Vocabulary victories at Chavez HS, Lanier MS highlight effective literacy strategies

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Chavez High School and Lanier Middle School won the top prizes in Vocabulary.com’s 2015-2016 national Vocabulary Bowl, a competition that is becoming just one example of effective strategies to increase literacy across the HISD’s secondary schools.

Chavez won for the second consecutive year with 344,043 words mastered, and Lanier won with 230,034 words. Chavez celebrated on Monday, May 9, with a trophy presentation, medals and certificates for the top 100 students, and inspirational speeches and congratulations from local media and nationally known figures. Lanier’s celebration was Friday, May 13, in the school gymnasium.

Vocabulary.com’s Chief Marketing Officer Chris Strausser came in from New York City to watch the trophy presentation at Chavez.

“Chavez gets bigger every month,” Strausser said. “They hit 76,000 words last month alone.”

Lanier is the winner of the first-ever prize in the newly established middle-school competition and second place overall.

“This is the first year that we split the competition into middle and high school,” Strausser said, “and Lanier took first place in the middle-school competition.

“Good vocabulary improves reading comprehension,” Strausser said. “If you are a teacher, and your students are going to read ‘The Great Gatsby,’ we can load the vocabulary for that text, and your students can learn it before they start reading.”

Successful reading takes place when a student knows the meaning of the words in a text. In 2011, HISD launched Literacy By 3, an initiative with the goal of having all students reading on grade level by third grade. Five years later, these youngsters have moved on to middle school, and HISD is expanding the literacy program to include middle schools as well.

Building on the success of Literacy By 3, “Literacy in the Middle” aims to expand the quality and quantity of time middle-school students spend reading authentic texts, and then following up with personalized instruction and academic writing.

The plan is to launch the literacy initiative in HISD high schools in three years. In the meantime, the district is supporting high schools by making sure they know the literacy levels of their students, how that data affects student achievement, and identifying impactful structures and strategies their campus might implement this coming school year.

Chavez students are very competitive – after Bellaire High School won a single day, Chavez students went online and took back first place the next day.

Chavez English teacher Sherri Huggins, known to her students as “The Shugginator,” coached her students constantly to stay ahead of the competition.

“We won last year, too, so now we are going for a three-peat,” she said. “We just keep raising the bar.”

“They exceeded every challenge we put in front of them,” Chavez principal Rene Sanchez added.

Astros TV broadcaster Bill Brown congratulated the students on always have the right word at the right time, unlike the times he got in trouble for using the wrong word.

Vocalist Támar Davis encouraged students and then performed for them. After graduating from the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, she studied music at University of South California and launched a career that included being a co-lead vocalist for Prince and touring with him in 2006, working with Beyoncé (Davis was part of Girl’s Tyme but left before the group was renamed Destiny’s Child), and competing on “The Voice.”

“I wanted to have everything,” Davis said, “and for me that meant a college degree. No matter what you want, you can do it, because there is no one like you.”