The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA, 2015), which replaced the federal government’s education policy called the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB, 2002), takes full effect in the 2017-2018 school year with renewed focus on accountability systems established by each state. States must have for their middle schools rigorous accountability systems in place (ESSA, 2016; Whitehouse, 2016) at a time when there is a lack of clear direction on the implementation of ESSA for general education, much less for special education (Klein, 2015). In addition, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS, 2016) encourage regular practice with academic vocabulary as school personnel are feeling the “middle school squeeze” (McLaughlin, Glaab, & Carrasco, 2014). In the context of national and state education objectives, students with special needs, English Learners (ELs), or both must navigate the topsy-turvy waters of academic vocabulary on their way to academic achievement.
Despite well-established insights about academic vocabulary instruction, Direct Explicit Instruction is not commonplace for 6th graders (Ford-Connors & Paratore, 2014). In their review of 33 studies of vocabulary instruction in 5th grade and beyond, Ford-Connors and Paratore (2014) noted that what is lacking from the literature on contexts for vocabulary instruction are studies that specifically identify what the teacher says or does to create the contexts for word-learning. Perhaps more disheartening is the little research on the relationship between teachers’ instructional talk and students’ vocabulary and comprehension amongst academically at-risk 6th grade students (Silverman et al., 2013).
The current study is intended to address the gap in the extant literature on what the teacher says or does to create the contexts for word-learning, particularly in a 6th grade special education classroom. This study investigated classroom discourse practices of teaching academic vocabulary to 6th grade students in special education classrooms in Orange and Blossom Middle Schools in California. Qualitative methods were used, including observation, discourse analysis and document review. Findings included nine teacher talk moves characterized as two different types of initiation and variations of teacher feedback, including teachers’ spontaneous narratives. These spontaneous narratives provided additional contexts for the vocabulary words and increased opportunities for students to orally use the vocabulary words. Furthermore, during the school-year, subtle changes in the speech patterns resulted in one teacher but not in the other. Implications and future directions for teacher training and professional development are discussed.