Dr. Suzanne Adlof was wrapping up her postdoctoral fellowship in the Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) at the University of Pittsburgh when Dr. Adam Kapelner, then a doctoral student in applied statistics at the University of Pennsylvania, gave a presentation for the Reading and Language research group about a web-based program he developed to help students improve their vocabulary knowledge in preparation for tests such as the ACT, SAT, or GRE. Dr. Kapelner had originally created the online tool to help him improve his own vocabulary as he prepared to return to graduate school. The program taught word meanings by bringing together dictionary definitions and real-world examples of words used in context, including sentences, pictures, and videos.
[Photo: Dr. Suzanne Adlof]
“He had provided sentence contexts from the program to Dr. Margaret McKeown, who is a renowned vocabulary researcher and Senior Scientist in the LRDC, and he was sharing the program with several high school teachers at the time,” says Dr. Adlof, who is now an assistant professor in the Arnold School’s department of communication sciences and disorders (COMD) and specializes in language and literacy. “The basic idea was founded on strong cognition and learning principles, and I thought it could be a great product that could be taken even further if it had a grant to support it.”
Fast forward five years, several program revisions, and three rounds of pilot studies with high school and transitioning college students, and the result is DictionarySquared. Dr. Adlof and Dr. Kapelner, who is now an assistant professor at Queens College, teamed up with Dr. McKeown and Dr. Charles Perfetti, director of the LRDC and professor of psychology, to secure a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. With Dr. Adlof serving as the principal investigator, the team worked to transform a great idea into a sophisticated, practical application with usage linked to significant improvements in vocabulary testing performance for high school students. The development of the tutor also allows the researchers to study broader trends in learning and literacy acquisition.
“Our goal is to help students improve their vocabulary because we know vocabulary instruction is rare in most high school curricula, even though it is a predictor of success in all academic domains,” says Dr. Adlof of the “vocabulary tutor” that offers game-like activities and incentives to keep students engaged. “We hope that by improving vocabulary, we also improve reading comprehension and performance on high stakes tests. More broadly, we hope the program has a positive influence on students’ overall college and career readiness.”
The next major study for DictionarySquared will include nearly 1,000 high school students (roughly doubling the number of students who have had access to the tool) in Texas, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania in a randomized control trial that is kicking off with the new school year.