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Adlof leads development of online tutor to accelerate vocabulary acquisition

August 11, 2016 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

Suzanne Adlof was wrapping up her postdoctoral fellowship in the Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) at the University of Pittsburgh when Adam Kapelner, then a doctoral student in applied statistics at the University of Pennsylvania, gave a presentation for the Reading and Language research group about a web-based program he developed to help students improve their vocabulary knowledge in preparation for tests such as the ACT, SAT, or GRE. Kapelner had originally created the online tool to help him improve his own vocabulary as he prepared to return to graduate school. The program taught word meanings by bringing together dictionary definitions and real-world examples of words used in context, including sentences, pictures, and videos.

“He had provided sentence contexts from the program to Margaret McKeown, who is a renowned vocabulary researcher and Senior Scientist in the LRDC, and he was sharing the program with several high school teachers at the time,” says Adlof, who is now an assistant professor in the Arnold School’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (COMD) and specializes in language and literacy. “The basic idea was founded on strong cognition and learning principles, and I thought it could be a great product that could be taken even further if it had a grant to support it.”

Our goal is to help students improve their vocabulary because we know vocabulary instruction is rare in most high school curricula, even though it is a predictor of success in all academic domains.

-Suzanne Adlof, Assistant Professor of COMD

Fast forward five years, several program revisions, and three rounds of pilot studies with high school and transitioning college students, and the result is DictionarySquared. Adlof and Kapelner, now an Assistant Professor at Queens College, teamed up with McKeown and Charles Perfetti, Director of the LRDC and professor of psychology, to secure a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. With Adlof serving as the principal investigator, the team worked to transform a great idea into a sophisticated, practical application with usage linked to significant improvements in vocabulary testing performance for high school students. The development of the tutor also allows the researchers to study broader trends in learning and literacy acquisition.

“Our goal is to help students improve their vocabulary because we know vocabulary instruction is rare in most high school curricula, even though it is a predictor of success in all academic domains,” says Adlof of the “vocabulary tutor” that offers game-like activities and incentives to keep students engaged. “We hope that by improving vocabulary, we also improve reading comprehension and performance on high stakes tests. More broadly, we hope the program has a positive influence on students’ overall college and career readiness.”

The next major study for DictionarySquared will include nearly 1,000 high school students (roughly doubling the number of students who have had access to the tool) in Texas, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania in a randomized control trial that is kicking off with the new school year. The fall session will have an experimental component to determine if usage of the program significantly improves vocabulary and reading comprehension performance compared to standard classroom procedures. The spring session will evaluate learning and retention throughout the year. Meanwhile, the team already has several papers under development for publication in scientific journals.

We have put a lot of effort into developing methods for finding good examples of words in context, including both computerized and manual techniques, and in developing activities to ensure that students are really learning the words.

-Suzanne Adlof, Assistant Professor of COMD

With a web-based format and responsive design, students can access the site inside or outside of school on devices ranging from laptops to cell phones for the 75 minutes/week that the study recommends. A large time commitment is not required by teachers, though the researchers have observed in the previous pilot studies that students’ usage of the program is generally better when their teachers are engaged in exchanging feedback with the researchers.

Outside the classroom, there are practical considerations. Vocabulary is an important component of literacy, including health literacy. As one of the major social determinants of health, literacy impacts numerous other aspects of one’s life, including knowledge regarding prevention of chronic diseases and access to quality health care services.

Maximizing the effectiveness of a program like this one is not as simple as transferring flash cards into an electronic format. It’s not just a matter of improving the graphics and creating a new user interface for teachers and students—which they’ve done. The program’s progression has required very careful and complicated planning and development in terms of content and learning mechanisms.

“We’ve learned a lot through our pilot studies, and we’ve made a large number of improvements along the way,” says Adlof. “One of our major challenges, though, is developing scalable methods for providing instructional content that can be utilized by students with varying abilities. Some students are learning words such as ‘relevant’ and ‘conclude,’ while other students are learning words like ‘perspicacious.’ We have put a lot of effort into developing methods for finding good examples of words in context, including both computerized and manual techniques, and in developing activities to ensure that students are really learning the words.” It’s a time-consuming endeavor that requires the best efforts of the team of literacy, cognitive, and mathematical experts.

Long term, we’d like the tool to become a site that builds itself and can teach any word in the English language.

-Suzanne Adlof, Assistant Professor of COMD

Another characteristic they strategically incorporate is an adaptive, spaced practice approach to expose students to words over time to encourage retention—something a computer can do but is difficult for teachers to achieve on an individual level. While their preliminary data suggest the tool is working, Adlof and her colleagues have even greater aspirations.

“Right now we have approximately 1,000 words in DictionarySquared that span a very wide range of difficulty,” she says. “Long term, we’d like the tool to become a site that builds itself and can teach any word in the English language. We want teachers to be able to enter the words they want their students to learn, and have a site that generates good instructional materials. We would also like to make the tool useful for an even wider range of students, including younger, middle school students.”

At this time, the researchers are still accepting new classrooms and schools to participate in the evaluation of the DictionarySquared program. Interested teachers or administrators can contact the Project Coordinator, Joanna Scoggins at jscoggin@mailbox.sc.edu for information.