Research Years 5 - 6: Word Generation for English Language Learners

Catherine Snow, Ph.D.
Harvard University

Claire White, Ph.D.
Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP) Institute

Patrick Hurley, Ph.D.
Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP) Institute


Word Generation was originally designed based on extensive collaboration with teachers. The initial field trial of Word Generation in two Boston middle schools was well received by students and teachers, and student performance on the curriculum-based assessment suggested that the students were indeed learning the words taught (Snow & Lawrence, 2011). Thus the curriculum was expanded to a quasi-experimental study evaluating the effectiveness of the program in eight schools with six comparison sites (Snow, Lawrence & White, 2009). The Institute of Education Sciences funded a full scale experimental evaluation of the program, which was launched in Pittsburgh and Baltimore in 2009-2010, with San Francisco added in 2010-2011.

The original Word Generation curriculum is a cross-content area academic language curriculum designed to teach academic vocabulary that is implemented by English language arts, math, science, and social studies teachers concurrently. On the launch day, the ELA teacher introduces a passage on a controversial topic. Students read the passage and complete a word chart with focus words from the passage. In math the next day, students solve a math problem that is related to the passage and that features the focus words. In science, students read about a science experiment that contains the focus words and engage in a scientific discussion about the experiment. The students then debate the issue raised in the passage on the first day. On the last of the cycle, students take a position on the topic and write about their position in English language arts class. For the CREATE implementation, Word Generation was modified to be used four days a week by English language arts (ELA) teachers in the school-wide intervention. The cross-content area feature was retained by incorporating words that were used in the science- and social-studies-specific curricula.

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Research Questions

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Research Design

For the context of CREATE, researchers adapted ten existing Word Generation units so they could be taught exclusively in the ELA classroom, coordinating topics and words taught as much as possible with the science and social studies materials. Prior to implementation of the CREATE-adapted Word Generation program, the curriculum was presented to teachers in a half-day professional development session which built on the more extensive SIOP training sessions. The intervention was conducted over 12 weeks, 15 minutes per day. In the first year of the school-wide intervention, ten teachers served as treatment instructors with nine control classrooms. In the second year of the school-wide intervention, 12 teachers implemented the curriculum, including teachers who had previously served as the control instructors.

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Curriculum Description

Materials started from engaging dilemmas and utilized specially authored passages of 250-300 words. Word study components, guidance for debates, and a question to be addressed in a student ‘taking a stand’ essay were provided. Researchers created four lessons per week, though teachers could segment the activities to extend to five or even more days.

The Word Generation curricular units all revolved around a civic or moral dilemma, introduced in a brief article that provides some basic argument for and against a particular resolution to the dilemma. The article also embedded the academic words to be taught during that unit. Students then had the opportunity to engage in some focused word study (morphological analysis, cognate recognition, exploring multiple meanings) with the target and related words. They engaged in a debate on the dilemma of the unit, and then wrote a brief essay on the topic. The materials were designed to engage students in purposeful reading, to provide multiple opportunities to use the target vocabulary during discussion as well as writing, and to ensure engagement through the presentation of dilemmas relevant to the lives of middle school students.

Word Generation materials are available at

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All the necessary resources, including videos and powerpoints used in professional development, as well as video of classrooms using the curriculum, student work samples, and all the original curricular materials as well as the CREATE adaptations, are available at The curricular materials are all copyrighted ©SERP.

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Use of the adapted Word Generation materials in conjunction with the other CREATE interventions produced a small but significant impact on student knowledge of the words taught, as measured during the year of random assignment. A similar, slightly larger and also significant effect was found when comparing the performance of students in the control classrooms (year one) to the students of those same teachers the following year when they started implementing the program.

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Engaging topics create contexts in which students can acquire vocabulary, practice purposeful reading, participate in productive discussion, and practice persuasive writing. The CREATE implementation of Word Generation was relatively brief, and involved insufficient time for professional development and support to teachers implementing the program.  Nonetheless, the results were encouraging about the promise of this approach.

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Dixon, L. Q., Zhao, J., Shin, J-Y., Wu, S., Su, J-H., Burgess-Brigham, R., Gezer, M., & Snow, C. (2012).  What we know about second language acquisition: A synthesis from four perspectives. Review of Educational Research, 82, 5-60. doi:10.3102/0034654311433587

Lawrence, J., Capotosto, L., Branum-Martin, L., White, C., & Snow, C. (2012). Language proficiency, home-language status, and English vocabulary development: A longitudinal follow-up of the Word Generation program. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 15, 437-451.

Lawrence, J., White, C., & Snow, C. (2010). The words students need. Educational Leadership, 68(2), 22-26.

Lawrence, J., White, C., & Snow, C. (2011). Improving reading across subject areas with Word Generation. National Center for Research on Educational Achievement and Teaching of English Language Learners (CREATE) Brief,

Snow, C. E. & Lawrence, J. F. (2011).  Word Generation in Boston Public Schools:  Natural history of a literacy intervention. Volume III, Senior Urban Education Research Fellowship Series. Washington, DC: Council of the Great City Schools.


View information on Word Generation for English Learners in Years 1 - 4.

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