson, R., and W. Nagy. (1991). Word meanings. In R. Barr, M. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, and P.D. Pearson, (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research. (2), 690–724. New York: Longman.

Baker, S., Simmons, D., & Kame’enui, E. (1998). Vocabulary acquisition: Synthesis of the research. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, Educational Resources Information Center.

Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford Press.

Biemiller, A., & Boote, C. (2006, February 1). An effective method for building meaning vocabulary in primary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 44–62. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. EJ734337). Retrieved August 18, 2009, from ERIC database.

Bromley, K. (Spring, 2004). Rethinking Vocabulary Instruction. The Language and Literacy Spectrum, 14.

Butler, S., Urrutia, K., Buenger, A., Gonzalez, N., Hunt, M., & Eisenhart, C. (2010). A review of the current research on vocabulary instruction (No. ED-08-CO-0123). Portsmouth, NH: National Reading Technical Assistance Center, RMC Research.

Chall, J. S., Jacobs, V. A., & Baldwin, L. E. (1990). The reading crisis: Why poor children fall behind. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Davis, F. B. (1942). Two new measures of reading ability. Journal of Educational Psychology, 33, 365-372.

Gazzaniga, M. S.; Ivry, R. B. & Mangun, G. R (2009). Learning and memory. In Cognitive Neuroscience: The Biology of the Mind. W.W. Norton. p. 312.

Nagy, W., & Herman, P. (1987). Breadth and depth of vocabulary knowledge: Implications for acquisition and instruction. In M. McKeown & M. Curtis (Eds.), The nature of vocabulary acquisition (pp. 19–35). Hillsdale, NJ

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from

Roediger, H.L. (2014, July 18). How tests make us smarter. The New York Times, Sunday Review, p. 18. Retrieved from

Stahl, S. A., & Fairbanks, M. M. (1986). The effects of vocabulary instruction: A model-based meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 56(1), 72–110.