Philadelphia School District focuses on vocabulary to help improve student literacy


by Christopher Paslay


True or false: If a student is unfamiliar with only five percent of the words in a particular text, he will not be able to comprehend the overall meaning of the passage.


Answer: True.


Research on student literacy shows that a child can know 19 out of every 20 words on a reading assignment and still fail to grasp the overall meaning.  The unfamiliar words not only throw a monkey wrench into the student’s overall comprehension of the material, but can cause him or her to become frustrated and discouraged with reading altogether.


Of course, there are many students in Philadelphia who know far less than 19 out of every 20 words on school reading assignments.  This is why the District has recently invested in VoyagerU, a series of professional development programs for principals and teachers that focus on improving student literacy through vocabulary.    


As the teacher-liaison for my high school, I’ve attended the first two VoyagerU professional developments (the final two are 5/22 and 6/12).  Although the instruction at times was padded and long-winded, the presentations were a good reminder of the importance of vocabulary when it comes to reading comprehension. 


As a result of the VoyagerU training, our school has decided to generate multi-tiered vocabulary lists across our school’s curriculum.  The lists have been divided into three categories: literacy words (basic reading comprehension words encountered in grades 9-12); content words (subject specific words in math, science, social studies, etc.); and career technology words (words related to our CTE courses, such as automotive, digital media arts, culinary arts, electrical, plumbing, etc.). 


The goal of the lists is to provide a broad, interdisciplinary base of vocabulary at all grade levels for all students.  These words can be reinforced in many different classes over many months.  This will help students comprehend their very technical career-technology texts (many of which are written on a college level), and hopefully increase their overall reading ability.  By the time students graduate, they should be reading on or close to grade level.    


Research indicates that in order for a student to learn and retain a new word, he or she must be exposed to it in a variety of ways; students must read the new word in the context of a meaningful reading passage, they must incorporate it in their writing, and they must be encouraged to use it during conversation.   


The strategies for teaching these vocabulary words will differ from subject to subject.  An English teacher may use semantic mapping or the Frayer Model to introduce a new word, while career-technology teachers might use root-word association to broaden vocabulary.


In addition to VoyagerU, there is an interesting middle-school vocabulary building program being piloted by the Strategic Education Research Partnership called Word Generation.  This program came about when SERP met with Boston secondary school teachers several years ago, and the teachers told them kids were having trouble comprehending their textbooks because they were stumbling over academic words.


Developed under the direction of Harvard University Professor Catherine Snow, Word Generation has four core program components:


• Focus on the Academic Word List – a set of word families that appear frequently in academic texts across disciplines


• Word study curriculum materials, including high-interest paragraphs and associated activities, designed for flexible use by middle school teachers across the curriculum


• Expectation that schools will dedicate at least 15 instructional minutes a day to school-wide (or grade-wide) study of weekly words


Opportunity for each school team to design a practical implementation plan that suits its own particular school context


Broadening vocabulary is a key factor when it comes to increasing the literacy of Philadelphia public school students, and the District should keep focused on teaching students new words.  Programs like VoyagerU and Word Generation are a good first step in achieving that goal. 


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