The Word Voyage Story

Word Voyage was created in 2011 by Whit Symmes, a teacher, Phil Wallingford, a software engineer, Kathy Barnes, a web designer, and Dr. Abigail Konopasky, a linguist and professor. We had a lot of big ideas, including that students should study vocabulary from their current readings. We also wanted to move away from rote memorization and focus on “teaching them to fish,” giving students an attack strategy that could be applied to any word. From this came the consideration of Latin and Greek roots as the best tools for the job. Abundant research supports the study of roots, and most multisyllabic English words have them. So we set out to build a modern, active-learning platform to teach this old-school method. We created exercises for the students to drag roots to form word meanings and then drag “cousins” to build root families. The students get lots and lots of practice, which helps them move from the current habit of skipping unfamiliar words, to a new one: Slow Down Break It Down (also known as close reading, but don’t tell the kids). It’s been a thrill to see them go after words like benevolent, contiguous, affably, incredulous, alleviate, imperious and declare that they are no big deal. They have discovered a whole new level of word power.

Beyond teaching roots and meaning formation, we also wanted the students to use the words in original sentences. How else can true word ownership be gauged? But this presented a problem: How can a program accurately evaluate sentences? The answer: it can’t, as is made clear by the hit-and-miss feedback from grammar checkers. And then came another question: do we want Word Voyage to be just another independent-study program, or should we create a highly-efficient system for teachers to deliver formative feedback. Looking at it this way, the answer was clear. We came down decisively on the side of extending the reach of teachers, rather than replacing them. At Word Voyage we proudly declare: The Teacher is In!

With the teacher’s role resolved, many new opportunities opened up. We could marry the instruction of roots, root families, etymology, and modern definitions to the study of proper usage, grammar, and sentence construction. This was starting to sound like all the critical building blocks of literacy. (Side note: we also cover spelling and syllables- future blog post coming on that!). We built a suite of tools for teachers to create grammar assignments supported by our instructional videos. The teachers have a streamlined sentence-review platform that saves their commonly used comments, displays previous drafts, and facilitates regular, one-on-one interaction with each student- all in about 15-20 minutes/day! The students are held to a much higher level of accountability than is possible with traditional methods. It’s a brave new world when middle schoolers come to realize that yes, in fact details do matter.

Building Word Voyage has been a wonderful journey of discovery for our team. We love interacting with students and teachers from all over the world, and these conversations often lead to new program features. But most of all, we love knowing we are helping students develop the full range of literacy skills they need to be successful in high school, college, and the 21st Century workplace.