February 2017
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Kevin M. Wong, New York University, New York, New York, USA

Children today are exposed to technology at a very young age, with educational media becoming increasingly salient in the lives of young children. In fact, preschoolers in the United States spend an average of more than 2 hours on screen per day (Rideout, 2014), of which the majority are purported to be educational (Common Sense Media, 2013). These educational programs have been designed to provide preschoolers with early learning experiences to increase school readiness and educational outcomes. While educational media has the potential to serve as a powerful mechanism for vocabulary development and oral language comprehension (Guernsey, Levine, Chiong, & Stevens, 2012), these benefits may extend, especially, to the English learner (EL) population. Still, with viewing habits exceeding 2 hours per day in our youngest generations, two important questions emerge: What are children watching, and how educational are these educational programs?

Literature documents the importance of a child’s vocabulary knowledge in the early years as predictors of comprehension in the middle school years (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997). Research also asserts that young children who enter school with limited oral language comprehension are at risk for encountering difficulties in early literacy, which includes vocabulary development (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997). Compounding this disparity, children from families where English is not spoken in the home often come to school with a limited English vocabulary (August & Shanahan, 2006; Mancilla-Martinez & Lesaux, 2010; Yesil-Dagli, 2011). In fact, among ELs, a limited second language vocabulary is the most pervasive obstacle to second language reading comprehension (August & Hakuta, 1997; Carlo et al., 2004).

Despite the multitude of evidence that supports the need for vocabulary learning in the early childhood and elementary school years, there is a dearth of explicit vocabulary instruction in most curricula (Neuman & Dwyer, 2009). Research indicates that explicit vocabulary instruction is particularly important for ELs who benefit from added instructional support (Gersten & Baker, 2000; Gersten & Geva, 2003; Moats, 2001). In 2013, Marulis and Neuman conducted a metaanalysis to determine which pedagogical features were associated with the greatest effects for vocabulary learning. Findings demonstrated that exposing children to educational media supports was one of the most effective approaches for enhancing word learning.

Current Study

In light of the potential impact that educational media may have on vocabulary development in ELs, the current study sought to systematically investigate screen-based pedagogical support in children’s educational media. More specifically, this study aimed to identify the factors associated with screen-based vocabulary teaching through a content analysis of commercially available streamed media.


A content analysis is foundational for operationalizing and examining screen-based pedagogical support in commercial educational media. Through a content analysis, I sought to (1) identify the features of educational media that support vocabulary acquisition and comprehension, and (2) examine how frequently these features were used to promote vocabulary acquisition. Employing a content analysis on educational streamed media from Netflix and Amazon Prime, as these are commercially available for families of ELs, this study honed in on five television programs specifically designed to support early literacy in preschool ELs.

Highly ranked by Common Sense Media (2016), the content analysis was conducted on five programs with ethnic minority main characters:

  1. Dora the Explorer
  2. Go, Diego, Go!
  3. Handy Manny
  4. Maya and Miguel
  5. Ni-Hao, Kai Lan

Using a randomized sample of these streamed videos (N=50), programs were systematically coded for vocabulary learning experiences according to an iteratively developed codebook with 16 vocabulary-teaching strategies. Episodes were viewed twice with an interrater reliability of 87.3% for identifying vocabulary learning experiences, and 82.1% for identifying screen-based pedagogical supports for vocabulary learning.


An appropriate amount of time is spent teaching vocabulary words in media.

From a total of 50 videos in the weighted sample, findings revealed that an average show taught vocabulary words for 11.0% of the total running time. In addition, an average of 6.42 words were taught per episode. Although the number of words per episode are higher than the recommended two to three new words at the preschool level, these results are encouraging as they exhibit a reasonable proportion of time devoted to vocabulary instruction, and demonstrate marked differences when compared to a parallel study on all streamed educational media, which yielded a mere 3.9% of vocabulary teaching per program episode (Danielson, Wong, Neuman, & Flynn, 2017).

Vocabulary teaching in media utilizes insufficient pedagogical strategies.

To understand how vocabulary words are taught in media, each word was coded for screen-based pedagogical supports that facilitate vocabulary acquisition. The most commonly used vocabulary supports in educational media included the use of repetition of the target word (41.6%), visual effects (40.7%), and the use of demonstrations to teach the target word (32.3%). Interestingly, pedagogical supports that provided children with an explicit definition were markedly lower (5.6%). Taken together, the most salient strategies that specifically benefit ELs vocabulary acquisition were found in commercially available media, yet critical supports with demonstrated benefits, like the use of explicit definitions, were lacking.

Vocabulary words in media are superficial.

Finally, in an effort to understand the quality ofvocabulary words being taught in educational media, we examined vocabulary words according to three distinct word lists. We found that a large portion of words were identified as simple, representing 63.6% on the Dale-Chall (Chall & Dale, 1995) word list. Triangulating these results, 77.6% of the words were labeled as simple and elementary in Biemiller’s (2010) “Words Worth Teaching” word list, and only 1.9% of the words appeared in Tier 2 of Beck, McKeown, & Kucan’s (2002) three-tier framework, which are considered high-utility words. Taken as a whole, results from the content analysis suggest that despite the extensive amount of time that children watch educational media, vocabulary instruction is lacking in proven pedagogical strategies that support word learning. Furthermore, the vocabulary words being taught are simple and do not equip EL preschoolers for school readiness.


Children’s vocabulary knowledge is critical for their immediate and future academic success. However, children from homes where English is not spoken face particular challenges in acquiring early literacy-related skills in English, such as vocabulary and oral language development (August & Shanahan, 2006), and these challenges may have profound implications on the trajectory of their language and reading development (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997). By exploring the effects that educational media may offer as a support for EL children’s vocabulary knowledge and comprehension, we hope to contribute to the research that prepares ELs for success and school readiness. By identifying the factors associated with screen-based pedagogical support and determining the relative influence of these factors on educational outcomes, this study provides a better understanding of how educational media can be used to encourage vocabulary development for EL children during the early childhood years.


August, D., & Hakuta, K. (Eds.). (1997). Improving schooling for language-minority children: A research agenda. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

August, D., & Shanahan, T. (Eds.). (2006). Developing literacy in second- language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Beck, I., McKeown, M., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life. New York, NY: Guilford.

Biemiller, A. (2010). Words worth teaching: Closing the vocabulary gap. Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill SRA.

Carlo, M. S., August, D., McLaughlin, B., Snow, C., Dressler, C., Lippman, D. N....White, C. E. (2004). Closing the gap: Addressing the vocabulary needs of English language learners in bilingual and mainstream class- rooms. Reading Research Quarterly, 39, 188–216.

Common Sense Media. (2013). Zero to eight: Children's media use in America 2013. Washington, DC: Common Sense Media.

Cunningham, A. E., & Stanovich, K. E. (1997). Early reading acquisition and its relation to reading experience and ability 10 years later. Developmental Psychology, 33(6), 934–945.

Chall, J. S., & Dale, E. (1995). Readability revisited: The new Dale-Chall readability formula. Northampton, MA: Brookline Books.

Danielson, K., Wong, K. M., Neuman, S. B, & Flynn, R. (2017). Content analysis of vocabulary and pedagogical supports in educational media. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Gersten, R., & Baker, S. (2000). What we know about effective instructional practices for English-language learners. Exceptional Children, 66, 454–470.

Gersten, R., & Geva, E. (2003). Teaching reading to early language learners. Educational Leadership, 60, 44–49.

Guernsey, L., Levine, M. H., Chiong, C., & Stevens, M. (2012). Pioneering literacy in the digital wild west: Empowering parents and educators. New York, NY: Joan Ganz Cooney Center.

Mancilla-Martinez, J., & Lesaux, N. K. (2010). Predictors of reading comprehension for struggling readers: The case of Spanish speaking language minority learners. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(3), 701–711.

Marulis, L. M., & Neuman, S. B. (2013). How vocabulary interventions affect young children at risk: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 6, 223–262.

Moats, L. (2001). Overcoming the language gap. American Educator, 25, 4–9.

Neuman, S. B., & Dwyer, J. (2009). Missing in action: Vocabulary instruction in pre-K. The Reading Teacher, 62(5), 384–392.

Rideout, V. J. (2014). Learning at home: Families’ educational media use in America. New York, NY: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center.

Yesil-Dagli, U. (2011). Predicting ELL students’ beginning first grade English oral reading fluency from initial kindergarten vocabulary, letter naming, and phonological awareness skills. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 26(1), 15–29.

Kevin M. Wong is a PhD candidate at New York University in literacy education. His research interests include second language vocabulary learning, educational media, and comparative education. His publications have appeared in The Asia-Pacific Education Researcher and Reconsidering Development, with forthcoming publications in Reading and Writing, English Language Teaching Journal and The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism.

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