When Broward County Public Schools (BCPS), the nation's sixth largest school district, decided to adopt Vocabulary.com three years ago, the goal was to implement systematic, rigorous, vocabulary instruction as part of a comprehensive initiative to improve student literacy.
In that period, we've worked closely with BCPS and followed their progress at every step of the way — from adopting the platform, to expanding and sustaining usage across the district.
As school districts everywhere become more focused on edtech implementation that aligns with their goals and produces measurable improvement for students, Broward County's approach to integrating Vocabulary.com offers a model for how to get it right.
Based on what we learned from BCPS's approach, here are the 6 essential ingredients for a successful implementation:
1. Get leadership on board from the start. "Effective implementation begins with a commitment from school administrators who should set expectations and articulate a clear vision for how the technology aligns with objectives."
2. Focus on student engagement and create personal pathways. "Schools that understand the power of technology look for software that can really generate enthusiasm among students."
3. Cultivate teacher-buy in. "Make it a priority to create a non-judgmental climate and to make the experience fun for teachers."
4. Provide ongoing, teacher-friendly PD. "What Broward is doing is building capacities in buildings so that teachers can really expand their skill set and their comfort with technology…"
5. Integrate with curriculum and instruction. "That's when you get to the point where the teachers say, 'Don't ever take this away because I couldn't get by without it!' It's just embedded in how they teach."
6. Define what success looks like, then measure for it. A third-party study found that students at BCPS whose teachers used Vocabulary.com in the classroom had significantly higher achievement scores and experienced almost double the growth on state standardized ELA tests than students whose teachers did not use the platform.
Keys to Effective Implementation
1. Get leadership on board from the start.
We spoke with Dr. Daryl Diamond, the Director of Innovative Learning at BCPS, who oversees the purchasing, implementation, and evaluation of instructional technology. Dr. Diamond's view is that effective implementation begins with a commitment from school administrators who should set expectations and articulate a clear vision for how the technology aligns with objectives. "First, it's the leadership saying 'this is a tool I want everybody to use.' And secondly, it's finding out where in the curriculum this fits so that it's not a one-off that falls by the wayside. What's important is that it's embedded in the district's vision at that leadership level."
2. Focus on student engagement and create personal pathways.
Another critical factor in the successful implementation of any instructional platform is, of course, getting students to use it. Dr. Diamond adds, "Schools that understand the power of technology look for software that can really generate enthusiasm among students, where the work itself is not a slog, it's not drill and kill." With Vocabulary.com, Dr. Diamond attributes the high degree of student engagement to the competitive element that's built into the learning experience. "I think that you hit upon something that makes it very unique among the other platforms that might be out there, and that is that the gamification component where kids are excited about going into Vocabulary.com and doing the work."
Beyond selecting a technology that students will actually use, it is important to BCPS that their edtech offerings support individualized, independent learning. Diamond explains, "Schools that are interested in using software like Vocabulary.com realize that students need personal pathways to learning. So the question is, how do you transfer that power over to the kids? It's through software that shows them where they are, where they need to be, and how they're progressing as they're getting there. From our vantage point at the district level, that's the equity piece. All students have access, and they're all getting what they need."
3. Cultivate teacher buy-in.
When BCPS adopts any technology, the Instructional Technology department is very intentional about how they introduce the new tool. When it comes to inviting educators to kick the tires with Vocabulary.com, Instructional Technology Facilitators like Sharlene Kellier and Sarah Myhre make it a priority to create a non-judgmental climate and to make the experience fun for teachers. One way they do that is by visiting classrooms and demoing the Vocabulary Jam with students, allowing the teachers to watch how it's done and to observe their students' participation. Says Myhre, "The Jam was like the fishing line that hooked them, and then after they were interested we just said, 'OK, now let's go back and show you all the other different things that Vocabulary.com can do.'"
4. Provide ongoing, teacher-friendly PD.
BCPS is known for its comprehensive, strategic approach to professional development, which is not only critical to the initial adoption, but also to the sustained integration of its technology investments. Instructional Technology Facilitator Sarah Myhre circles back to the vision from the top when discussing the importance of BCPS's PD strategy. "There's a clear vision at the leadership level — both in the district and in buildings. It's what drives us to be thoughtful and thorough about how we're going to make it happen. It's not like spray and pray and hope for the best."
Dr. Diamond explains, "Essentially what Broward is doing is building capacities in buildings so that teachers can really expand their skill set and their comfort with technology to ensure that there's somebody there that teachers can go to. In addition to developing skills, It really strengthens relationships among colleagues." Building this in-house Vocabulary.com expertise has been an ongoing partnership with BCPS's Instructional Technology team, whose Instructional Technology Facilitators assist students, teachers, and staff through customized training, modeling, and ongoing support. They provide a range of differentiated, teacher-friendly offerings such as monthly in-person tech meetups, formal in-service training sessions, online tutorials, and the Vocabulary.com Certified Educator Program, which awards an official micro-credential for PD credit to experienced educators who complete the course online or in person.
5. Integrate with curriculum and instruction.
Broward is now well beyond the initial adoption phase of its Vocabulary.com implementation, and we asked Dr. Diamond to talk about the key to expanding and sustaining usage among teachers and students. "It goes back to understanding how it fits into their curriculum."
BCPS Literacy Coach Sara Pierce says that in her experience, one of the most powerful tools that really gets teachers invested in integrating vocabulary instruction is the ability to turn any text into a vocabulary list. "Then they own it and they can do anything with it." Over time, teachers across various disciplines have developed their own ways to use Vocabulary.com, from prepping students for reading, to teaching both Tier II and Tier III words in science class, to boosting readiness for standardized tests. Reflecting on this deep level of integration with curriculum and instruction, Dr. Diamond adds, "That's when you get to the point where the teachers say, 'Don't ever take this away because I couldn't get by without it!' It's just embedded in how they teach."
6. Define what success looks like, then measure for it.
Ultimately, the measure of effective edtech implementation comes down to whether the stated objectives were met. BCPS's goal was to improve student literacy, and now they have the data to prove that their Vocabulary.com implementation has been a success. A landmark study recently completed by Project Tomorrow, the internationally recognized education nonprofit organization, found that students whose teachers used Vocabulary.com in the classroom had significantly higher achievement scores and experienced substantially more growth on state standardized ELA tests than students whose teachers did not use the platform.
Utilizing a secondary data analysis methodology, Project Tomorrow examined achievement score data from four middle schools in BCPS. Researchers looked specifically at the change on the Florida Standard Assessment (FSA) ELA test for the same students over a two-year period.
Project Tomorrow also conducted a more in-depth case study on Broward's Margate Middle School, which shows how Vocabulary.com usage across different content areas can have even more of an effect. In those classrooms where Vocabulary.com has become deeply embedded in instructional practices and the culture of learning, students who used the platform saw twice the improvement on FSA ELA scores as those who did not.
The research established these key findings:
– Across grades 7 and 8, students whose teachers used Vocabulary.com with fidelity showed almost double the year-over-year increase in ELA test scores as compared to those who did not use the platform.
– Additionally, students whose teachers regularly used Vocabulary.com achieved higher mean scaled FSA ELA test scores than their peers who did not regularly use the platform.
– This pattern was consistent when the student data was disaggregated for African-American and Hispanic/Latinx students.
Let's roll this out in your school.
With all of the edtech choices out there today, schools need to be selective about which technologies they adopt. Educators and school leaders recognize the need for well-planned, well-supported implementations that cohesively integrate technology with learning objectives.
Regardless of the size of your school or district, the Vocabulary.com team is ready to help you achieve effective, adaptive vocabulary instruction that aligns with your curriculum and your literacy goals.
You can read more about the Vocabulary.com Educator Edition, or contact one of our regional Directors of Partnerships and they'll work to create a plan that meets your literacy objectives.