By Karen Taylor
How do you take middle school literacy improvement efforts beyond the English-language arts classroom? Several sets of recent standards encourage literacy learning across content areas (Common Core State Standards, C3 Framework, and NGSS), but how can middle school teachers work together to promote their students’ literacy?
WordGen Weekly is an interdisciplinary, supplementary curricular resource for middle schools desiring to foster their students’ academic language and argumentation skills. It was developed in collaboration between Strategic Education Research Partnership (or, SERP), and Boston Public Schools and other districts in Massachusetts and Maryland, under the direction of Catherine Snow at Harvard University. Numerous foundations supported the development of the original WordGen Weekly series for grades 6-8. The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences later supported the development of three additional Word Generation programs (WordGen Elementary, Science Generation, and Social Studies Generation) through Reading for Understanding grants.
Word Generation is now used by thousands of teachers across the U.S. In a typical WordGen Weekly unit centered on a discussable topic (for example, Cloning: Threat or Opportunity?), students learn relevant academic vocabulary words, and they learn about the controversial issue through a math activity, a science activity, and then a debate in social studies class. Classroom discussion is emphasized throughout the lessons. At the end of the week, students are challenged to apply higher order thinking in an argumentative writing piece where they synthesize their position on the topic.
These learning activities may sound like they take a lot of time. But the organization of WordGen makes it fairly easy to implement. Students spend about 15-20 minutes per day using the program, and the math, social studies, science, and ELA teachers each spend one of those segments per week, with the exception of ELA having two 15-20 minute segments per week due to the writing activity. (However, some schools choose different ways to configure the time.)
A key ingredient to smooth school-wide implementation? A collaborative school culture already in place, although trying out WordGen could be a great way to start on the path of organizing teacher teams for professional learning.
WordGen has been the focus of a number of research studies and articles. For example, some of them focus on academic vocabulary, some address disciplinary literacy, and some of them point to the quality of classroom discussion as a promising instructional practice.
Considering the developmental period of early adolescence in relation to literacy learning, noted reading researcher Jean Chall puts it this way; once students have cracked the code of learning to read, then they can begin to move into the next level of reading to learn (Chall, 1983). From an education policy standpoint, a lot of attention has been dedicated to the primary grades (K-3) and reading instruction. However, in recent years, the subject of adolescent literacy has also gained traction (see the Carnegie Report, Reading Next).
WordGen is a promising example of a middle school literacy resource that has flowed out of the tide since Reading Next. And although programs such as WordGen and the newer educational standards emphasize literacy across subject areas, the issue of adolescent literacy has a long history (see this article to see how Vicki Jacobs puts everything in context).
In a lesson video of the unit on secret wiretapping, Mr. Buttimer asks his students, “So why do some people think that secret or covert wiretapping is a bad idea? Why are people opposed to it?” A student responds, “Because, well it says (referring to the text in her WordGen notebook), they think wiretapping violates a person’s right to privacy.” In this brief conversational turn, Mr. Buttimer begins a discussion about the perspectives surrounding secret wiretapping, and later the students adopt various positions on the issue in order to have a classroom debate.
WordGen is freely available online.
Permission to use the images in this post was granted by Strategic Education Research Partnership in accordance with the following Creative Commons License.
Biancarosa, G., & Snow, C. E. (2004). Reading Next-A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy: A Report from Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.
Chall, J. (1983). Stages of Reading Development. New York: McGraw-Hill.