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When researchers from the Strategic Education Research Partnership met with Boston secondary school teachers three years ago, the teachers told them they had a problem. Students struggled to understand their textbook lessons because they continually tripped up on—or glossed over—the academic words they came across.
They would stumble on words such as “deduce” or “notwithstanding” or interpret a phrase like ‘“gross domestic product” to mean something icky that is found in the home.
“They’ll think they know the definition of the word. They’ll apply what they know, but they won’t actually challenge themselves,” Jennifer Henderson DiSarcina, one of the middle school teachers who has worked with SERP researchers, said in a videotaped interview.
The researchers’ solution—which SERP researchers last month began making widely available for free to schools around the country—is a program called Word Generation. It consists of short, engaging vocabulary-boosting lessons that are taught each day by different teachers across the middle school curriculum.
A rigorous evaluation of the program has yet to be done, but preliminary studies point to promising results. After 12 weeks of lessons, students who took part in the program scored as well on vocabulary tests as nonparticipating students who were two years older, according to Catherine E. Snow, the Harvard University scholar who is leading the Word Generation project.
The early studies also showed that, while all students improved, the effects were strongest for English-language learners, who represent one fifth of the 55,800-student Boston district’s enrollment.
Word Generation is the first “use inspired” product for the SERP Institute, which was formed by the National Academies with financial help from a wide range of private foundations in 2003 as a vehicle for improving educational research, and getting educators to use it, by conducting studies that are rooted in real-world problems.
Cycles of Improvement
The SERP researchers are showcasing the program on a new professional-development Web site that includes videotaped interviews with teachers and researchers, sample lessons, links to webinars, and invitations to summer sessions on the program at Harvard University. The site also invites teachers to give feedback on the sample lessons and materials, so that SERP researchers can continue to improve the product.
The Word Generation program is built around a series of questions and activities, including debates and essays.
What is the purpose of school?
Where are the women in math and science?
What is American?
Cloning: Threat or opportunity?
Does rap music have a negative impact on kids?
Animal Testing: Is it necessary?
SOURCE: Strategic Education Research Partnership
“It is one of our broad goals to make the products of our collaborative efforts widely available and, by widely, whenever possible we mean freely,” said M. Suzanne Donovan, the executive director at SERP’s headquarters in Washington. “We don’t see this as an end product that needs to be sold and, therefore, defended, but as a collaboration that will continue to improve over time.”
The SERP program grew out of several study panels formed beginning in 1997 by the National Academies, the congressionally chartered group that advises the federal government on scientific matters. (“Real-World Problems Inspire R&D Solutions Geared to Classroom,” Oct. 10, 2007.)
The panels envisioned SERP as the major vehicle in a 15-year strategy for improving education research at the national level. The original idea was to partner with states on research projects, but, when state funding fell short, the SERP team retooled its plan to focus on districts.
Now, besides Boston, the partnership is working with schools in San Francisco and the 25 districts that make up the Minority Student-Achievement Network, an effort aimed at narrowing achievement gaps in suburban districts with racially and ethnically diverse student populations.
Ms. Donovan said the partnership expects to draw in more districts in the fall, when it launches a randomized controlled study of the Word Generation program with funding from the federal Institute of Education Sciences.
The partnership is rolling its first products at a time when interest in the research-to-development connection in education has grown. After at least eight years in which the focus at national policymaking levels was on promoting scientific experimentation in education, thinkers and politicians are talking more now about developing innovative, research-derived strategies that can be applied to practical problems. (“‘Scientifically Based’ Giving Way to ‘Development,’ ‘Innovation,’” Jan. 28, 2009.)
“Serp’s model of problem-based research and development is very close to what we’re touting,” said James W. Kohlmoos, the president of the Knowledge Alliance, a Washington-based industry group that has been working to draw more attention to innovation and development.
“And now they’ve got a track record in Boston and San Francisco, and they’ve got some product, so their model is solid,” he said. “Funding is always an issue, though, because that kind of research intensity is expensive.”
Spreading the Word
Mr. Kohlmoos favors involving commercial vendors in the research-and-development process to more widely market the partnership’s products.
But Ms. Donovan, the SERP executive director, said commercial involvement might get in the way of perfecting programs, such as Word Generation, at this stage.
“As soon as you commercialize something, you have to defend it,” she said. “And we don’t want to say, ‘This is it.’ ”
Even without the help of professional marketing, use of Word Generation has already begun to spread.
“We designed Word Generation to solve problems that people in Boston had,” said Ms. Snow, who is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Then it turns out that a lot of districts came up to us to say, ‘We would like to try this out, because it solves our problems, too.’ ”
For Ms. Snow, the Word Generation development effort provided an opportunity to give practical expression to a lifetime of conducting research on the importance of vocabulary in children’s reading development. She found, in earlier studies with young children, that having a rich vocabulary at age 5 was one of the strongest predictors of children’s reading success over the next 10 years.
In adolescence, though, the reading-comprehension task becomes different, and more complex, as students begin to encounter academic language in their textbooks—words they may have heard before, but never really understood.
The dilemma for the SERP researchers was how to make lessons on some of those “all purpose” academic words engaging for students and, at the same time, avoid putting too much of the teaching burden on the English language arts teacher. After all, words such as “analyze” and “eligible” are just as common, if not more so, in social studies and other subjects.
The researchers addressed the first issue by embedding the words in readings on provocative, relevant topics, such as steroid use among professional athletes, the war in Iraq, or cyberbullying. On the Web site so far, the researchers have posted three years’ worth of topics.
“Part of our goal is to get kids connected to the national conversation,” Ms. Snow said. “Some of these topics will have to be reviewed or abandoned when they’re not in the headlines anymore.”
The SERP team dealt with the second issue by breaking vocabulary-building activities into 15-minute increments, including debates and discussions, that could be taught by different subject-matter teachers each day of the school week. The culminating activity takes place on Friday, when students use the words to write a position paper on the weekly reading topic.
“It’s really a good time for me to get to know [the students] as people and talk about what’s going on in the world,” Ms. Henderson DiSarcina, a middle school math teacher, says in her videotaped interview, which is posted on the Web site. “The great thing about the hot topics is it’s not just something popular or cool with the kids. It’s something that actually is going to affect them now or in the future.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2009 edition of Education Week