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Adventures in Vocabulary

Posted: January 31, 2007

A scene from WordGirlFifth-grader Becky Botsford is a unique superhero. Not only does she possess colossal strength to fight crime, but she also has an equally colossal vocabulary.

As part of PBS's new animated show WordGirl, slated to air this year, Becky--otherwise known as WordGirl--is Executive Producer Dorothea Gillim's alter ego.

"She comes from my love of language and vocabulary," says Gillim, Ed.M.'91, recalling that, as a child, she once asked for a dictionary for Christmas. "I really wanted her to be cool and smart, but not nerdy, so kids would think it's cool to have an appreciation for words [and not] too geeky."

WordGirl is more than a cartoon for kids. Gillim, a former teacher and education media professional, developed the character and series with an explicit purpose to enrich young audiences' vocabulary, close the gap for those who don't grow up in language-rich environments, instill a love of language, and foster better reading comprehension.

Along with her monkey sidekick, Captain Huggy Face, WordGirl saves the world in various situations with her powerful vocabulary. Each 11-minute segment features two vocabulary words that get reinforced continually throughout the show. Part of Gillim's mission is making words fun and interesting for children.

"I hope that this turns children on to a love of language, sensitizes them to new words, and gives them a curiosity of new words," she says. "When [they] hear a word they haven't heard, hopefully they will stop and think about it rather than letting it fly over head. I hope children grow curious about the meanings of words."

As a producer for Soup2Nuts, a digital animation studio in Watertown, Mass., Gillim oversees everything from writing to production of WordGirl, which is aimed at children ages 5–11. Originally created in 2001 for a different network, PBS was so impressed with the show's concept that it asked Gillim to produce shorts which began airing last November. The shorts were so well received that PBS asked Gillim to produce 26 full-length episodes.

Gillim says the show relies on a pedagogy based on the research of Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown. They believe that looking up words in the dictionary doesn't produce lasting word retention. Instead, Beck and McKeown feel that children learn vocabulary best through stories in which words are introduced in multiple contexts.

In WordGirl Gillim purposely waits to introduce a new word's definition until two-thirds through the show. "By the time the meaning is exposed, children may have figured it out on their own," she says.

"A lot of children," Gillam continues, "especially television watchers, may not be getting exposed to sophisticated words. WordGirl uses words that may not come up in regular daily life like 'cumbersome' or 'timid.'"

A course in media education at the Ed School led Gillim to writing and working on educational television shows. She says her understanding of children's television is informed most by the educational theories of Alfred North Whitehead, whom she studied in that course. 

"If the three stages of learning are romance, mastery, and generalization, then I think TV is best used to romance kids to learn a subject," she says. "WordGirl's focus is on great stories, characters, and animation. If all those elements are working, then you can hook a child who may come looking for laughs but leave a little smarter."

Prior to WordGirl, Gillim played a role in series like Dr. Katz on Comedy Central, Squigglevision on ABC Saturday morning, and Hey Monei, which aired on Oxygen and BET. WordGirl, though, is the realization of Gillim's vision. "This is a dream come true in a lot of ways because it's my dream show," she says. "Coming to work makes me so happy, and for me that's the measure of success."

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