Word Generation is an innovative approach to academic language development for students in grades 4-8. Developed with the Boston Public Schools in 2007, SERP’s original Word Generation program includes weekly units about controversial topics each with brief lessons for middle school teachers in all academic subjects. SERP has also recently created extended units of study about a variety of social studies and science topics. Fourth and fifth grade units are now available as well.
Perspective Taking, Reasoning, and Argumentation
a research-based program for middle school students designed to teach academic vocabulary in language arts, math, science, and social studies classes.
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What is Word Generation?
the use of controversial topics
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The program consists of weekly units each of which introduces five high-utility target academic words embedded in articles about engaging topics. The articles summarize national or local controversies currently under debate and often in the news. The paragraphs are intended to help students join ongoing "national conversations" by sparking active examination and discussion of contemporary issues. The target words are relevant to a range of settings and subject areas. The cross-content focus on a small number of words each week enables students to understand the variety of ways in which words are used, and the multiple exposures to words provide ample opportunities for learners to develop a deeper understanding.
The Word Generation program focuses on academic vocabulary, i.e., words that students are likely to encounter in textbooks and on tests, but not in spoken language. Interpret, prohibit, vary, function, and hypothesis are examples. Academic vocabulary includes (a) words that refer to thinking and communicating, like infer and deny, and (b) words that are common across subjects, but hold different meaning depending on the subject, such as element and factor. Both types of academic vocabulary are likely to cause problems with comprehension unless students have been taught how to deal with them.
New York City Public Schools are now implementing Word Generation in 92 Middle Schools! They have even developed supplements, recorded training videos, and more!
Check out the work they have done!
Support for Word Generation provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Noyce Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Leon Lowenstein Foundation and the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education through grant numbers R305A090555 and R305F100026.
proven approaches v. myths
The target words are presented in the context of a paragraph that displays academic writing and that introduces a controversial topic of interest to adolescents. The program is meant to be implemented school-wide (or across an entire grade or team within a school). Teachers in different content areas display the target words in different contexts. Activities provided for the content-area teachers highlight authentic uses of the target words in their subject matter. These activities link to standards and skills expected of students within the various content areas (e.g., interpreting a bar graph on the incidence of obesity as a math activity, debating the censorship question as a social studies activity, analyzing the use of nonliteral language in hip-hop lyrics as an English Language Arts activity). The introductory paragraphs and supplementary activities introduce students to domains of world knowledge (global warming, the relationship between schooling and income, the relationship between obesity and diabetes) that are important for reading popular media with comprehension. Students might have little access to such domains otherwise.
academically productive talk
a program that builds the reasoning and argumentation skills that are necessary for learning in all content areas.
Students discuss or debate a new issue each week, supporting their position with evidence and responding to the reasoning of others. Debating with peers has been highly motivating for students in Word Generation classrooms. The program relies on students’ desire to do well in debate as a motive for careful reading of the text, to collect evidence with which to defend a position or rebut the contrary view. Students are typically more advanced in their verbal arguments than in their written arguments. Weekly writing tasks allow students to practice putting their arguments into written form, allowing the more challenging writing to be pulled along by the arguments articulated orally.
a program that sets students on a path to college and career readiness by providing multiple perspectives on complex problems, and requiring that students sift through evidence that supports or contradicts particular perspectives.
discussion and debate
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Word Generation, the Common Core State Standards. and the Next Generation Science Standards
MS SOCIAL STUDIES UNITS
The Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District in Massachusetts is now using iPads and PDF annotation software instead of printed materials.
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a program that builds reading comprehension and content-area literacy by providing students with motivating text, opportunities for discussion and debate, and weekly expository writing.
ways to introduce new words
Details about the Curriculum
The Word Generation program provides a well-structured opportunity to introduce the practices that have been elevated by the CCSS and NGSS. Though Word Generation preceded the CCSS, it was designed by preeminent researchers whose work influenced the development of the standards. Consequently, the program was designed from the start to maximize students’ opportunities to engage in the practices that promote higher order thinking and learning, a feature that distinguishes Word Generation from programs that are being retrofitted in an effort to “align” with the standards.
Multiple perspectives are provided on each Word Generation topic, and students are provided with evidence that supports each perspective. One of the greatest developmental challenges for students is to understand the reasoning of others. Young students generally believe that ideas are right or wrong. The notion that there may be different perspectives on the cause of a war, and that evidence can help us decide which explanation is most defensible, is at the core of learning history. Similarly, the notion that our scientific knowledge about the world is based on evidence and reasoning, not on a truth handed down by brilliant people in white coats, is at the heart of understanding science. Students must have the opportunity and the support to develop these more complex understandings.
The ability to take multiple perspectives is not only important for academic learning, however; it is also at the root of social and emotional learning. Students who know how to listen to conflicting perspectives, and argue respectfully about differences using evidence, have a better chance at successfully negotiating their way through the challenges of adolescence and into adulthood. Taking multiple perspectives is also at the core of successful argumentation. A good argument of course uses evidence in support of a position, but also uses evidence to counter alternative positions. Anticipating how someone who disagrees with you will think is crucial to successful argumentation.
Other Benefits of Word Generation
Core Program Elements
The Word Generation program is being used by thousands of teachers in districts around the U.S.—and in 11 other countries. Feedback from users suggests that Word Generation can have benefits beyond those for which the program was designed. Because teachers participate across content areas, the introduction and implementation of the program requires groups of teachers who may not frequently have the opportunity to discuss instruction to work together and to hold each other accountable for supporting students' vocabulary and literacy development. The program therefore provides an opportunity to build collective efficacy at the school site.
When the program is used across a middle school, principals can reinforce the vocabulary by using it in announcements. Some schools have created field trips or other activities as a result of engagement with Word Generation topics. Teachers report that trips to the local courthouse are more engaging when students ask questions about the death penalty or minimum sentencing. Some schools communicate with parents about Word Generation topics and vocabulary so that parents can discuss the issues with their children, and use the words themselves to reinforce learning.