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Learning All-Purpose Academic Words

Catherine Snow, Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Presented September 6, 2007


The relationship between reading comprehension and vocabulary is well-established, and content area teachers recognize their responsibilities to teach students the words associated with their disciplines—words like photosynthesis, legislative, and dodecahedron. Unfortunately, second language speakers in particular (and students from low-literacy families more generally) often don't know the all-purpose academic words—words like process, formulate, and structure—that occur with high frequency in both content area textbooks and the definitions of disciplinary words. There is little space in the structure of departmentalized middle and high schools to teach these words, as important as they are.

In this presentation, Dr. Snow provides an overview of Word Generation, a program that builds on research-based principles for teaching vocabulary to design instructional units that focus on all-purpose academic words for students in the middle grades. In addition to teaching vocabulary, it provides opportunities to engage in purposeful academic discussion and write persuasive essays. Her discussion also includes results from a pilot implementation in three schools that provide some evidence of the program's effectiveness in addressing these goals as well as in leading to higher levels of student motivation.

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