Word Nerds in Washington State

As soon as Cathy Corrado finished reading Word Nerds: Teaching All Students to Learn and Love Vocabulary (Stenhouse, 2013), she knew it would be a great resource for teachers of the deaf and hard of hearing. Among other things, the book stresses the importance of using visual and physical cues for word practice and building students' recognition of word relationships so they can confidently approach unfamiliar terms.

"It's hard to say to a profoundly deaf kid, 'What sounds do you hear?' Everything has to be visual," says Corrado, who provides literacy and academic support for teachers in Washington State through the Center for Childhood Deafness and Hearing Loss (CDHL). "Things like reading mastery are really hard for struggling deaf kids. It has to be in-your-face obvious. Deaf kids have a phonetic system; it's just not the same as ours. In building fluency, we have to show them the pattern of the rhyme but not make it entirely sound based."

Similar to many students who have learning disabilities, children who are deaf or hard of hearing often don't know the "language" of reading, Corrado says. They don't have the same reference points as hearing students and may lack what's known in special education as executive functioning, which includes the ability to select appropriate strategies for solving problems.

"We know that executive functioning skills depend on language ability. If they want to work on executive functioning, they need to work on language. And if they want to work on language, they have to work on vocabulary. That's why the book is so good."

Corrado says special education coordinators and teachers of the deaf in Washington State are spread out among nine geographically distant educational service districts and rarely get the opportunity to meet in person to engage in professional learning. So she decided to set up an online book study of Word Nerds, using videoconferencing.

"People volunteered to read a chapter and then we reported back at the next meeting two months later," Corrado says. "Some people did a list of what they learned. Some people did a spreadsheet. Everybody's notes were different, what they learned from the chapters. It was a good way to get attention to the book. It really summarized everything in a nice way."

One participant created a graphic organizer to share key points, using the headings Information That Affirmed Current Practices, Information That Gives Us New Ideas, and Information That Needs More Follow-Up. Another participant linked the main ideas in Chapter 4 to literacy strands addressed in the Common Core State Standards.

Julia Fritz, a teacher of the deaf at Cascade Middle School in Vancouver, Washington, says she was struck by the importance of the authors' message that the Common Core expects students, beginning in first grade, to use sentence-level context as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.

"My thought was, 'Teachers of the deaf know this is an ongoing need for deaf and hard-of-hearing kids, but now it is being forced on us to raise the bar even higher with more of those kids in the general education classrooms,'" Fritz says.

Vocabulary is probably the weakest area of literacy development for most deaf and hard-of-hearing students, Fritz says. They share many of the common learning gaps that cause children from high-poverty and language-deficient homes to struggle in school, because families of deaf students often cannot communicate fluently and directly in their children's preferred mode of sign language. Fritz says she was glad that the Word Nerds authors shared successful strategies for addressing the needs of at-risk populations. The book's emphasis on Tier Two words-high-frequency words students will likely encounter in their school reading yet probably don't know well-was an important reminder to make language nuances clear to students and explicitly teach them word-attack strategies for subject-specific terms.

"I have a student right now, and I realized on his standardized test that he's great at math and science, but he doesn't have a lot of words for things," Fritz says. She's using Word Nerds to make sure she addresses his academic vocabulary when completing his Individual Education Plan.

Developing vocabulary knowledge can be especially challenging for students who use sign language, because one sign can represent multiple meanings and synonyms. For example, the same sign is used for discontented and its synonyms aggravated, dissatisfied, and disgusted. Likewise, some words may have multiple signs-there are at least eleven different ways to sign the word run.

"You have to have specially designed vocabulary, and it needs to be very intentional," Fritz says. For multiple meanings of words, she uses graphic organizers to explain some of the variations so students will learn to look for context clues in reading to determine the precise use and signs for words.

Word Nerds includes examples of graphic organizers, such as the adapted Frayer Model and the Graphic Organizer for Crystal Ball Words , which the authors use with students to help them think through word choices when reading, writing, and speaking. The book also recommends giving students practice using cloze sentences to understand how context clues can uncover shades of meaning, as well as finding synonyms, antonyms, and analogies to further clarify the correct terms.

Fritz says she also took many notes on Chapter 7, which stresses the importance of teaching students about prefixes and suffixes and Greek and Latin roots to help them understand word relationships and decipher longer, unfamiliar words.
"I loved this idea," she says. "I think it's such a huge, missing gap. We've gotten rid of studying Greek and Latin parts as a requirement for schools."

Spreading the Word About Vocabulary Instruction

At the time she set up the collaborative book study for her Washington State colleagues, Corrado says she did not know about the study guide that Word Nerds coauthors Brenda Overturf, Leslie Montgomery, and Margot Holmes Smith had prepared to help educators implement the strategies discussed in the book. She later alerted her colleagues to the resource. Corrado also plans to continue discussing Word Nerds through a listserv for state teachers of the deaf.
"We all share the listserv as a common place where we can go and throw a question out and people can respond to it," she says. "Or if they need something, I might say, 'Try this.' What I will do this coming year is share information about great strategies for teaching vocabulary from the book. Then you start generating a conversation about the recommendations: 'What did you think? How did it work?'"

Corrado and Fritz say they learned a great deal from the online book study and recommend the approach to others. They also have some suggestions for maximizing the results:

  • Insist on a collegial dialogue, not just sharing notes or summaries of books under review. "The 'cheat sheets' are nice," Fritz says, "but you don't know what they mean until you have the conversation. The conversation solidifies it and makes it alive for you."
  • Make sure all participants can access notes and important charts and visuals from the books, particularly if they are meeting at remote locations. In Washington State, not all of the educators participating in the video conference about Word Nerds had seen the book prior to the discussion. When conversation turned to some of the useful forms included in the book's appendix, for example, not everyone understood the references. In hindsight, organizers wished they had thought to capture some of the images on screen to refer to during key points in the conversation.
  • Do a test run before the video conference to ensure that school or school district technology departments can troubleshoot potential problems. "Make sure everyone knows how to call back in should they get disconnected during the conference," Fritz says. "Make sure you know how to mute your microphone because of interruptions. Make sure you're not in a room where direct sunlight is shining on the screen, because you won't be able to see the people or documents."