In an opinion piece in Education Week last month, research neuropsychologist Steven L. Miller argued that education technology should be used to close the "30 million word gap." Because it can personalize learning, he wrote, it can help students catch up faster than anything a teacher can do in a classroom. And with the word gap ever-widening, speed is key.
We here at Vocabulary.com could not agree more.
First, some background. The 30 million figure Miller cites emerged from a groundbreaking study conducted by University of Kansas child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley in 1995. After recording every word heard by 42 children for an hour a month over the course of the first three years of that child's life, Hart & Risley extrapolated that by age four, children in middle class families will have heard 30 million more words than their peers living in poverty.
Since the release of the Hart & Risley study, teachers and researchers have worked to create vocabulary interventions to address this gap; the Common Core's emphasis on academic vocabulary reflects this research and knowledge. However, as Miller points out, the gap doesn't start to close once a student enters school. In fact, it continues to grow.
Children with lower vocabulary skills are often poor readers, so they continue to fall further and further behind in academic language and cognitive skills.…As schools try to maximize the learning that occurs each day, that gap becomes wider and wider.…These children aren’t just 30-million words behind; the rate at which they acquire and use words is also behind.… [Only technology can] deliver individualized instruction to allow children to fill in learning gaps at their own pace. Students know the technology will meet them at their level, wherever that may be, and provide the encouragement they need. This differentiated approach over a short duration can help children become faster learners by specifically addressing weaknesses—and providing opportunities for success.
Full disclosure: Miller works for an education technology firm, Nervanix, which creates a hardware/software device that monitors students' attention as they work. But his logic jibes with what we hear from teachers and administrators using Vocabulary.com to supplement vocabulary-education curricula in their classrooms. They tell us that the students who need the most help learning words are able to get it from our game in a way it's simply impossible for a teacher to provide. And once they're hooked, they can't seem to stop learning.
Two examples stand out. Librarian and literacy support specialist Ramona Ho of Kamehameha School in Maui, Hawaii told us that her students whose literacy scores were the farthest behind were getting the most out of our game. As we wrote in the February 2015 issue of our educator newsletter:
[Ho] was expecting the highest-scoring students to have the most fun with the game, but in fact it was the lowest-scoring readers who truly took off and ran with it.
Ho credited the game's adaptive learning capacity for her students' enthusiasm. Because it's effort-based and truly differentiates instruction, students feel successful on their own terms when they play. That feeling translates to motivation, explaining how low-scoring students ended up sticking with the program long enough for it to make a difference in the way they performed on reading assessments.
For one of Ho's low-scoring students, in fact, the result was extraordinary. After only a few months of play, this student had accumulated over a million points. "She had low confidence at reading. [But] she loved [Vocabulary.com]," Ho reported. "It really challenged her, but it was at her level so she didn't have to reach too high."
Kamehameha measures student reading progress using the NWEA standardized test. In any given year, Ho explained, a jump of two points in a student's score translates to strong, steady progress and on-track learning. What sort of points jump did they see from the million-point earner? 15.
Earlier last year, in December, we'd heard from teacher Elizabeth Ellison of the Fisler School in Fullerton, CA after two of her students' videos won prizes in a Vocab Video Contest we co-sponsored with the New York Times Learning network. Ellison told us that until she started assigning Vocabulary.com, she could not find an effective way to help her students learn vocabulary.
Overall, "vocabulary is one of our greatest areas of weakness," Ellison reported. "For years I've been frustrated by the lack of word knowledge and word sense my students have." Using a patchwork of teaching materials at her disposal, she said, she felt she was "constantly reinventing the wheel.…[and then] I go to vocabulary workshops and they want kids to draw pictures of every single word. That's so tedious." Meanwhile, "my kids had this mentality that learning vocabulary is simply memorizing the definitions to words." With Vocabulary.com, all that has started to change.…
When she introduced Vocabulary.com earlier this fall, she explained, the program immediately got students hooked. "Right away I could see that it was going to be motivating for my students and easy for me to use. Within the first day I was getting results. The way the students rack up points is encouraging to them. They're drawn in and keep practicing. They're learning without realizing it. And they're asking for more."
The fact that Ho and Ellison have found, as Miller suggests, that properly tuned educational games will "meet [students] at their level" tells us that what we have created is working, that our game is truly adaptive, i.e. able to match what we can deduce about a student's abilities and prior knowledge to the statistical models we've built for each of the more than 120,000 questions in the game. (See our white paper for more information about the science behind the game.) All this effort, we hope, means that students will be learning words in the fastest, most efficient way possible...and have it feel like fun.
So when we read pieces like Miller's, we say, "Hear hear! Let the closing of the 30 million word gap begin!"
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