September 03, 2007

word nerds are cool

Spinach-eating action heroes are so yesterday. Meet WordGirl:

There's a new superhero on the block this fall, and she might just have the strength (or as she would most likely say, the “fortitude”) to render a big vocabulary cool among schoolchildren.

The weapon of choice for PBS’s new “WordGirl” is words: the more expressive, the better. When the fifth-grader Becky Botsford dons her red cape and spits out mouthfuls like “preposterous” and “bicker” and “cumbersome,” her enemies — from the often-tongue-tied Chuck the Evil Sandwich-Making Guy (whose name is a chance for WordGirl to define “absurd”) to the Butcher, who mangles words while hoarding meat — capitulate. [...]

“WordGirl” draws its writers not from the ranks of children’s television but from places like the satirical newspaper The Onion and Fox’s twisted adult cartoon series “Family Guy.” The voice of the narrator, Chris Parnell, will be better known to adults from “Saturday Night Live.” [...]

The series is underpinned by a serious curriculum, informed by the 2002 academic work “Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction,” by Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown and Linda Kucan, all of the University of Pittsburgh. In the book they argue that “vocabulary is the linchpin to literacy,” Ms. Gillim said, adding, “If you don’t know the word, you aren’t going to get the meaning when you encounter it when reading.” When exposed to words in a variety of contexts, she said, children “will discern the meaning,” and even a 6-year-old can understand “cumbersome” when told it means “big and heavy and awkward.”

“Kids who enter school with a vocabulary of 20,000 words will have a lot more success than those who enter with a vocabulary of 2,000 words,” said Deborah Forte, the president of Scholastic Media, the show’s producer. “That ability to command language and use words to express what you want is incredibly important,” she said.

Each 11-minute episode in the half-hour includes two featured words, which children are cued to watch for at the start of the program. The words, chosen according to academic guidelines, include enormous, impressive, diversion, doomed, dash, coincidence, guarantee, squint, coupon, glum, clumsy, supreme, appetite, expand, deceive and idolize.

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