Ties between oral vocabulary and STEM difficulties to be investigated

Young children with early vocabulary difficulties in turn often have difficulty with reading during the primary grades. Penn State researchers will investigate if these oral vocabulary difficulties also lead to math and sciences difficulties throughout elementary school in a three-year, $1.5 million National Science Foundation-funded research project.

Principal Investigator Paul Morgan, professor of education and demography and director of the Center for Educational Disparities Research, says there hasn’t been much study on how vocabulary difficulties may affect subjects other than reading.

“Previous work indicates vocabulary difficulties relate to difficulties in reading, but less is known about how these difficulties may interfere with math and science achievement in upper elementary grades," said Morgan.

Morgan and his team will analyze two nationally representative and longitudinal datasets to identify risk factors for oral vocabulary difficulties prior to or by kindergarten, and then examine how oral vocabulary and reading difficulties during kindergarten and first grade inter-relate to increase children’s risk of experiencing mathematics and science difficulties across second to fifth grade.

According to Morgan, oral vocabulary is a malleable factor theorized to contribute to increased academic achievement, and may be an especially promising target for early intervention.

“There are various reported risk factors for oral vocabulary difficulties during early childhood," he said. "If oral vocabulary difficulties are tied to difficulties in mathematics and science, our project will provide new knowledge regarding how best to help children experiencing STEM learning difficulties, including early during their school careers.”

Such students are likely to experience low levels of mathematics and science achievement by middle and high school, thereby limiting their STEM-related educational and career opportunities. Students from low-income families, English Language Learners, racial and ethnic minorities, and those with disabilities are more likely to display learning difficulties in STEM.

“If we can identify the cognitive, behavioral, affective and social conditions that collectively interfere with STEM learning, including early in children’s school careers, then we can use this new knowledge to inform the delivery and design of STEM interventions at time when such interventions may be the most effective,” said Morgan.

Co-principal investigators are Marianne Hillemeier, professor of health policy and administration and demography at Penn State; and George Farkas, professor of education at the University of California, Irvine.

The research was made possible by seed funding from the Center for Educational Disparities Research, jointly established by Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute and the College of Education.