Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

WordMasters on the Visual Thesaurus!

The Visual Thesaurus is very pleased to announce that we're now working together with The WordMasters Challenge to help students improve their vocabulary! What's WordMasters? As many of you already know, it's a popular national competition for Language Arts students in grades 3 to 12. Over four thousand school teams from every state participate each year. Students will now be able to study WordMasters lists right here on the Visual Thesaurus, with the first list arriving next month! We spoke to the program's founder, Nancy McGrath, to learn more about the challenge.

VT: How does The WordMasters Challenge work?

Nancy: Three times a year schools are sent a list of vocabulary words that have been very carefully calibrated so that they're appropriate to a particular age of students. These words are more difficult than what is usually thought to be "grade level," so they're challenging -- and we try hard to make the word lists diverse and interesting. The words on each list vary not only in part of speech but also in length, in degree of abstraction -- abstract words balanced by nitty-gritty words -- and in etymological origin, with Latin words balanced by crisp words from Anglo-Saxon.

We also try to ensure that there are correspondences to be discovered among the words on the list, so students can begin to see families of relationships. These might be antonym relationships, like "tranquil / turbulent", or relationships of similarity, such as "gnarled / furrowed", or relationships based on a commonality of reference, like "skipper / schooner/ flotilla / buoyant/ navigate." The students will draw upon these correspondences in the Challenge itself, which is structured as a series of analogies. It follows several weeks later.

VT: How do the analogies work?

Nancy: Each analogy contains at least one and possibly several of the words from the list -- with all of the words from the list appearing in at least one analogy. And the analogies illustrate many different kinds of logical relationships. The logical principle might be increasing or decreasing intensity, class/subclass, symbol/thing symbolized or even metaphorical correspondence. We try as hard to vary the analogical relationships as we do to vary the words, because one of the points of the Challenge is to stretch kids' critical reasoning faculties.

VT: Do you encourage students to study WordMasters word lists in the classroom?

Nancy: That's right. They have several weeks to study each word list. We give some hints, like pointing out that many words have more than one meaning and can function as either a noun or a verb, say. We also ask that the kids be responsible for learning not just the word itself but also derivatives of that word. If we have, say, "corrode" on the list, "corrosive" is also implicitly there. We leave it up to each teacher and group of students to come up with the definitions. To help teachers, we also pass along a booklet of possible activities, games, and teaching strategies that educators using the program have suggested to us over the years. I can say with all humility that some of the teaching suggestions are wonderful!

VT: Let me ask you more about the analogies. How many of them are on the test? And how are the tests scored?

Nancy: Each word list contains 25 words and each test contains 20 analogies. We provide an answer key for the schools, and also a form on which they can report back to us the names and scores of their ten highest-scoring students. These top ten scorers make up the "team score" for particular grade in a school. We tabulate results from across the country and send schools a report with the names and scores of the highest achieving school teams and individuals. We also give statistics for median performance so all the schools participating can compare themselves both against the top and against the middle.

VT: Do you ever have schools that get perfect scores?

Nancy: Occasionally, but it's pretty unusual for a school to earn a perfect team score-that can only happen if there are 10 perfect scores in a single grade at a single school.

VT: Wow. So these aren't easy. Are there levels of difficulty in the analogies?

Nancy: In fact, we have two levels of difficulty at every grade, called "blue" and "gold." We like to say that blue stands for hard and gold stands for harder. But to be honest we don't always get it exactly right. Occasionally scores are higher in the gold division than in the blue. This may be because, by and large, kids in the gifted and talented programs are in the gold division.

VT: Do individual students ever get perfect scores?

Nancy: Yes, in each meet there are usually at least a few perfect scores at every grade level. We publish the names of all the individual students who get perfect scores and send press releases to the schools so they can boast a little if they want to. The number varies from competition to competition, but it's only a tiny handful of the tens of thousands of students that participate.

VT: Why do you think WordMasters is so enormously popular with students?

Nancy: I think because it approaches something that's usually thought to be drudgery - learning new vocabulary words - in a way that makes it fun. The analogies are challenging in a really engaging way, and students enjoy the competitive aspect. And because the Challenge is structured as a team competition, it's not just about one kid excelling but about students working together to teach one another so that they can do well as a team. We do, of course, recognize individual achievement as well as team achievement, but the team aspect of it gives this academic activity some of the appeal of playing, say, a game of soccer.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday September 12th 2007, 11:03 AM
Comment by: Magda Pecsenye
Nancy, why wasn't WordMasters Challenge available when I was in school?! I would have loved this contest with a burning passion. More complex than a spelling bee, but more word-focused than Quiz Bowl.

I'm so glad we're partnering with you!
Friday September 14th 2007, 6:09 PM
Comment by: anita H.
I agree with Magda, the Challenge sounds much more interesting than learning words from rote.
Saturday October 13th 2007, 2:16 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
My third and fourth graders have participated in WM for 13 years now, and it is an exciting way to learn new vocabulary and develop higher thinking levels with the analogies.

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