The challenge: I’m at a meeting and my principal asks me to check out a “great” program, and give her an opinion. The program is called: “The Foundation Series-Word Build,” and it’s described on a commercial website: http://www.dynamicliteracy.com/Media/ What is my thought process as I take steps to evaluate the program based on evidence?
Well, first I would just use Google and look at the commercial site. So, I did this and learned about the basics of the program. It’s put out by a company called Dynamic Literacy, LLC in Charlottesville, Va. The program has two series, and it uses morphology to improve vocabulary, language, and reading comprehension. Both series, “Foundations” for gr. 3-5 and “Elements” for gr. 5-9, teach the student to focus on the meanings of prefixes, suffixes, and roots to comprehend what they read. The program is meant to be a total of three years of morphics-based instruction. I thought this sounded good. Next, I clicked on the Executive Team tab of the website to learn about the background of the three co-founders. I was impressed by the resumes of the president, the director of instructional content, and the chief operating officer. The President, Dr. Thomas H. Estes, is a Professor Emeritus and taught at the University of Virginia from 1970 to 2001. He was a professor of Reading Education at the Curry School of Education. Before that, Dr. Estes worked as an English teacher in a high school and a Reading Specialist in an elementary school. The biography said he had co-authored and authored several books and many articles on the psychology and pedagogy of reading. Dr. Rollin David Larrick was another co-founder and the Director of instructional Content. Dr. Larrick had twenty-five years experience teaching Latin and Greek at the high school level, while also teaching Linguistics for teachers as an adjunct instructor at U.V.A. Both Dr. Larrick and Dr. Estes were said to be consultants on language and derivation as well as product developers for the program. The third co-founder was Gerald V. Bailey, and he was listed as the Chief Operating Officer. Mr. Bailey had worked in computer systems for twenty-five years and some of his clients included The Mayo Clinic and U.V.A. I was impressed by the backgrounds of the three co-founders of the program because while Dr. Estes and Dr. Larrick had direct experience in reading and linguistics education and research, Mr. Bailey had longstanding computer systems experience at highly-reputable institutions.
My next step was to skim a few articles the website listed as having positively reviewed the Foundations-Word Build program. I learned that the program has 60,000 users in 100 schools across the U.S., and while two articles gave positive reviews, the other media coverage was too old, and I encountered “Page Not Found” instead of reviews.
After that, I Googled the first developer of the product, Mr. Thomas H. Estes. I learned that Mr. Estes had been a principal investigator on an NIE/NSF research project addressing the relationship between text structure and comprehension. This was highly impressive and seemed a good prerequisite to the creation of a reading program. I also learned that at least two of his books were related to the content of the product. In 1985, Dr. Estes co-authored a book called: Reading and Learning in the Content Classroom. Also, in 1986, Dr. Estes published a book called: Reading and Reasoning Beyond the Primary Grades. His primary interests were said to include the pedagogy of reading and comprehension of textbooks. I found all of this information to be favorable background for someone selling a reading vocabulary program.
My next step was to look up some of Dr. Estes work in Google Scholar. I found eighty-five citations of his book, Reading and Learning in the Content Classroom. There were ninety-nine citations of his book, Reading and Reasoning Beyond the Primary Grades. I understood this to mean that a great many scholars had read and cited at least two of Dr. Estes’ books. Again I took this to be potentially supportive of the vocabulary program.
After that, I searched Amazon and found two all-star reviews for his second book, Reading and Reasoning Beyond the Primary Grades, which supported current relevance. I also noted six editions of his book Instruction: A Models Approach had been published, and the latest was in 2010. This text had four stars based on twelve reviews.
Finally, I turned to What Works Clearinghouse in search of scientific evidence to support The Foundation Series-Word Build program. This is when I got frustrated. While Dr. Estes’ company, Dynamic Literacy, LLC, was established in 2002, as was the WWC, there was no mention of this product. I searched and searched and just could not find a mention of the product. I did see citations of Dr. Estes research from years past, but nothing that directly tied to The Foundations Series-Word Build program. This led me to take one more look back at Google Scholar, and I was pleased to see a great many research articles written by Dr. Estes, beginning in the late 1970’s and running through the early 2000’s. The titles of these articles were directly tied to topics such as reading to learn and building vocabulary.
In conclusion, my informed opinion based on evidentiary support for this program is truly lacking. I would have to report to my principal that while The Foundations Series-Word Build program was created by reputable sources, the program itself has not been researched as of yet. At the same time, it can be assumed that the creator(s) used a lifetime of research, knowledge, and practical experience to create the product. I would report that the program appears to be popular and has 60,000 users throughout the United States. While I suspect this is a good product because I have read positive research about building vocabulary and teaching students to construct meaning using affixes and/or morphemes, I simply do not have the scientific evidence to recommend this particular product over another.