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Defying expectations: Vocabulary growth trajectories of high performing language minority students


We investigated general vocabulary and academic vocabulary growth trajectories of adolescent language minority students using an individual growth modeling approach. Our analytical sample included 3161 sixth- to eighth-grade students from an urban school district in California. The language minority students in our sample were classified as initially fluent English proficient (IFEP), redesignated fluent English proficient (RFEP), or limited English proficient (LEP) students. The analytical sample was not a nationally representative sample and included a great number of Asian students and students who receive gifted and talented education. Students were assessed at four time points on a standardized measure of general vocabulary and a researcher-developed academic vocabulary test. On both vocabulary measures, IFEP students slightly outperformed English-only (EO) students on average, and EO students scored higher than RFEP and LEP students at baseline. RFEP and LEP students showed slower rate of growth than their EO peers in general vocabulary. While both EO and language minority students showed summer setback with general vocabulary knowledge on average, the magnitude of summer setback was not as great for LEP students. In academic vocabulary, all subgroups of language minority students showed more rapid rate of growth than their EO peers. Only the REP students experienced a change in the learning trajectory during the summer months. We discuss the implications of these findings for all language groups.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. 1.

    Our confirmatory factor analysis with items from two measures indicated that the one-factor model (AIC = 661804, BIC = 663751, RMSEA = 0.030) fits the data better than the two-factor model (AIC = 664192, BIC = 666112, RMSEA = 0.032).

  2. 2.

    This plot is based on the average covariates and parameter estimates of Asian sixth-grade students who is not eligible for free or reduced lunch, not on an individualized education plan, and not in the gifted and talented program.

  3. 3.

    The results of this multilevel model for change indicate that on average sixth grade EO students scored 524.96 at baseline. This number was calculated by summing the following variables: −377.32 (constant) +20.86 (coefficient for academic vocabulary) ×.004 (mean score of academic vocabulary for EO students at the first wave) +.29 (coefficient for reading comprehension) ×517.22 (mean score of reading comprehension for EO students at the first wave).

  4. 4.

    The results of this multilevel model for change indicate that on average EO students scored .03 at baseline. This number was computed by summing the following variables: −10.08 (constant) +.01 (coefficient for general vocabulary) ×523.22 (mean score of general vocabulary for EO students at the first wave) +.01 (coefficient for reading comprehension) ×515.84 (mean score of reading comprehension for EO students at the first wave). When IFEP students’ mean scores of general vocabulary and reading comprehension were taken into account, the constant for IFEP students was .07. The baseline scores for RFEP and LEP students were calculated to be −.06 and −.88, respectively.

  5. 5.

    We tested our analytical models with school dummy variables, but inclusion of these variables did not change our results. We also conducted our analysis with special education by time interaction term. However, this interaction was not significant.


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This research was supported by Grant Number R305A090555, Word Generation: An Efficacy Trial (PI: Catherine Snow) from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), US Department of Education (USDE).

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Correspondence to Jin Kyoung Hwang.

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Hwang, J.K., Lawrence, J.F. & Snow, C.E. Defying expectations: Vocabulary growth trajectories of high performing language minority students. Read Writ 30, 829–856 (2017).

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  • Language minority students
  • Adolescent
  • Vocabulary growth
  • Longitudinal
  • Academic language