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Empowering Youth Leaders and Thinkers Through Academic Vocabulary

A Word Generation Study in Karanjo, India





Introduction


I’ve always felt that words were my superpower. They allow me to express myself, start important conversations, inspire others, and get inspired. For today’s youth, finding our voices is more important than ever, whether we’re writing about our viewpoints, discussing controversial issues, or staying current with the news. That’s why I want to uplift the next generation to see words as their superpower, too.


My passion for giving youth a voice led me to adapt an innovative vocabulary curriculum for eighth-grade students in Karanjo, India, based on the Harvard Word Generation program. While conducting my lessons with the eighth-grade class of Sindhu Kanhu Niketan—a boarding school for impoverished children run by the global education charity Ekal Vidyalaya—I collected both qualitative and quantitative data about how studying academic vocabulary empowers students as writers, thinkers, and speakers.


Although I traveled to India with the intention to teach other youth, I ended up learning a great deal about how language education impacts diverse demographics—particularly, pre-teen girls growing up in a patriarchal rural society. This curriculum was an invaluable opportunity to study youth language development through a cross-cultural lens.


Word Generation


Words are powerful, so I wanted to teach students about academic vocabulary in an equally powerful way. As a language student myself, I know that I learn best by doing--by engaging in discussions, collaborating with peers, and applying lessons to my everyday life. Unfortunately, the curriculum in many schools focuses mostly on rote-memorization of vocabulary and formulaic essay-writing.


That’s why I was so fascinated by Word Generation, a research initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education. In essence, Word Generation promotes the use of academic vocabulary through discussion and debate. The interactivity of Word Generation is what really appealed to me, because I knew that I needed an academically stimulating curriculum in order to make a difference across cultures.


After selecting the Word Generation curriculum, I narrowed my focus down to a specific fourth-grade lesson: “Why do we value what we value?” This was lesson 4.12, which centers its discussion of values around six focus words: value • media • material • impact • bombard • transmit. Since today’s world is marked by constant discourse, conflict and evolution, I thought it was important for students to pinpoint their viewpoints on issues that affect them. By identifying what they valued and why, I hoped that students would find the driving force that fuels them as youth leaders, thus empowering them to improve their communities.


Developing The Curriculum


While Lesson 4.12 was created for use in American fourth-grade classrooms, I wanted to adapt the curriculum for use with fourth graders in Karanjo, India. The need for some changes was immediately obvious to me--for instance, I knew had to translate all the relevant lessons into Hindi, since few in Karanjo speak English. This led me to remove bombard from the focus word list, as it has no translation in Hindi. However, I realized that many concepts had to be translated both linguistically and culturally. Since less-privileged tribal children didn’t have the same experiences as American students, I needed to make the activities culturally accessible in order to have a positive impact.


The opening Reader’s Theater, for instance, required many cultural translations. For example, the original version includes a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. about materialistic values. Since Dr. King lacks cultural relevance to students in India, I replaced this quote with a similar one from Mahatma Gandhi about greedy values. Similarly, I replaced anecdotes about receiving a party invitation and spilling water on a computer--both of which would not be relatable to the students--with anecdotes about receiving a sweet and breaking spectacles. While the message of the Reader’s Theater stayed the same, making these changes allowed them to resonate more deeply with the students.


However, one adaptation occurred only after I arrived at Sindhu Kanhu Niketan. I had intended to implement my program with fourth-grade students, but the teachers who reviewed my program recommended that I work with eighth-grade students instead, since the material would be more at-level for them. While I did not anticipate this academic gap between fourth-graders in America and Karanjo, I followed the teachers’ judgement, which allowed the program to go smoothly.


Hypothesis


As an Indian-American, I am familiar with the culture and values of both America and India. This perspective led me to adopt an observational, comparative mindset before beginning the study. For instance, I anticipated that Indian students would be more accustomed to rote memorization, compared to the interactive learning promoted by Word Generation. I also predicted that the Indian students would be less accustomed to thinking creatively and individualistically, since these values are not really emphasized in Indian education. Therefore, I anticipated some early friction and misunderstanding between the methods of Word Generation and their typical classroom mindset.


I was also very interested in how academic discussion and debate differed along gender lines. Karanjo is located in the mountain state of Jharkhand, which is noted for its comparatively paternalistic, patriarchal values. Substantial portions of Jharkhand’s women are illiterate, and most tribal women are married in their late teens at the expense of their education. I expected that the societal pressures on women would limit the effectiveness of Word Generation in creating “active and informed citizens of democracy.” Therefore, I predicted that female students would develop fewer discussion and debate skills, demonstrate less persuasiveness in their arguments, and earn lower writing scores.


Experiment


Day One: Pre-Test


The eighth-grade class consisted of twelve boys and eight girls between the ages of 13 and 14. Some of the students came from the tribal farming families served by the charity Ekal Vidyalaya; students from farther regions stayed in the dormitories. I learned that the school was named after a local freedom fighter, Sindhu Kanhu. That seemed fitting to me, because there was this sense of unshakeable strength and resilience among the students. In spite of their impoverished circumstances, the fact that they had left their families to attend a boarding school, or made difficult daily commutes, showed that education was a priority to them.


After introducing myself and explaining the purpose of the Word Generation program, I conducted a pretest essay. The prompt was, “What do you value in your friends and why?” I chose this prompt because it was broad and universal enough to appeal to all students. Despite initial confusion and shyness from the students, they took the assignment seriously, producing detailed page-long responses in Hindi.

In order to assess whether the Word Generation curriculum improved students’ discussion and debate skills, I needed a relatively objective method with which to score written responses. Therefore, I devised a four-point scale that was concrete enough to serve as an observational guideline, but flexible enough to account for qualitative nuances. My scale was as follows:


Point 1: Powerful Content. Essentially, did the student effectively answer the question? Did their response make sense? Did it reflect on the overarching theme of values?

Point 2: Development of Argument. To what extent did the student articulate their key points and reasoning, even they did not use the traditional structure of American essays? Did their ideas connect and flow logically?

Point 3: Persuasiveness of Portrayal. Did the student support their argument convincingly, including through the use of personal anecdotes, relevant examples, discussion of facts, addressing of counterarguments, or logic?

Point 4: Academic Language. Did the student effectively and powerfully use the five academic words from the lesson? If not, did they demonstrate a general mastery of academic language?


Since this was only a pre-test, students scored understandably low.


While most students utilized rudimentary skills of persuasive writing--for instance, use of emotion and personal details when describing their friendships--there was little argumentation. Rather than build a detailed case in favor of a certain value, students produced rambling responses describing their friendships in general. This showed me that students had not yet developed skills of discussion, argumentation, and debate. It also seemed to confirm my previous expectation--that students would not be accustomed to writing individualistically about personal preferences, viewpoints, and opinions.


The pre-test scores also supported my hypothesis regarding gender. While boys achieved an average score of 1.54 points out of 4, girls scored much lower, earning approximately 1.06 points. This demonstrated that girls were less argumentative and persuasive than their male counterparts. I selected one male and one female response which I deemed representative for analysis.


For instance, Karthik Sardar’s response, reproduced below, shows some discussion skills, earning 1.5 points. It does identify certain values, including helpfulness and honesty. For example, Karthik illustrates his friends’ honesty through an anecdote about returning money. (Interestingly, several responses included anecdotes about returning money, which suggests that their shared cultural background leads them to think in similar ways). However, Karthik’s response fails to explain why he supports these values in his friends; despite its promising premise, it lacks a persuasive argument.


“Friends are very good; they help you out of every difficult situation. We go to school together, play together, eat together and help each other out. I have two good friends. When one of them fell ill, I bought fruits for him and visited him at home. We do not get angry at each other. Once, when my friends bought something at the store, the shopkeeper gave them 10 rupees extra in change. But my friends returned it.”


Varsha Mahto’s response is representative of most female responses. Although it earns 1 point for its use of convincing pathos and personal examples--for instance, “When I forget my lines, she helps me out”--it describes no particular value, nor does it frame any argument. There is no what or why in the response; rather, the piece consists of unconnected thoughts.


“My friend likes me very much and when she doesn’t come to school, I don’t feel good. Sometimes, when she is very quiet in class or gets angry with me, I don’t like it. I am not a good singer, but she helps me with it. When I forget my lines, she helps me out. We have fun together. She is with me but she never complains or gossips about me. She always wishes me well. We study together and play together.”





Day Two: Reader’s Theater and Character Perspectives


The second day of Word Generation began with Reader’s Theater, a short skit depicting a classroom discussion about values. The Reader’s Theater script utilizes all of the vocabulary words, allowing students to hear words applied in real conversations. Although I was planning to randomly select six students to read the script on Day Two, the teachers handpicked the best readers on Day One, since most others were not confident to read aloud.


To my pleasant surprise, the six selected readers--all quiet, neat girls--took their duty very seriously. They stayed after school on Day One to practice the script. I was even more surprised when the girls wore costumes the next morning--for example, the teacher-character wore fake glasses--and made up their own funny lines. This energized the rest of the class, which laughed and paid close attention. The girls showed a fun side that I hadn’t expected from them, transforming a simple reading activity into an occasion for creative expression.




When the skit was over, the class applauded for a full minute. Then the girl who played the teacher, evidently relishing her role, decided to ask her audience to tell her what they learned from the skit. In response to her question, about five or six students raised their hand, thus launching an impromptu class discussion. Some students expressed agreement with certain characters’ opinions, while others talked about the Mahatma Gandhi quote. To my astonishment, this discussion happened spontaneously, entirely out of the students’ own accord.


Indeed, the Reader’s Theater exercise showed me the power of interactivity in education. I knew that these students rarely got the chance to speak freely in class, use their imaginations, analyze opinions critically, or discuss open-ended questions. They were used to being told the “right” answer, so the opportunity for democratic discussion excited them. I observed that female students were especially responsive to the interactive lesson, emboldened by watching other girls read aloud for the class. I realized that I was witnessing a group of students become empowered in their own education, making the lesson their own.


Day Three: Word Study


On Day Three, I officially “taught” students the five focus words, which had been introduced in Reader’s Theater the previous day. Students used word definitions, Turn and Talks, and other word study activities to build their understanding of the focus words. I reminded students that the focus words were important for learning and discussing big ideas, including those mentioned in the Reader’s Theater.



Day Four: PSA


Since we had been discussing values for three days now, I wanted students to be able to use their own voices to promote a value that was important to them. I asked them to transmit their values by designing a creative PSA that combined art and text to persuade viewers to make a positive change. The PSAs were then presented aloud to the class in order to build students’ confidence in speaking persuasively.


Students created PSAs on a variety of subjects, from the importance of healthy exercise to clean rivers to respecting political leaders.




Day Five: Mural Art


Although mural art is not part of the original Word Generation curriculum, I chose to develop a collaborative art activity in order to supplement the message of previous lessons. Not only did art provide a valuable opportunity to discuss cultural and environmental values, but it allowed the students to take part in creative expression. During Reader’s Theater, I observed that small creative projects had the effect of sparking democratic interaction among the rest of the class. Therefore, I hoped that giving the entire class a project to work on would increase their receptivity to the lesson.


The mural project took place after school hours, painted on the wall of the boys’ dinner pavilion. It became a center of attention at the school, with crowds of students from younger grades gathering to watch.





Since students had expressed great passion for preserving their environment and the economy and culture of their villages, we created artwork that reflected these values. The leftmost painting depicted the traditional madal dance from their villages, in which both men and women celebrated in harmony. The rightmost painting depicted a youth leader looking out on the environment that she would one day protect.


Day Six: Post-Test


As my Word Generation curriculum came to a close, I assessed the students’ growth by measuring their performance in the post-test essay. Like with the pretest, I developed a prompt that was flexible and broad: “What is one value that your village should adopt, and why?”


Students produced significantly longer and more complex responses in the post-test, which indicated that their writing was more in-depth, reflective, and argumentative. This was reflected by increased scores for both genders, as enumerated in the table. The score increases were especially evident when it came to “Development of Argument”--boys increased by 0.33 points, and girls by 0.37 points--because they were starting to articulate main points, explaining convincing cause-and-effect relationships, and connecting ideas with reasoning.



I was immediately struck by the improvement in female scores. Although girls scored lower than boys on the pre-test, they outperformed their male peers on the post-test. Their responses were characterized by big-thinking, thoughtful, in-depth suggestions for major problems in the community. They were more likely to explore the “big picture” of societal issues, focusing on detailed analysis.


For instance, Belmati Diggi wrote about the importance of valuing the environment. Rather than simply state her viewpoint, Belmati supported her assertion with a well-reasoned explanation of the dangers of deforestation, concluding her argument with a specific call for action. This excerpt illustrates her argument development:


“There are lot of mountains and jungles surrounding my village. But our mountains and forests are getting cut down. Because of this, the animals and creatures that live in the village are facing great difficulties. And these days, the animals in the forest are also being killed. Because of the cutting down of trees, we are also not getting good rains these days. This causes losses for the farmers. So I would like to request people from my village and the neighboring villages to stop cutting down the trees. If they have to cut down the trees, they have to plant twice as much. This helps to balance the environment.”


As the arguments became more persuasive, I observed a more powerful use of language. In this excerpt from Rohit Laguri’s essay, I noted the successful application of two vocabulary words: “value” and “impact.” The implementation of academic vocabulary led to a more sophisticated use of language in general--for instance, Rohit employs varied sentence structures, complicated transitions (“the city, on the other hand”), and higher level vocabulary (“ownership,” “guidance,” “facilities”).


We have to value our village because we live here and it is also our birthplace which makes it our motherland. Since this is our motherland, this village is very valuable to us. Only by taking ownership of the village can we take care of its environment. The village is pollution free, but the city, on the other hand, has high temperatures and is polluted, because of which living in the village is better. By taking ownership of our village, we can develop the village. Only by making a development in the village will there be a positive impact. So we have to take good care of our village. By providing guidance we can take care and improve the facilities of the village we can develop. This is why we need to live in a clean place. And this is we need to take ownership of our village.


Data Analysis


The overall scores on the pre-essays and post-essays are shown below.



Several observations may be made from this chart.

  1. For boys, there was a small increase in the average scores between the pre-essays and post-essays from 1.54 to 2.12. However, there is significant scatter in the data, and statistical evaluation indicated to me that these differences were not statistically significant.

  2. For girls, there is a larger increase in the average scores between the pre-essays and post-essays from 1.06 to 2.38. Again, there is significant scatter in the data. A similar statistical evaluation indicated that there is a statistically significant improvement in the mean scores between the pre-essays and post-essays. The 95% confidence limit for the difference in the means ranges from 0.57 to 2.05.

  3. A comparison between the scores of boys and girls shows that the average score of boys was higher than girls in the pre-essay (1.54 vs. 1.06). However, the average post-essay score of girls improved markedly relative to that of boys (2.37 vs. 2.13). Therefore, the trend of improved scores among girls is evident.

Conclusion


I found that the lower pre-essay scores for girls relative to boys was qualitatively consistent with a broadly patriarchal society, wherein their opportunities to participate in public discourse and express their opinions might be limited relative to their male peers’. In this way, my hypothesis was correct--girls did, initially, demonstrate fewer argumentative discussion skills. However, after focused intervention activities and creative projects to boost their participation and reinforce the value of their opinions, the gains in female writing scores were considerable. This led me to conclude that when given the opportunity to think individualistically and creatively, girls rose up to the challenge, and their argumentative skills evolved as a result. This was evident not just in the test data, but in their classroom participation, such as when female students commandeered the Reader’s Theater and took part in the mural.


Prior to beginning the study, I had predicted cultural discordance between the creative, opinion-centric Word Generation curriculum, and the Indian mindset in which individual growth is subsumed by the pressure of the collective. This hypothesis was partially correct; when discussing values, students rarely spoke about individual traits, such as bravery, selflessness, or health. Instead, they tended to focus on communal issues, such as environmental conservation, village development, or community solidarity. However, the individual leadership that students demonstrated in addressing widespread issues showed me that individualism and communalism could actually complement one another. Therefore, I conclude that developing students’ individual capabilities through academic vocabulary yields invaluable benefits to their communities at large.


Next Steps


My experience implementing the Word Generation curriculum with students in Karanjo illustrated the importance of empowering youth leaders, especially those who are vulnerable due to their gender or socioeconomic status. Therefore, I will continue to promote discussion and debate in classrooms so that students may speak freely about their beliefs. But more specifically, I hope to increase awareness about the importance of amplifying marginalized, minority voices in order to strengthen communities.