Low-Income Immigrant Pupils Learning Vocabulary Through Digital
Marian J. A. J. Verhallen and Adriana G. Bus
Children from immigrant, low-income families in the Netherlands start school with a limited vocabulary
in the language of instruction; therefore, this places them at risk for developing reading difficulties.
Exposure to books is assumed to reduce their 2nd language (L2) vocabulary disadvantage. In this
experiment, we examined the effects of video storybooks on the receptive and expressive vocabularies
of 5-year-old children. Children (N⫽92) were exposed repeatedly to the digital storybook. The story was
presented with either static or video images. Children in the control condition played with a nonverbal
computer game. Children’s receptive and expressive book-based vocabularies were assessed. Results
reveal that children learned words receptively and expressively; however, the children seldom learned the
same words both ways. Both treatments benefited receptive and expressive vocabularies; however,
readings with the addition of video were found to be especially effective for expressive L2 vocabulary
Keywords: receptive vocabulary, expressive vocabulary, storybook reading, digital picture storybooks,
low-income immigrant children
Some immigrant groups, such as the Turkish and Moroccan in
the Netherlands, belong to the most disadvantaged groups in
Europe with lower educational attainment and subsequent employ-
ment levels than other minority groups, even in the second gen-
eration (Heath, Rothon, & Kilpi, 2008). Educational disadvantages
can largely be explained by parents’ low socioeconomic origins as
they come from less developed non-European countries. A vocab-
ulary lag occurs in both the first language (L1) and second lan-
guage (L2)—probably because input in both languages is nega-
tively influenced by socioeconomic and sociolinguistic factors
(Leseman, Mayo, & Scheele, 2009)—that puts them at risk for
developing reading problems (Duursma, Romero-Contreras, Szu-
ber, Proctor, & Snow, 2007; Juel, 2006; K. Nation, 2008; Stanat &
Wide reading plays a major role in the vocabulary development
of readers (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998; Nagy & Herman,
1987; Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986). For young, preliterate children,
storybook reading has been shown to lead to improvements in
vocabulary development. Storybooks familiarize children with lan-
guage beyond the basic level of lexical knowledge needed for
informal, everyday interpersonal communication, thus preparing
children for learning to read (e.g., Bus, van IJzendoorn, & Pelle-
grini, 1995). Storybook reading is also assumed to be an effective
device for L2 children to make up for their word poverty (Broek-
hof, 2006; Stolwijk & Peters, 2006), despite the fact that story texts
may be difficult to comprehend for low-income immigrant kinder-
garten children because of a high quantity of unknown words
(Carver, 1994; Hu & Nation, 2000; Stahl, 1999).
In the majority of Dutch primary schools, there is currently one
computer (which offers access to the Internet) per five pupils
(Kennisnet, ICT op school, 2008). Digital storybooks available via
the Internet may offer new opportunities for young L2 children,
who suffer from word poverty when entering school. Normally an
adult scaffolds text understanding, but when books are presented
on screen, children are mainly focused on the computer as a
conveyer of meaning (Smith, 2001). Most studies of storybook
reading (e.g., Beck & McKeown, 2001; Biemiller & Boote, 2006;
Frijters, Barron, & Brunello, 2000; Hargrave & Se´ne´chal, 2000;
Raikes et al., 2006; Se´ne´chal, LeFevre, Thomas, & Daley, 1998;
Wasik & Bond, 2001) have included interaction with an adult as an
incentive for learning from book exposure. In the current study, we
examine the effects of digital storybook reading without additional
adult– child interaction.
Storybooks via the computer often include video representations
of the scenes. In contrast to the first generation of video storybooks
(de Jong & Bus, 2002; Labbo & Kuhn, 2000; Unsworth, 2003),
recent additions are designed to dramatize the story text, rather
than simply being just amusing or funny. For example, the spoken
text “Winnie the Witch picks up her magic wand, waves it once
and Abracadabra. Wilbur was no longer a black cat. He was bright
green” is accompanied by an illustration that depicts Winnie with
a magic wand, a green wave coming down, and a green cat looking
perplexed. In the video storybook, visual elements that must nor-
mally be compressed into just one static illustration are split into
several smaller portions, each portion representing a small part of
the narrative. The video of the above-described scene with Winnie
the Witch turning her cat into a green cat successively shows
Winnie picking up her wand, waving it, using the magic charm, a
green wave coming down, and the cat turning from black to green,
Marian J. A. J. Verhallen and Adriana G. Bus, Faculty of Social and
Behavioural Sciences, Centre for Learning Problems and Impairments,
Leiden University, Leiden, the Netherlands.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Marian
J. A. J. Verhallen, Leiden University, Faculty of Social and Behavioural
Sciences, Centre for Learning Problems and Impairments, P.O. Box 9555,
2300 RB Leiden, the Netherlands. E-mail: email@example.com
Journal of Educational Psychology © 2010 American Psychological Association
2010, Vol. 102, No. 1, 54– 61 0022-0663/10/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0017133
thereby connecting these visual representations with parts of the
narrative. Sounds combined with music back up the events; for
instance, when Winnie waves her wand, we hear the swishing
sound while the music swells.
The close temporal proximity of words and images in video
storybooks makes it more likely that the learner is able to build
mental connections between verbal and visual representations and
thus develops memory traces that connect details of pictures with
phrases in the narrative (Mayer, 1999, 2001). According to Paivio
(2007), visual imagery plays an important role in vocabulary
development. He explained the finding that concrete words are
more easily learned than abstract words (Paivio, 1986) by assum-
ing that drawing on both forms of coding—verbally and nonver-
bally—makes it is easier to retain words. When concretizing is
forced by presenting spoken words in close proximity to visual-
izations, such as in video storybooks, we may expect a positive
effect on vocabulary tests.
An additional aim of this study was to examine the effects of
storybook reading on the depth of vocabulary knowledge of pre-
literate L2 children. Static illustrations have been found to help
children to narrow down possible meanings of unknown words and
phrases (Ninio & Bruner, 1978; Snow & Goldfield, 1983; Weiz-
man & Snow, 2001). However, as static illustrations represent the
complete event, it is relatively hard for children to know which
part of the illustration to focus on to form strong associations
between words and visual details in pictures. Children may remem-
ber something about the visual context in which they heard a word
(Se´ne´chal, 1997), leading to improvements in receptive vocabulary
(i.e., the ability to identify semantic content), but the association might
not be precise enough to store word knowledge that is needed for
expressive vocabulary tests (i.e., producing the correct word for an
image; Se´ne´chal & Cornell, 1993; Stahl, 1999).
Video, on the other hand, often presents corresponding portions
of the narrative and details of the picture at the same time, even
showing motion and change, thus enabling the learner to connect
visual images with words. Instead of exposing children to a com-
plete illustration depicting various details all at once, children’s
attention is guided to visual details corresponding with the text. In
line with Paivio’s (2007) cognitive theory, video would thus be
more likely to promote stronger memory traces, which would be
sufficient to result in higher scores on expressive vocabulary
tests. The scaffolding provided by adults during book reading
may have a similar effect on expressive vocabulary, stimulating
responses to relevant details in the picture while reading the
story text (Se´ne´chal, 1997).
It seems plausible that word identification (receptive vocabulary
knowledge) precedes production of semantic content (expressive
vocabulary knowledge; e.g., Henriksen, 1999; Laufer & Goldstein,
2004; Melka, 1997; I. S. P. Nation, 2001; Van Kleeck, 2003).
Thus, we might assume that words from the same book will not be
learned both ways, receptively and expressively. Rather, we could
assume that for words learned expressively, an initial understand-
ing of the words was already in place (Stahl & Stahl, 2004). In this
study, we hypothesize that both video and static storybooks will
affect receptive as well as expressive vocabularies but that video is
especially beneficial in constructing precise associations between
images and words, thereby promoting expressive vocabulary.
As a basic principle, we assumed that children might not learn
new words incidentally from storybook exposure until they have
had multiple encounters with the same storybook (Biemiller &
Boote, 2006; Justice, Meier, & Walpole, 2005; Se´ne´chal, 1997;
Stahl & Stahl, 2004). The memory of information about words will
often not be strong enough to be accessible to a child’s conscious
mind unless books are repeatedly read (Stahl, 1999). For the time
being, we can only guess what the optimal frequency will be. On
the basis of existing research, three to four repetitions seem to be
optimal for vocabulary learning from static books (e.g., Biemiller
& Boote, 2006; Justice et al., 2005; Penno, Wilkinson, & Moore,
2002). A previous study (Verhallen, Bus, & de Jong, 2006) re-
vealed that low-income immigrant children could recount at most
half of the story elements after hearing the story four times. Thus,
it may be necessary to have at least four repetitions for children to
actually learn new vocabulary.
The purpose of this study was to examine the relative effects of
two storybook presentation formats—static and video for-
mats— on children’s vocabulary development. Specifically, we
addressed two questions:
1. Does presentation format effect the development of vo-
cabulary for preliterate, immigrant children?
2. Are receptive vocabulary and expressive vocabulary dif-
ferentially affected by presentation format?
In addition to these two main questions, two secondary ques-
tions were addressed in the study:
3. Is the language of an age-appropriate storybook in L2
language difficult to understand for L2 learners from
low-income, immigrant families because of a high quan-
tity of unknown words (Carver, 1994; Hu & Nation,
2000; Stahl, 1999)?
4. Does expressive learning of words occur primarily for
words that are already known receptively?
To test effects of video storybooks, we conducted a randomized
experiment in which children were assigned to either a video
condition or a static picture condition and given four exposures to
the same storybook. The effects of presentation format on both
receptive vocabulary (identifying the correct picture with a choice
of four pictures) and expressive vocabulary (completing short
stimulus sentences accompanied by a picture) knowledge were
examined. Further, to examine whether words learned expressively
were those that were already known receptively, we used the same
set of 42 difficult words from the target storybook in both tests.
Children from Turkish and Moroccan immigrant groups were
included to assess the generality of the findings for children from
We carried out an experiment with two different treatment
conditions (video format vs. static format). Children who qualified
LEARNING VOCABULARY THROUGH DIGITAL STORYBOOKS
for participation in the study were randomly assigned to one of the
two treatment conditions or a control condition. Data collection
was spread over a period of 2 years. To prevent school as well as
class effects, we randomly assigned children from each classroom
within each school to conditions, taking care that equal numbers of
gender and ethnic group were present in each condition. Three
children (at the maximum) per classroom were eligible for partic-
Children qualified for participation if they were 5 years of age
and had ethnic minority parents with low educational and occu-
pational levels. All children came from families that spoke Turkish
or Moroccan–Arabic or Berber at home, native languages for the
most widespread minorities in the Netherlands (Van Praag, 2003).
As is common in the Dutch school system, all children were taught
Dutch—the language of (reading) instruction—starting at 4 years
of age. All participating schools received the highest additional
staff funding for children from ethnic groups with parents who
received only a few years of vocational training or who performed
unskilled labor, as these children were considered most at risk for
school failure (Bosker & Guldemond, 2004).
The selection of participants was made in three steps:
1. We contacted inner-city schools in The Hague (the Neth-
erlands) with at least 80% immigrant children from low-
2. With the help of information provided by teachers and
school administrations, we made a first selection of pu-
pils using criteria in which the children (a) were 5 years
of age, (b) spoke Turkish or Moroccan–Berber at home,
(c) came from low-income families, (d) received a L2
educational program since the day they became 4 years of
age, and (e) had no special language impairments or
special educational needs.
3. Next, three selection tests were applied individually to
select children who (a) scored at or below the 50th
percentile on a standardized Dutch language test for
kindergartners, (b) had nonverbal intelligence in the nor-
mal range, and (c) were not familiar with the target story.
Of the 130 children who were assessed, 21 children were
excluded because they scored average or higher on the
language test. Five children were excluded because of
low scores on the Raven’s Colored Progressive Matrices
(Van Bon, 1986) or because of familiarity with the target
We continued the recruitment process until a sufficient number
of eligible participants was found. Although the Turkish and
Moroccan populations are the two largest minority groups in the
Netherlands, inner city schools are populated by children with a
wide variety of L1s. Therefore, we had to recruit participants from
several inner city schools (n⫽15) and classrooms (n⫽76).
Table 1 shows the characteristics of the two treatment groups
and the control group involved in this experiment (N⫽92). The
groups were similar in (a) ethnic background (each group was
about half Turkish and half Moroccan); (b) educational and occu-
pational levels of the parents (all parents had only a few years of
vocational training or performed unskilled labor); (c) age, F(2,
89) ⫽0.17, ns; (d) gender; (e) standardized scores on the Centraal
Instituut voor Toets Ontwikkeling (CITO) Language Test for
Senior Kindergarten Children (CITO, 1996), F(2, 89) ⫽0.39, ns;
and (f) standardized scores on the Raven’s Colored Progressive
Matrices, F(2, 89) ⫽2.05, ns.
Each child worked at the computer in a room other than the
classroom for four separate sessions spread over approximately
nine days. The only other persons present in this room were the
experimenters: One instructed the child, and the other was respon-
sible for video registration.
To guarantee that approximately the same amount of time was
spent on the static and video versions, the experimenter was in
control of the pace and loaded the pages of the static version.
Duration of one exposure for both versions was approximately
The commercially available CD-ROM Heksenspul ([Winnie the
Witch]; Thomas & Gorky, 1996) is a Dutch adaptation of a
CD-ROM that originally appeared in English. The CD-ROM in-
cluded two versions: one with static illustrations and one with
video. Both included the original literary text, setting, and char-
acters as well as preserved the distanced relationship between
viewer and characters (Unsworth, 2003). In both versions, the
same story text is read out loud by the same professional narrator.
Characteristics of the Treatment Groups
Variable (4⫻)Video (n⫽34) (4⫻)Static (n⫽29) Control (n⫽29) Total (N⫽92)
% of at-risk children 100 100 100 100
Age in months, M(SD) 67.35 (2.82) 67.28 (3.44) 66.93 (2.70) 67.20 (2.97)
% of girls 50.00 51.72 48.28 50.00
% of Moroccan participants 50.00 48.28 51.72 50.00
RPM scores, M(SD) 4.47 (1.48) 4.30 (1.48) 5.12 (1.97) 4.62 (1.67)
CITO Language Test scores, M(SD) 59.12 (7.04) 57.97 (6.18) 57.76 (6.49) 58.33 (6.56)
Note. RPM ⫽Raven’s Colored Progressive Matrices; CITO Language Test ⫽Centraal Instituut voor Toets Ontwikkeling Language Test for Senior
56 VERHALLEN AND BUS
The static version consists of 22 screens with pictures depicting
scenes from the story. For instance, the second screen of the static
version depicts a picture of Winnie reading a book sitting in her
kitchen chair. Except for Wilbur’s green eyes and Winnie herself,
everything in the kitchen (e.g., the stove, kettle, and all other
objects) is black. The scene reflects the text content, which says
that Winnie lives in a black house with her black cat, Wilbur, and
states that this is how the trouble begins. The text is rendered orally
after a click on an icon, without additional music or sounds. In the
video version of the same story, the backgrounds, as well as the
story characters, look exactly the same as in the static version
except that the figures are animated. Cinematic techniques—such
as zoom, pan, and edits—were used to create the impression of a
film. There is accompanying music and sound that matches the
scenes. For the most part, representations are to the point so that
animations do not distract children’s attention from main story
events (as may happen with inserts that are incongruent or incon-
siderate with the story text; de Jong & Bus, 2002; Labbo & Kuhn,
2000; Unsworth, 2003). In line with the principle that story context
is the best aid to learning new vocabulary (Stahl & Fairbanks,
1986), the motion pictures were designed to represent events
described by the text. Thus, the basic principle of the video book’s
design was to highlight story content rather than to instruct diffi-
In sum, the story content and story language, the voice in which
the story was told, and the presentation on a computer screen were
identical; the only difference between the two presentation formats
was that one included a video representation of events with match-
ing music and sounds, and the other just included static illustra-
tions. The esthetic and artistic qualities of the visual representa-
tions were similar. Neither of the two versions included distracting
animations or games unrelated to the story content.
The story of Winnie the Witch had all the characteristics of a
classical story scheme of children’s stories: A problem (everything
in the house is black, including the cat, causing the witch to
stumble over her cat time after time), a series of solutions (the
witch first transforms the cat into a green cat and later into a cat
with all colors), and then new problems and new solutions to these
problems until the most obvious solution is found (transforming
the house into a house with colors and the cat into a black cat). The
text of Winnie the Witch is a good example of typical book
language, with a rather sophisticated vocabulary with a high num-
ber of rare words (e.g., purring, furious, worrying, ridicule, magic
wand, rose bush, carpet) and complex phrases (e.g., “One day,
after a nasty fall, Winnie decided something had to be done”).
Children’s language development was assessed with a standard-
ized test: the CITO Language Test for Senior Kindergarten Chil-
dren (CITO, 1996), which encompasses competencies such as
vocabulary, listening skills or listening comprehension, print
knowledge, and phonemic awareness. Children scoring at or below
the 50th percentile of the norm group were included. About 70%
of tested low-income immigrant pupils met this criterion.
Nonverbal intelligence was assessed with the Dutch version of
the Raven’s Colored Progressive Matrices (Van Bon, 1986). Only
children scoring within the normal range were included.
Familiarity with the target book was tested by presenting pic-
tures from picture storybooks, including Winnie the Witch. When
children’s responses indicated that they were familiar with Winnie
the Witch, they were excluded from further participation.
To test vocabulary prior to and following the intervention, we
constructed two tests: a receptive vocabulary test and an expressive
vocabulary test. Of all the 95 different story words (encompassing
all nouns, verbs, and adjectives in the story), 42 low-frequent
words were selected (Schrooten & Vermeer, 1994)—among which
were 21 nouns, 7 adjectives, and 14 verbs. This selection proce-
dure allowed us to test the differential effect of static versus video
on the most difficult words of the text.
Receptive vocabulary. Among three distracters, children
chose the illustration that represented the target item. The target
item’s position on screen varied across test items. To familiarize
children with the test format, we had one practice item precede the
actual test items.
Expressive vocabulary. Children filled in the last word of a
stimulus sentence that the experimenter orally presented while the
computer screen showed a matching picture from the digital sto-
rybook—for instance, “the cat sat on the . . . (carpet)” with a
picture of Wilbur the cat sitting on the carpet. One practice item
was used to familiarize children with the test. Pre- and posttests
The interrater reliability for both tests was high, on average .99.
Test order. To diminish the chance of word learning from
testing, we administered the expressive vocabulary test in the first
test session and the receptive vocabulary test in the second test
Analyses of covariance (ANCOVAs) were carried out on two
dependent measures separately—receptive vocabulary and expres-
sive vocabulary—after adjusting for preexisting group differences
(Tabachnik & Fidell, 2007). Covariates were scores on the respec-
tive pretests as well as contrast coded ethnicity. Ethnicity was
included as a covariate because overall, Moroccan children scored
higher than Turkish children, indicating that the Moroccan partic-
ipants were better prepared for learning L2 from book exposure
(cf. Leseman et al., 2009). Two a priori contrasts were tested: one
contrasting the two treatment groups with the control group and
the other contrasting the video group with the static group.
In Table 2, means and standard deviations on the receptive
vocabulary and expressive vocabulary pre- and posttests, broken
down by condition, are reported. Similar to findings from previous
research (e.g., Laufer, 1998; I. S. P. Nation, 1990; Van Kleeck,
2003), receptive vocabulary was more than 3 times larger than
expressive vocabulary. At the outset of the experiment, children
knew 53.4% (SD ⫽9.42) of the words on the receptive test,
compared with only 15.9% (SD ⫽6.17) of the same words
LEARNING VOCABULARY THROUGH DIGITAL STORYBOOKS
presented on the expressive test. On the receptive vocabulary
measure, students identified on average 3.6 (8.5%) more words
correctly on the posttest than they identified on the pretest. On the
expressive vocabulary measures, students named on average 4.2
(10.1%) more words correctly on the posttest than they named on
Effects on Receptive Vocabulary
Assumptions of ANCOVA were met (Tabachnik & Fidell,
2007). After adjusting for pretest score, F(1, 87) ⫽79.72, p⬍
⫽.48, and ethnicity, F(1, 87) ⫽6.25, p⬍.01,
there was a statistically significant treatment effect found for
receptive vocabulary, F(1, 87) ⫽14.26, p⬍.000,
MSE ⫽11.91. A partial eta-square of .14 equals a Cohen’s dof
0.85, which indicates a large effect of treatment (Cohen, 1977).
Mean score for treatment groups was 26.94 words (SD ⫽3.46)
compared with 23.98 words (SD ⫽3.48) for the control group. No
significant difference was found in receptive vocabulary between
the video (M⫽27.15, SD ⫽3.46) and static (M⫽26.73, SD ⫽
Effects on Expressive Vocabulary
After Winsorizing one multivariate outlier on the expressive
vocabulary test (Hampel, Ronchetti, Rousseeuw, & Stahel, 1986),
assumptions for ANCOVA were met. After adjusting for pretest
score, F(1, 87) ⫽65.49, p⬍.000,
⫽.43, and ethnicity, F(1,
87) ⫽4.34, p⬍.04,
⫽.05, a statistically significant treatment
effect was found for expressive vocabulary, F(1, 87) ⫽17.50, p⬍
⫽.17, MSE ⫽8.36. The magnitude of the partial
eta-square is similar to a Cohen’s dof 0.96, meaning a strong
effect size (Cohen, 1977). Mean score for the treatment groups was
11.72 words (SD ⫽2.92) compared with 8.91 words (SD ⫽2.96)
for the control group. Statistically significant differences were also
found between the video and static conditions, with children in the
video condition scoring higher on expressive vocabulary (M⫽
12.55, SD ⫽2.94) than children in the static condition (M⫽10.89,
SD ⫽2.89), F(1, 87) ⫽5.08, p⬍.03,
⫽.06, MSE ⫽8.36. The
effect size equals a Cohen’s dof 0.57, which is a medium-to-large
effect size (Cohen, 1977).
To address the question of whether expressive vocabulary
skills build on receptive skills, we focused on children in the
two treatment conditions (n⫽63). As shown above, children in
both conditions significantly improved both receptive vocabu-
lary and expressive vocabulary, but results also reveal that
children learned few words both receptively and expressively.
Out of the 42 words, children learned on average only 1.25
(SD ⫽1.64) words both receptively and expressively. Children
were more likely to learn a word receptively but not expres-
sively, with children across the two treatment groups learning
6.79 (SD ⫽1.84) words receptively but not expressively. Chil-
dren were least likely to learn a word expressively but not
receptively (M⫽0.62 words, SD ⫽0.77). A Wilcoxon test of
the differences revealed that a significant greater number of
words were learned receptively than were learned both recep-
tively and expressively (z⫽⫺6.82, p⬍.000). In sum, words
that were completely unknown to the children on both the
receptive and expressive pretests tended to be learned recep-
tively but not expressively.
In our final analysis, we addressed the question of whether
children are more likely to learn words expressively when they
already know those words receptively. Results reveal that, on
average, only 1.87 (SD ⫽1.88) of the words learned expressively
during the study were words not in the children’s receptive vo-
cabulary. This compares with an average of 3.73 (SD ⫽2.10)
words learned that were in the children’s receptive vocabulary. A
Wilcoxon test revealed a statistically significant difference (z⫽
⫺4.78, p⬍.000), supporting the hypothesis that the chance to
learn words expressively is raised substantially when children
understand those words and already have them in their receptive
vocabulary. Findings thus support the hypothesis that development
proceeds from more superficial receptive knowledge to deeper
Our results reveal that video books are more beneficial to young
L2 learners’ expressive vocabulary development than static books.
Children learned six words (SD ⫽3.22) expressively in the video
condition compared with four words (SD ⫽3.40) in the static
condition, a gain of 14% and 10%, respectively. The additional
effect of video is rather impressive, especially when compared
with the effects of teacher-led book reading sessions, which did not
include explanations or instruction but did include reading intona-
tion, facial expressions, and an adult who corrects distractive
behavior (e.g., Biemiller & Boote, 2006; Elley, 1989; Penno et al.,
2002). For example, after four adult-led whole class readings,
Biemiller and Boote (2006) reported gains on an expressive vo-
cabulary test of 9%—a number comparable with the gains we
found for the static storybooks but less than what we found for the
Both the video and static format resulted in vocabulary learning,
but more knowledge about words was acquired via the video
format. No differences were seen in receptive vocabulary learning
between video and static conditions, implying that receptive vo-
cabulary knowledge is formed more easily than expressive vocab-
ulary knowledge. Thus, for an initial understanding of words, it is
sufficient to have static pictures as an aid (Bloom, 2001)—a
finding similar to that of Se´ne´chal (1997). It may be the case that,
as described by Stahl (1999), children might remember something
about an unknown word in a text, such as an illustration or the
Mean Scores (and Standard Deviations) on the Receptive and
Expressive Vocabulary Pre- and Posttests (Maximum ⫽42)
Vocabulary Video (n⫽34) Static (n⫽29) Control (n⫽29)
Pre 23.00 (3.77) 22.62 (3.59) 21.59 (4.48)
Post 27.62 (4.33) 26.85 (4.93) 23.31 (5.22)
27.15 (3.46) 26.73 (3.45) 23.98 (3.48)
Pre 7.44 (2.31) 6.72 (2.84) 5.69 (2.39)
Post 13.32 (4.00) 10.93 (4.55) 7.97 (2.93)
12.55 (2.94) 10.89 (2.89) 8.91 (2.96)
The posttest scores adjusted for the pretest scores and ethnicity.
58 VERHALLEN AND BUS
context in which the word appeared. Such memory traces may not
be strong enough for the children to use the word in response to a
picture but may be sufficient for them to recognize the picture that
matches the word.
The effectiveness of video storybooks for learning expressive
vocabulary corroborates Paivio’s (2007) cognitive model predict-
ing that visual images, and probably also sound and music, have a
profound influence on learning vocabulary. When nonverbal rep-
resentations and language are bound together, as in video story-
books, language exposure sets up more effective memory traces
that result in heightened scores on an expressive vocabulary test.
However, on the basis of the present findings, we cannot exclude
an alternative explanation, namely that animated pictures or addi-
tional sounds and music are superior in holding children’s atten-
tion, thereby promoting more learning (Alwitt, Anderson, Lorch,
& Levin, 1980).
We have to conclude that age-appropriate picture storybooks
are difficult to comprehend for low-income, immigrant kinder-
garten children and for that reason especially this group may
need video support in learning new vocabulary. The results
indicate that age-appropriate books for kindergarten children
include many words that are hard to understand for 5-year-old
L2 learners from low-income families. About half of the 42
selected words were not known receptively, and more than 35
words were not known expressively at the outset of the exper-
iment, indicating that they were difficult words for the immi-
grant groups in this study. On the basis of our results, we
estimate that a minimum of almost 4% of the 530 words in the
Winnie the Witch text would not be understood by low-income
immigrant children. This percentage of unknown words amply
exceeds the permitted maximum quantity of 2% unknown
words to be able to understand a text (Carver, 1994; Hu &
Nation, 2000; Stahl, 1999). To keep up with the more transient
nature of an oral rendition of the story text, an even higher
coverage is most likely needed (I. S. P. Nation, 2006). Similar
to L1 learners, expressive vocabulary skills are less advanced
than receptive vocabulary skills for immigrant children (Van
Kleeck, 2003). A 16% score on the expressive vocabulary
pretest implies that an estimated 7% of words in the Winnie the
Witch text were not a part of children’s expressive vocabulary,
even though the children might have some knowledge of the
meaning of the difficult words.
Digital book reading bolstered learning new vocabulary both
receptively and expressively. On average, scores on receptive
vocabulary improved more than four words (SD ⫽3.81), and
scores on expressive vocabulary improved more than five words
(SD ⫽3.31). Studying individual vocabulary acquisition patterns,
we found that the set of words that were learned receptively
differed from the set learned expressively, with only a few words
from the extensive set of story words acquired both ways. Thus, to
estimate the effects of book reading, words should be assessed
both ways, receptively and expressively. Surprisingly, many book
reading studies assess either receptive vocabulary or expressive
vocabulary but not both.
A unique result of the present study is that, for the most part,
words are learned expressively only after children are, to some
extent, familiar with their meaning. Despite helpful visualizations,
such as video, words that are unknown receptively are rarely
learned expressively. This suggests that the words most likely to be
learned expressively from storybook reading are the ones that are
known receptively (Stahl & Stahl, 2004), indicating that vocabu-
lary acquisition occurs step by step and that synchronizing phrases
in the narration with portions of the picture is vital for young L2
children to learn new words expressively.
Limitations and Future Directions
As both Moroccan as well as Turkish children suffer from word
poverty, findings suggest that children benefit from promoting
visualizations in learning vocabulary, independent of language and
culture. Effects of video in groups less behind in linguistic skills
await further research.
Initial associations between word and scene may have been
sufficient to make correct choices between four pictures in the
receptive vocabulary test, with the result that there were no dif-
ferential effects of the video and static books. Another format of
the receptive test might be more favorable to video. For instance,
making a choice between visual details that refer to the same scene
might have resulted in more variety between the two experimental
Assessing vocabulary acquisition from digitized storybook read-
ings, we concentrated on accuracy of word knowledge, receptively
as well as expressively. However, there are other ways of testing
vocabulary, for example, vocabulary fluency. Using such measures
might have provided richer information about word acquisition in
these young children and about differential effects of book format
Although the virtue of book sharing is widely accepted as an
avenue for expanding vocabulary, video storybooks with extra
features working as scaffolds for learning vocabulary have only
rarely been acknowledged to have the same value as book sharing.
What we now know is that video storybooks bolster learning of
expressive vocabulary, which is associated more with literacy
acquisition than receptive language (Scarborough, 1998; Snow,
Tabors, Nicholson, & Kurland, 1995). A growth rate on expressive
vocabulary of six words per book is impressive considering that
the increase was seen after only four encounters with a video story.
If one considers that one book takes approximately 5 min, two
computer sessions of approximately 40 min in total would result in
12 new words per week. Thus, children’s expressive L2 vocabu-
lary could expand about 600 words per year if they were to watch
video storybooks for approximately three quarters of an hour per
week. Of course, this assumes that conditions are favorable (i.e.,
children are as attentive even when there is no adult sitting next to
the child, and the stimulus books include a large diversity of
words, such as found in Winnie the Witch). We imagine, and have
found in other ongoing experiments, that children like to “read” a
series of books in one session, similar to the format of chil-
dren’s television shows, thus raising practicability of living
books as part of the preschool and kindergarten curriculums. As
Internet sites offering a growing number of digitized storybooks
are becoming more and more available in the Netherlands,
kindergarten children can virtually roam through these digital
libraries, select books, and read and reread storybooks to their
hearts’ content, independent of adults. The use of video story-
LEARNING VOCABULARY THROUGH DIGITAL STORYBOOKS
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Received July 10, 2008
Revision received July 1, 2009
Accepted July 13, 2009 䡲
LEARNING VOCABULARY THROUGH DIGITAL STORYBOOKS