The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Wordly Wise

If you’re a child of the 1980s, perhaps this image brings back memories.

That’s the cover of the Worldly Wise vocabulary workbook that was ubiquitous in my elementary school. Each week, we’d get a list of a dozen or so vocabulary words. In our workbooks, we’d write them in alphabetic order. We’d do crossword puzzles and word hunts for them.  We’d write our words in sentences. Mine were usually useless sentences, like “He was dismayed” – showing absolutely nothing about my understanding of the word. And at the end of the week, we’d have a vocabulary quiz – we’d fill in the blank or draw a line matching the word to its meaning. The teacher would put our score in the grade book.

And then come next week, we never used those words again. Our teacher would scratch her head when we’d write a sentence like, “I felt sad” – lecturing us with, “I taught you the word miserable last week!”.  Our vocabulary did not grow, our comprehension did not improve, yet we plowed through those workbooks!

Fast forward three decades, and I’m dismayed (note my use of this Wordly Wise word!) that Wordly Wise is still around. Yes, the cover is a bit snazzier and more modern – but it’s the same basic approach. I’m here today to write about the good, the bad, and the ugly of Wordly Wise.

Now, as a university professor, reading researcher, and a parent, I know the important research about vocabulary. The more word knowledge a child has, the more likely they are to comprehend text. Fascinating longitudinal research shows that a child’s vocabulary knowledge at the end of first grade can predict his comprehension in 11th grade – that’s powerful stuff! So yes, I’m drinking to vocabulary Kool Aid and advocating for more direct vocabulary instruction. I’d like our children to swim in a vast, luscious sea of rich, meaningful vocabulary instruction.

But we can do better. I’m not trying to pick solely on Wordly Wise. There are some good components of it.  Wordly Wise has done a nice job of modernizing vocabulary instruction and integrating technology – through a partnership with Quizlet. They give kids multiple exposures to words, realizing that a child needs lots of chances and forms and contexts to add a word to their expressive vocabulary (most research says kids need about 12-15 exposures to a word to ‘own’ that word!).  I also like that Wordly Wise encourages kids to self-assess their knowledge of a word. Finally Worldy Wise introduces words through the context of a story – rather than definitions alone. This approach validates the research that shows that knowing a definition of a word does not equate to being able to use the word.

But that’s about all that I like about it. There’s too much that I don’t like about it – and I'm raising a suspicious eyebrow about its so-called research base

My first issue with Wordly Wise comes in the origins of the target words. The program explains, “The chosen vocabulary words are commonly encountered in grade-level literature, textbooks, and state and national assessments.” In other words, they identify the words that kids should know, package them in a story that they’ve generated, and then put them all into workbook form. Therein lies my beef. Instead of creating artificial text passages and injecting them with the words that we want kids to know, why not base our word choice on the fabulous, authentic children’s literature that is ripe with juicy words? How about reading aloud from Pete’s a Pizza (William Steig) and teaching the word miserable?

How about reading aloud from Miss Nelson is Missing and teaching discouraged? In other words, we don’t need to make up text passages that aren’t that engaging and are not high-quality just to teach vocabulary – we can take advantage of the great stuff that is already out there!

Another issue that I have with Wordly Wise is the way in which they assess kids’ vocabulary knowledge. At the end of each week is some sort of assessment, usually multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank. Those kinds of assessments do very little to encourage children to use the words in their speaking and writing after the quiz. Wouldn’t it be more powerful to ask a child, “Tell me about a time when you felt miserable” than to have them circle the definition that most closely matches the word?

Finally, I remain a bit skeptical about Wordly Wise’s research base. I very much believe in the power of research to guide and inform instruction. If I am asked my feelings about a particular curriculum, the first thing I do is to look for peer-reviewed research on this – research that is independent and not funded by the publisher / company / etc. Yes, Wordly Wise has research – in fact I read a lovely miniature literature review about the research behind effective vocabulary instruction. But to convince me of the worth of a program or curriculum, I need actual data that shows how kids using this program outperform kids using another program. If anyone out there knows of peer-reviewed research showing the effects of Wordly Wise, share it with me at Anybody can claim that they’ve got research without the research actually examining the program itself. To me, it’s sort of the equivalent of slapping a label on a box of Lucky Charms that says “Fortified with vitamins and minerals”. It’s a version of the truth, but not the actual truth. So yes, Worldy Wise is research-based – but let’s be clear – that’s not the same as actual research showing its benefits as a program.

We can do better with vocabulary instruction as we tie it to the authentic texts that kids are really reading, give them multiple exposures to words, and challenge them to practice using the words in engaging instances. Otherwise, we are left with meaningless sentences (like the aforementioned “I feel dismayed”). All in all, a workbook is just a workbook.

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