Word Generation: Literacy Development Through Academic Language and Discussion

Instructional Strategies & Protocols
Word Generation: Literacy Development Through Academic Language and Discussion

Word Generation is a cross-content literacy program designed to teach academic language and argumentation in ELA, social studies, science, and math. The program uses compelling topics to engage adolescents in meaningful academic language development work. This is a popular program among teachers, and it has demonstrated significant and positive results in studies.

Map showing the downloads of SERP materials across the United States as of June, 2029.

Teaching Vocabulary to Help Students Learn and Use Disciplinary Content

Considering the amount of pressure to cover content, it is not surprising that many teachers would raise an eyebrow at the tainted notion that "every teacher is a teacher of reading". However, poor literacy skills are a real hindrance for learning and using content in subjects such as science, math, and social studies. The creators of WordGen have searched for ways teachers can improve students' reading comprehension without having to halt curriculum instruction. With WordGen, you can merge content and literacy instruction by utilizing general and content-specific vocabulary to help students articulate their thinking and develop their argumentation skills.

About Word Generation

Word Generation is so much more than a language program. It is designed to teach vocabulary, argumentation, and reading comprehension through ELA, social studies, science, and math. Schools are encouraged to try out the program as a school-wide initiative. However, it is also possible for a team of teachers to collaborate to implement or to go at it alone. Material is freely available at serpinstitute.org.

Types of WordGen programs:

  • WordGen Elementary for 4th and 5th grade consists of twelve two-week units, with 40-50 minute lessons each day.
  • WordGen Weekly for 6th to 8th grade consists of three “series” (years) of materials, with 24 one-week units per series and 15–20 minute activities. 
  • Social Studies Generation for 6th to 8th grade consists of three six-week sequences, with 40-50 minute social studies lessons each day.
  • Science Generation for 6th to 8th grade consists of 18 week-long units with 40-50 minute social studies lessons each day.

How WordGen Weekly Works

Each WordGen Weekly contains a high-interest passage about a controversial topic. Through the text, the students are introduced to selected academic vocabulary words. The text and the vocabulary list are the basis for discussion and weekly writing.

A week of WordGen.

Example WordGen topics and vocabulary

Unit 1.05: Does rap music have a negative impact on youth?
considerable • contribute • demonstrate • sufficient • valid  

Unit 2.07: Should the government fund embryonic stem cell research?
embryo • paralyzed • theory • investigate • obtain  

Unit 3.19: When is it okay to lie?
conceive • unethical • benefit • detect • rationalize  

Why it works

Several research studies have demonstrated that WordGen yields positive and significant results. Our very own Joshua Lawrence has published results from a large randomized trial of the Word Generation program with Dr. Catherine Snow and others (2016, 2015).

Results from a randomized trial of the Word Generation program
Lawrence, Rolland, Branum-Martin, and Snow (2014)

Word Generation is developed by teams of researchers and practitioners. Catherine Snow (Harvard University) led the development of WordGen through a SERP collaboration with the Boston Public Schools and other districts in Massachusetts and Maryland.

Some reasons why it works:

  •  Word Generation is aligned with established research.
  •  Repeated and multiple exposures to words in different contexts.  
  •  Engaging and active learning with high-interest topics and discussions.  

Read more at serpinstitute.org.


Alex R. Lin, Joshua F. Lawrence, Catherine E. Snow and Karen S. Taylor (2016) Assessing Adolescents’ Communicative Self-Efficacy to Discuss Controversial Issues: Findings From a Randomized Study of the Word Generation Program, Theory and Research in Social Education, 44:3, 316-343, DOI: 10.1080/00933104.2016.1203852

Lawrence, J. F., Crosson, A. C., Paré-Blagoev, E. J., and Snow, C. E. (2015). Word Generation Randomized Trial: Discussion Mediates the Impact of Program Treatment on Academic Word Learning. American Educational Research Journal, 52(4), 750–786. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831215579485

Joshua F. Lawrence, Rebecca Givens Rolland, Lee Branum-Martin and Catherine E. Snow (2014) Generating Vocabulary Knowledge for At-Risk Middle School Readers: Contrasting Program Effects and Growth Trajectories, Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR), 19:2, 76-97, DOI: 10.1080/10824669.2014.958836

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