WordPivot: Boosting Vocabulary One eBook at a Time

WordPivotDigital publishing has leveled the playing field for startups. One new company, that I’m excited to blog about, is called WordPivot. Launched a few weeks ago, WordPivot is, according to the press release, “a research‐based reading app that creates personalized quizzes inside the pages of your favorite eBooks to help you turbocharge your vocabulary.”

I was fortunate enough to meet the founder of WordPivot, Brendan Walsh, in May 2012 at BEA. In a recent interview he told me that the idea for WordPivot came from a combination of “having taught SAT students at The Princeton Review, and seeing the limitation of current “systems” that are used to help kids develop vocab—mostly it is around cramming tens or hundreds flash cards and clearly that is not effective—nor does it even move the needle toward the tens of thousands of words that a college level vocabulary comprises.”

“So I combed through the academic research and it became clear that integrating the reading process and language development process would be the most natural and effective approach to learning words,” Walsh said.

He found out that up to 50 percent of a person’s vocabulary is developed during the time he or she spends reading. Additionally, vocabulary is one of the most important elements of reading comprehension and a strong predictor for academic success, vocabulary is highly correlated to IQ (increasing vocabulary can increase IQ), and American elementary, middle school, and high school students continue to do poorly on tests of vocabulary and reading comprehension (according to NAEP “national report card,” December, 2012).

So how exactly does WordPivot work?

Walsh said that they built a custom “intelligent” dictionary that allows them to know which words are appropriate for a user of a particular level. The software learns as the user reads, and it frequently adjusts the reading level. The words are a superset of all the key study lists that students are using from grades 2 through 12, he said.

“We also integrated important student features such as ‘speak’ to hear pronunciation,” Walsh said. “Teachers appreciate the ability to study a single text and have students of different level work on words that are appropriate.”

Walsh told me that WordPivot is piloting the app in six classrooms (grades 4 through 11, focused mainly on 5th and 6th graders), and so far the kids are loving it.

“It makes the whole process of focusing on word learning much more fun and natural and personalized,” he said.

Walsh also said that the pilot programs have only been running for a few months, but he can already see from the “leaderboards” that kids are doing a lot of quizzes.

“Really, a surprising number (already hundreds),” he said. “We know that they are seeing these words in context multiple times for each quiz as well so context and repetition, which are the keys to retention, are in place.” But, he said, “it will take time to see the impact on standardized tests.”

The free WordPivot app can be found in the appstore for iPad, under the Education category, and it’s easy to see its value with even just a couple minutes of playing around on it. WordPivot supports thousands of titles, and therefore thousands of words, and it uses context and repetition to help students with information retention. Currently the only books available are public domain books, but the company plans to expand their library soon. They will announce their partners at a later date.

The app also has social features that allow users to share, make comments, and view updates from friends or teachers. Readers have the option of either working independently or in groups.

Other key features include:

  • An intelligent dictionary (including text‐to‐speech for pronunciation)
  • Important high‐frequency words from elementary through high school (SAT prep)
  • Chapter end quiz games
  • Support for private and shared annotations
  • Thousands of free books
  • Parental permission for users under 13

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