Research Stories

Word Generation at Work

Building vocabulary via Word Generation helps NYC students enhance their debate skills

Mary Tamer
February 27, 2015
A middle school debater from New York City

Do professional athletes deserve multimillion-dollar salaries? Should children be featured on reality TV shows? And what about co-ed versus single-sex schools?

These are among a handful of topics that middle school students in New York City have tackled as part of their Saturday debate program, which draws heavily from Word Generation, the innovative curriculum developed under the direction of HGSE Professor Catherine Snow.

A product of Snow’s collaboration with the Boston Public Schools and the Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP), Word Generation was designed to address concerns about vocabulary development in sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. Now used in districts across the country, the curriculum plays a significant role in New York City’s Middle School Quality Initiative (MSQI), a cross-school effort to enhance literacy and the teaching of literacy skills.

Fueling Debate

As detailed in a video produced by the city’s Department of Education, Word Generation — which focuses on words frequently found in college textbooks — has been an integral part of MSQI’s thriving debate program, which involves 88 of the city’s middle schools. Each Monday, students receive five new words, which are incorporated into lessons throughout that week in all subject areas. By Thursday, debate preparation begins, with weekly tournaments held for several hours on Saturdays in which the newly acquired words are put to use.

“The Word Generation program has proven so useful and accessible to schools in part because it was developed by our curriculum team in collaboration with Boston Public School teachers, who helped us brainstorm topics and pilot early units,” says Snow. “The work of the SERP design team in making the units attractive and easy to navigate has also been crucial. These curriculum units are being used in hundreds of schools in the U.S. and abroad, but the NY MSQI has taken them to a new level by adding on the weekend debates, and by providing teachers with extremely helpful guides and supplementary materials.

“This effort is just one example of how usable knowledge emerges when researchers take urgent problems of practice seriously.”

Long-Term Benefits

The curriculum — which embeds all-purpose academic words the students will need to read high school and college textbooks in math, English, science, and history — has helped to “build a bridge toward greater understanding of what is being read by students,” says Ben Honoroff, the literacy coach for MSQI in the Department of Education. “One benefit of tying debate to the Word Generation curriculum is that it gives the students the platform for integrating these academic language vocabulary words.”

As described in a 2009 Usable Knowledge article on Word Generation, activities are based on instructional practices known to promote vocabulary growth.  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

And as the MSQI programming garners high ratings from students, parents, and educators, the video also cites compelling evidence of its success, highlighting research that found that MSQI debaters’ reading comprehension improved at nearly twice the national average.

For participants, the benefits are measured in other, myriad ways.

“English was not my first language,” says one middle school student, “and debate opened up a whole new world of words and literature … it’s just amazing.”

“Debate prompts research and reading, critical thinking, and builds confidence in students,” says Aubrey Semple, program director of the NYC Urban Debate League. “It allows us to put literacy front and center to generate argument and speech.”

Additional Reading

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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.