Big Word Club sees vocabulary as determining kids’ school success
Can you give a definition for ‘prehensile?’ The preschoolers at Burlington Elementary School can, thanks to a novel approach developed in Boulder, for expanding the vocabulary of young kids.
Known as Big Word Club, Shane DeRolf, a Boulder-based children’s author and producer , created the web-based program after doing some research into the achievement gap between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds.
If education is the great equalizer, he thought, then why do children who start behind often stay behind?
While it was first believed to be some sort of genetic phenomena, study after study now shows that a child’s vocabulary, or lack thereof, is the most effective determinant of a child’s educational success .
“The research is clear that having a strong vocabulary allows you to have greater reading comprehension and success in future years,” Diane Lauer the assistant superintendent of priority programs and academic support for the St. Vrain Valley School District, said .
“Vocabulary is part of your background knowledge, so if you don’t know what a word means you can’t make a picture in your mind and it’s like you have holes in your understanding and the longer it takes you to be successful at something the easier it is to give up.”
DeRolf, an 11-time Emmy winning writer for animated children’s shows , became mildly obsessed with creating some sort of solution for this phenomena after reading a study published in 1995 by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, two researchers from the University of Kansas .
Fast, fun, effective
For three years, Hart and Risley meticulously sampled the number of words spoken to young children from 42 families at three different socioeconomic levels: welfare homes, working-class homes and professionals’ homes .
By the end of the three years, they found that children in professional homes were exposed to an average of more than 1,500 more spoken words per hour, for various reasons, than children in welfare homes. That results in 32 million words by the time a child is 3 and entering pre-school .
While this study has been criticized in recent years for not taking other forms of communication, aside from speech, into consideration, the basis of the study is sound; kids with lower vocabularies have a harder time in school and ultimately work in lower-paying industries.
“Whatever the cause, the fact remains that millions of 3, 4, and 5-year-old kids start preschool and kindergarten every year knowing hundreds of fewer words than their classmates,” DeRolf said.
“Because kids who start behind tend to stay behind, we wanted to create something that both parents and teachers could easily use that would improve their children’s and student’s vocabularies in fast, fun and effective ways.”
Though there are plenty of programs that attempt to improve the vocabularies of young children, they are often expensive, require significant training and, as the kids say, are “boooring.” Big Word Club was specifically designed to negate these barriers. Costing $6 a month, requiring no teacher or parent training and using books, songs, animation, and dance, Big Word Club introduces preschool and elementary students to a new “big” word everyday without the kids ever realizing that they are “learning,” or their teachers going broke .
The issue when he tried to take Big Word Club into schools was that it simply sounded too good to be true.
That’s when MIT and the University of Toronto offered to conduct the 18th-month study to test the program’s effectiveness. The St. Vrain Valley School district was one of four districts from around the country chosen as a testing ground.
“Job worth doing”
Of the 818 students who used the program around the country, a child at the 50th percentile experienced up to a 13 percent gain on average, jumping to the 63rd percentile after having access to the Big World Club program. A child at the 80th percentile experienced an average 7 percent gain, jumping to the 87th percentile after 17 weeks of Big Word Club access .
The key, teachers and administrators said, is the repetition through different mediums that keep the kids engaged and having fun.
“When we wouldn’t do it one day the kids would specifically ask for it,” said Kathy LeMieux, a 37-year veteran preschool teacher currently at Burlington Elementary. “Because it was presented in a fun, multi-modal way the kids were really focused on it and I think they tried really hard. As a result, I noticed their language increase and I think it instilled a belief in themselves that they can do this, even if they came in thinking they couldn’t. They would be so proud of themselves. when they mastered a word that they didn’t know before.”
With the new research to back up the efficacy of this program, St. Vrain Valley School District will be expanding the use of Big Word Club in the coming years.
As for DeRolf, the next step is simply getting Big Word Club in front of as many children as possible.
“By improving a child’s vocabulary, we improve his or her chances for a successful and happy life,” he said. “Our goal is to improve the vocabulary of every kid on the planet, and that is a job worth doing.”
John Spina: 303-473-1389, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/jsspina24