Word generation: Middle school literacy development using academic language


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This website, from a middle school academic language program developed under the direction of Catherine Snow, was created in collaboration with teachers and administrators in the Boston Public Schools. While geared for middle school students, it is an excellent website for adult educators to use to teach academic language to adult learners. The website focuses on vocabulary, but includes comprehension and fluency. The developers suggest that using this sustained language-development approach takes only 15 minutes per week.

The sections of most use to practitioners are: teaching videos, topic list, weekly unit, and resources. The videos showcase the process of intentional vocabulary teaching as the teacher shares target words and has the students read a passage and define the target words in context. The topic list is expansive and, while intended for adolescents, contains topics that also are relevant to adults. The interdisciplinary unit includes vocabulary, comprehension, debate, math, science, and writing exercises. While the website can be used directly by adult learners, it serves better as a model for teachers to create their own lessons and shift their own practice. The resource section includes User Group and Exchange Ideas sections where teachers have posted their experiences. In this section, there is also a Teacher Domain, where teachers can find over 1,000 free online media resources to aid their teaching.

Word Generation was evaluated, and the results indicate that the model works with adolescents, especially those with lower skills who have had less exposure to text. The research section contains several articles, one related to this model and teaching science and the other geared toward younger children.

Teachers who use this website will find much of value. Its most important contribution is to invite teaches to rethink their practice and spend more quality time on vocabulary development, no matter what subject is being taught, and to integrate basic language skills—reading, writing, speaking, and listening—when exploring words and their meanings.

Required Training

This is a self-contained website that provides an excellent guide for teachers or a teaching tool for more capable students. The 7-Step Intro to Website Pathway will assist users. A study circle or group of action researchers could work together to fully explore this website as an intervention to improve teaching.

What the experts say

This website, although geared to 7th and 8th grade school children, has some very helpful and valuable insights into vocabulary teaching for adult educators. Catherine Snow is the leading expert in her field and the techniques used to teach vocabulary are cutting edge. The principles she uses can guide professional development: words must be generative, with learner friendly definitions, frequently repeated in lessons in a variety of contexts. Word families and meaning are stressed. Most importantly the concept that vocabulary words are ideas, not just words to be learned, is explained.

Video clips explaining the principles and teaching approaches are in small very accessible chunks. The citizenship emphasis and civics themes will be most useful to GED teachers and teachers preparing ESL learners for citizenship exams. Stress on academic vocabulary is most useful to those teachers preparing adults for post-secondary study. The stress on logical presentation of ideas and how to present arguments with rigor and logic is invaluable here. The website is very easy to use and navigate.

An adult educator might select a small number of academic words to teach each week in the context of different subjects, such as language arts/reading, math, science, and social studies. The use of “accountable talk” and debate is interesting, even with non-native speakers of English. The discussion of the myths of vocabulary development is helpful. The extensive list of topics offers interesting options to adult students for building their reading vocabulary, oral skills, and writing as well as knowledge of content subjects. Links provide other resources that can be helpful to adult education teachers.

This well-funded project with an impressive group of researchers cooperating with large public school systems represents an effort at academic reform that is worth following, especially as more research results become available.

As with any website, there are some cautions and questions. These materials are for middle school children. Some of the assumptions made clearly may not apply in adult settings. Practitioners will have to mix and match what is useful. These are higher level academic materials and do not deal with non-GED life-skill or workplace needs. Hence teachers need to be selective in their use. Stress is bottom-up and not top down. The immediate and stated needs of the learner are not foundational. The assumption is on continuous instruction for longer periods of time. The ABE learners typically do not have longer than 3 months (average) stay in class. The classroom videos were interesting, but it was a bit hard to understand all the student talk in the natural setting.

The SERP website leaves some questions unanswered. How did the developers arrive at these particular instructional strategies? What is the research base for their selection? How were they able to gain the cooperation of middle school content area teachers across the curriculum? What is the extent of teacher participation in the project in the Boston Public Schools? The field study is ongoing so the website is unable to report definitive results of the research effectiveness of the approach.

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