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JTE Author Interview: Boosting Vocabulary Instruction in the Inclusive Middle School Science Classroom

Have you seen the JTE Insider blog managed by the Journal of Teacher Education (JTE) editorial team? Check out the following interview with one author of a recent article. This blog is available to the public, and AACTE members have free access to the articles themselves in the full JTE archives online – just log in with your AACTE profile here.

This interview features insights from the article “Effects of a Multimedia Professional Development Package on Inclusive Science Teachers’ Vocabulary Instruction,” by Michael J. Kennedy, Wendy J. Rodgers, John Elwood Romig, John Wills Lloyd, and Mary T. Brownell. The article, which appears in the March/April issue of JTE, is summarized in the following abstract:

Vocabulary knowledge is vital for students’ success in school and beyond. However, students with disabilities and others who consistently score below their peers on various measures of vocabulary knowledge have difficulties in secondary-level content area courses. Because many students with disabilities are now educated primarily in general education classrooms, their teachers report needing more professional development on instructional strategies to support this population. Using a multiple-baseline design, we tested the efficacy of a multimedia, multicomponent professional development package in which middle school science teachers in inclusive classrooms promoted science vocabulary knowledge. The professional development package improved the quality of the teachers’ use of evidence-based vocabulary practices and increased the amount of time they spent explicitly teaching vocabulary in their classes.

For this interview, JTE Insider spoke with author Michael Kennedy.

Q: What motivated you to pursue this particular research topic?

Almost all students with disabilities receive their content area instruction (e.g., science, social studies, mathematics, language arts) in the general education classroom. This means the content specialist is expected to take the lead on instruction, while the special educator (if there is one) plays a more supporting role depending on their level of knowledge and comfort with the content. Therefore, the general educator is largely responsible for designing and delivering instruction that is a match for how students with disabilities learn. Research shows that many teacher preparation programs do not excel at preparing general educators for this responsibility. As a result, their instruction can meet the needed contours of the discipline, but simultaneously miss the mark in terms of what students with disabilities need. Our project is intended to provide general education science teachers in middle school classrooms with professional development intended to support their knowledge and pedagogical practices to help all students succeed.

Middle school science curriculum calls for a giant number of new terms to be explicitly taught to students (over 100 per year). While science has a strong focus on inquiry and other hands-on activities, students must learn and understand terms and concepts in order to succeed. Students with disabilities often have a hard time memorizing and learning complex vocabulary, particularly when no background knowledge is present. Many science teachers provide vocabulary instruction that is a mismatch for how students with disabilities learn (e.g., lecture, assigning textbook reading), and so our project was intended to help the science teachers make needed improvements in this domain.

Q: Were there any specific external events (political, social, economic) that influenced your decision to engage in this research study?

I would say the biggest was the move with NCLB and later IDEA (in 2004) to really focus on accountability for all students via statewide testing. When IDEA and NCLB were aligned, schools responded by moving all but 2% of students with disabilities into general education classrooms (only the students with the most severe/profound disabilities remained in self-contained classrooms). This move greatly changed the roles of general and special education teachers, as some content specialists were responsible for teaching these students for first time, and also thrust special educators into content area settings where they had little or no background or training. While coteaching existed prior to this change in policy, it really hit the mainstream at this point.

Q: What were some difficulties you encountered with the research?

The biggest challenge was getting the middle school science teachers to think about providing vocabulary instruction in a different way than normal. Any time a teacher is asked to stop doing a bedrock part of their practice and adopt a new one, the opportunity for pushback is going to arise. The pushback is not necessarily their disagreement with the new approach as being effective, but it is simply hard to make big changes in teaching practice, especially in the middle of a school year.

Q: Writing, by necessity, requires leaving certain things on the cutting room floor. What didn’t make it into the article that you want to talk about?

The editors were very generous in terms of letting us keep most of our message in the final version of the article. I think the piece we didn’t spend a lot of time on is how the teachers responded to the feedback using our new classroom observation and professional development instrument, the Classroom Teaching (CT) Scan. The CT Scan generates colorful data outputs based on a description of what happened in the lesson. It is much more detailed than typical observation tools. At first, the teachers were a bit “freaked out” by how specific the feedback was, but they quickly adjusted and really liked thinking about their instruction and lessons in such a different way.

Q: What current areas of research are you pursuing?

In the past semester, we completed a randomized control trial that built on this article. We had 30 middle school science teachers implement the PD process, and we evaluated the impact on their performance and student performance. We hope to have our final results available soon and disseminated to the field. We did update the PD package based on feedback to pair hands-on inquiry activities within the explicit instruction-based modules we provide to teachers.

Q: What new challenges do you see for the field of teacher education?

I think the challenge is always asking teachers in the field to adopt new ideas/pedagogies that are complex and challenging to implement. As noted earlier, any time you ask a professional to quit doing something they perceive as being valuable/effective, you’re going to get at least some pushback. But as researchers and others in our field have developed and tested new ideas for use in schools, it becomes important to figure out ways to get the new knowledge and tools into teachers’ hands in an efficient manner (and then keep them there). Sustainability of new practice is one of the biggest challenges we face as providers of PD, which means we need to do an even better job during teacher preparation course work and field experiences of introducing evidence-based practices and giving feedback to the future teachers.

Q: What advice would you give to new scholars in teacher education?

Find your extremely well-defined corner of the world, and keep pulling on the thread as far as you can. Doing replications of your own and others’ work is rarely done, but is so critical for building a stronger research base. Collaborate with folks from other universities to open up new research sites and boost the number of participants in your studies. Always focus on how you are explaining the need for your research so the field has a chance to see things from your point of view.

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