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Building Vocabulary to Improve Reading

Embedding new words into classroom conversations and assignments pegged to topics teens care about

May 26, 2009
Scrabble words about learning

Research shows that many adolescents in the United States struggle with reading, and one key reason is their limited vocabularies. Limited vocabulary, low reading ability, and low investment of time in reading often go hand in hand, since students usually learn more sophisticated words through reading, rather than from informal sources.1

In response to administrators' and teachers' worries about the vocabulary skills of Boston Public School students, a group of researchers and educators — assembled by the Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP) in collaboration with the Boston Public Schools, and directed by Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Catherine Snow — designed a curriculum supplement called Word Generation, for sixth- to eighth-grade classrooms. This research-based intervention focuses on “all-purpose” academic vocabulary words — words that are relevant across disciplines, but that are infrequently used in casual conversation. Word Generation introduces new words by embedding them in brief texts about controversial issues of interest to many adolescents, such as steroid use among athletes, legalization of euthanasia, and censorship of libraries and popular music. The curriculum then provides opportunities for students to use the new words in classroom discussion, debate, and writing. Beyond teaching vocabulary, the program is designed to support students' oral language skills, argumentation strategies, and writing skills, while also educating students about issues of current public interest.

The Design of Word Generation

While in middle school, students need to read nonfiction texts that contain many technical, discipline-specific words, but these texts also include many ‘all-purpose’ academic words, such as factor, structure, function, and interpret. Neither type of word tends to be used in everyday conversation, but students need to be familiar with both to read and learn effectively. If teachers concentrate instruction only on vocabulary terms specific to their disciplines, then the more general words may not be explicitly taught. For these reasons, Word Generation focuses on all-purpose academic words and attempts to increase content area teachers' willingness to teach them.

Beyond teaching vocabulary, the program is designed to support oral language skills, argumentation strategies, and writing skills, while also educating students about issues of current public interest.

The Word Generation curriculum is made up of a 24-week sequence of topics, each associated with five all-purpose academic words. Each week, the program activities follow this basic format:

  • On Monday, typically in the English Language Arts classroom, students and their teacher read and discuss a brief text in which the target words are embedded, and which presents arguments on both sides of a controversy or dilemma. Then, teachers highlight the target words and provide context-related definitions.
  • On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, the math, social studies, and science teachers implement activities provided for them. Each activity incorporates the target words and controversial topic of the week:
    • The math teacher assigns and discusses one or two problems in a format modelled on the Massachusetts state math assessment.
    • In science class, students read a science-based text, fill in the target words left blank in the passage, and then discuss it.
    • The social studies teacher organizes a debate about the dilemma, using one of several possible formats
  • On Friday, the students write an essay taking a stand about the dilemma.

To make program implementation more feasible in schools, the subject-specific activities can each be completed in 15 minutes. Also, school staff can decide which teachers are responsible for particular days of the week.

The key features of the Word Generation activities are based on instructional practices known from previous research to promote vocabulary learning. These features include:

  • Encountering a target word in semantically rich contexts within motivating texts, rather than in a list of words
  • Repeated exposure to the word, in varied contexts
  • Opportunities to use the word orally and in writing
  • Explicit instruction in the word's meaning
  • Explicit instruction in word learning strategies, including analysis of the word's parts (morphemes), and its multiple subject-specific meanings (polysemy)

Word Generation zeros in on these research-based practices to promote students' learning of the target vocabulary words.

Examining the program's effectiveness

Snow and her colleagues carried out a quasi-experimental study comparing nearly 700 sixth- to eighth-grade students in five Word Generation schools to more than 300 students in three other Boston Public schools that did not choose to implement the program. More than half of the students were language minority students, and the vast majority of students in both treatment and comparison schools were low-income. The treatment schools were in their first or second year of using Word Generation. The schools varied in the degree to which they used professional development to support program implementation, and in the eagerness with which teachers embraced the program.

Students in Word Generation schools learned more of the target words than students in comparison schools, even though the latter group performed at a higher level at the start.

To measure the effectiveness of the intervention, the researchers assessed comprehension of the target words using a multiple choice test.

The test was administered close to the beginning and end of the 2008 school year. The researchers also had access to most of the students' scores on the spring 2008 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) English Language Arts test.

The results of this initial trial are very promising. As expected, the students in Word Generation schools learned more of the target words than students in comparison schools, even though the latter group performed at a higher level at the start. Language minority students benefited more than native English-speaking students. Also, improvement on the vocabulary test predicted better performance on the state English Language Arts assessment.

Snow and her colleagues, Joshua Lawrence and Claire White, think that the positive link between Word Generation and state assessment scores can be explained by the program features that go beyond the teaching of individual vocabulary words. This curriculum taught deep reading and comprehension skills, discussion, argumentation, and writing. Since the Massachusetts test is relatively challenging (well aligned with the NAEP2), students' performance is likely related to these complex skills, rather than to familiarity with specific words.

Another major design feature of Word Generation is that it organizes instruction around engaging topics. In future studies, the researchers will look at whether the level of teacher and student interest in certain topics explains the level of word learning. In this initial study, one topic that generated two high-ranking words was ‘paying students to do well in school’ (incentive, enable)—a topic directly related to adolescence. In contrast, the topic of ‘compulsory voting’ was associated with the two least-well learned words (enforce, apathy).

Snow and her colleagues caution that, even though these preliminary results are encouraging, the quasi-experimental design of this study—the fact that schools were not randomly assigned to treatment and comparison groups—prevents them from making strong conclusions that the program caused improvements in scores. The next major tasks for SERP's Word Generation team are to conduct a full experimental study of its impact, and to explore how to implement the program effectively at larger scale. The Word Generation team will continue moving forward, greatly encouraged by the preliminary evidence suggesting the effectiveness of the program, and its particular value for language minority learners.

Additional Resources

Snow, C.E., Lawrence, J., & White, C. (2009). Generating knowledge of academic language among urban middle school students. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness.

1 Anderson, R., Wilson, P. T., & Fielding, L. G. (1988). Growth in reading and how children spend their time outside of school. Reading Research Quarterly, 23, 285-303..

2 McBeath, J., Reyes, M.E., Ehrlander, M.F. (2007). Education Reform in the American States. Charlotte, NC: IAP.

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