I’m just back from the International Literacy Conference and I was struck my some apparent elementary ELA industry trends:

Games on VocabularySpellingCity.

Games on VocabularySpellingCity.

  • Principals, literacy coaches, and teachers all seemed to be moving away from basal readers as core curriculum. More often, they are now using them as supplementary materials.
  • The educational standards are taking center stage as the organizing principle of ELA curriculum. In many cases, they are taking the “One Standard a Week” approach, which everyone knows is an odd way to organize curriculum. Despite that, they like the focus on core skills as defined by the standards.
  • Many schools are using modified Depth of Knowledge (DOK) approaches with their own interpretations of the DOK.
  • Words Their Way (WTW) seems to be growing in popularity, although I often heard that they are “taking a WTW approach” but not necessarily trying for a high fidelity implementation.
  • The role that technology-based solutions can play in ELA is becoming much better understood.
  • The need for better vocabulary-building strategies is being recognized as a missing link or key strategy to improve reading comprehension and to build overall academic success and reading habits. Several people mentioned the statistic that 70% of reading comprehension problems can be traced to vocabulary issues.

It is these last two points that I’d like to discuss today (I’ll return to the first four in my next posts) and which make me very optimistic about the strategic decisions that we’ve made at VocabularySpellingCity over the last few years. As background, most elementary educators have a passing familiarity with SpellingCity, which is the service that we offer for free.

SpellingCity is known primarily for automating and gamifying spelling practice, being incredibly easy to use, and for being free. Of course it’s popular. But it’s only the start of what we provide. It’s amazing how often we hear from schools that have used our free features for years that “if I had only known about your premium membership, I would have added it years ago. It is so much more than I imagined.”

Solving the Vocabulary Dilemma

Our strategic direction changed a few years ago, as we’ve been developing an understanding of how to dramatically improve students’ vocabulary skills. A central problem we see in most elementary classrooms is that while teachers do teach effectively, they do it under enormous pressure to cover lots of material which translates into a lesson-per-week routine and does not include the spaced practice that is central for retention and particularly for vocabulary-building. While a large amount of early ELA materials in grades K-2 involve core skills and knowledge which gets reinforced and practiced every day, this is less the case with 3rd grade and up. In the early grades, there’s a great deal of basic letters, phonological skills, and phonics. Once acquired, they get used daily. The same is true with some vocabulary.

Writing sentences using vocabulary words.

Writing sentences using vocabulary words.

But with a lot of vocabulary, this ongoing routine reinforcement is not true. For ELA students who speak a language other than English at home, even Tier I words get no routine reinforcement. Sadly, the same is true of many students in Title I schools going home to language-poor environments. And almost all of the content and academic vocabulary, which are often the keys to vital academic concepts, get introduced, studied, practiced, and assessed in one week. Next week, new topic. All that learning … it evaporates.  Teachers know this, but have no particular idea how to find the techniques or time to address. This is the core problem that VocabularySpellingCity is helping teachers, schools, and districts solve.

The solution is really very simple to implement. Most elementary school classrooms already have a daily literacy block which includes literacy centers. There are some for reading alone, sometimes peer or paired reading, etc., but there’s almost always one center that is the vocabulary or word study center. We know a lot about this since for years, this center has been one of the primary usage models of VocabularySpellingCity. However, most teachers have just asked the students to pick their favorite games (and with the free version, there are only spelling games) and to use this week’s words in them.

The change that we are prescribing is to dedicate part of each week’s word work to the words studied in the previous weeks. Our simplest prescription is to go back two to four weeks and use those words on Tuesday and Thursday. We are also urging teachers to use the assignment features in VocabularySpellingCity to make sure that students are studying the right words and are working on using them in context, hearing them, writing them in sentences, segmenting them by sounds, and recognizing the number of syllables. This approach, easy to implement since the changes to curriculum and schedule are minimal, provides the spaced, multi-modal, multiple encounters with words and ideas that greatly increase the probability of long-term retention.

The Role of Technology

In discussions at ILA, I found that most principals and teachers understand the difference between the programs that set up individual skill-based learning paths for each student. They provide a learning path which is independent of what is going on day-to-day within the classroom. They understand that there is a role for technology in project-based learning which is also valuable.   VocabularySpellingCity is very different from almost all the other technology-based products, with our focus on using technology to help the teacher with the practice of whatever the teacher is teaching.

Here’s an example:

English Sounds and Spellings

Sounds with Spellings

Imagine a 4th grade class that reads a story about a kid in a raft who floats down a river into the ocean. A sharp cross-curricular approach would be to provide an integrated science/social studies lesson and teach in that unit the concepts of river, current, river bank, ocean, tide, delta, fresh water, salt water, raft, and float. Each of these are vital concepts which can take some time and effort for the students to absorb. Rafts float, rivers flow, tides go up and down. Many teachers will succeed in teaching students these complex ideas and on Friday, test day, many students might have mastered them. But the proficiency and understanding of these complex ideas is tied to the labels, the tags – the vocabulary words – that describe them.  If the student is not forced to recall and think about these concepts over more than a week, these lessons probably won’t last, since next week’s story might be set someplace else. But VocabularySpellingCity, with our rich aural input, activities for using (writing and recognizing) words in context, and our focus on breaking words down by sound, provides a way to work these memories over weeks required to make these memories last.

Interested in finding out how we can help your school or district tweak your program to greatly increase vocabulary retention and reading comprehension? We have the ideas, program and PD to help you this year. Give us a call and ask for how we can implement today: (800) 357-2157. Or contact us online.

John, Mayor of VocabularySpellingCity

Words Their Way Optimized

Words Their Way Optimized

P.S. Many schools were delighted to hear that we have research on how to improve and simplify your Words Their Way implementation. I’ll write more on this later. Or ask us for our White Paper and examples of how VocabularySpellingCity and Words Their Way work optimally today. We have it ready to go. We also have the lists for Journeys and many other popular reading series ready to go; just ask us.

PPS.  I enjoyed the many conversations with educators about your thoughts, reactions to our products, and about your students and schools. I’d like to call you all out. I was particularly struck by your enthusiasm for coming to a conference like ILA and how much you enjoyed seeing and talking with so many people. And I heard over and over again how happy they were with the conference sessions. The conference session that stood out the most to me was by Dr. Danny Brassell. It was partially because he spoke on the importance of vocabulary to literacy and effective reading; it was partially because he was so high energy, insightful, and uplifting; but it was mostly because  he made me laugh so hard.   Thanks Danny, until next time!

Dr. Danny Brassell with the Mayor of VocabularySpellingCity

Dr. Danny Brassell with the Mayor of VocabularySpellingCity

Vocabulary Building for Elementary School Students

One thought on “Vocabulary Building for Elementary School Students

  • July 18, 2016 at 8:14 pm

    As I look back on this last year, and how hard I worked on developing my students’ vocabulary, I can’t help but realize that my failures, for lack of a better word, were not due to poor instructional sequences, word choice mistakes, or inadequate word knowledge strategies. What I struggled with was keeping words in my learning community. Yes, we used the words in conversation, listened for them on TV or in movies, included them in our writing, and noticed them in texts. But, not EVERY word fell into place so neatly. What I had a hard time doing was keeping the words going throughout the year, especially the words that gave students trouble. This idea of spaced practice hits home. VocabularySpellingCity will help me provide the extended, spaced review and practice that my word work centers cannot; it compliments my explicit instruction and will help me keep the words we need to know and use on the tip of our tongues!


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