William H. Sadlier: A Case of Visualizing Vocabulary

Jan 20, 2012

Article Image

William H. Sadlier, an educational publishing company, was created over 175 years ago, when brothers Denis and James Sadlier emigrated from Ireland to New York, and started publishing spiritual and educational material for the Catholic community. Since 1832, the company has stayed privately owned by the Sadlier family, and has gained recognition for its publications such as Sadlier Phonics and Reading program, the Vocabulary Workshop series, Progress in Mathematics, and other programs that are widely used in both parochial and public schools.


Business Challenge:

Though best known for its rigorous educational material intended for college bound kids, William H. Sadlier decided that in early 2011, it wanted to expand its repertoire, and target struggling middle school students and English language learners as well. Working with educational experts, Sadlier settled on creating a vocabulary program that used audio and video to not only engage students, but provide an alternative teaching strategy for educators.

Vendor of Choice: Kinetic Media

Based in Connecticut, Kinetic Media is a video production company created and led by producer and director, John O'Neill, and copywriter and scriptwriter, Rosemary Keogh O'Neill. Kinetic Media provides its client list, which includes Duracell, Xerox, Sony, American Express, and Toyota, with expertise on scriptwriting, producing, directing, and 2D and 3D graphic design and production. In 2011, Kinetic Media's documentary, On Deadline: Is Time Running out for the Press?, won the company a Boston/New England Emmy award.


The Problem in Depth

Since its inception, William H. Sadlier has made a name for itself producing materials like its flagship product, Vocabulary Workshop, which has become a staple in the education field selling approximately one million copies a year. Educators around the country have always turned to Vocabulary Workshop in the past to help guide students, but because it focused only on Advanced Placement and Honors level children, its reach was limited.

"So many people loved Vocabulary Workshop, but then, with how public schools are changing, they said we love Vocabulary Workshop, we think it's great, but quite frankly, it is a little out of the reach of some of our students. Could you do something else?" says Alexandra Rivas Smith, director of marketing for William H. Sadlier.

In early 2011, Sadlier decided it was time to branch out, and worked with authors and education experts, Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher, to come up with Vocabulary for Success, a program that would focus on sixth through eighth graders who were struggling to keep up with vocabulary demands, as well as English language learners.

Sadlier didn't just want to give students a list of words to memorize; it wanted something more interactive. "It's so important and sometimes really hard to explain new words with just a written definition. And it is very hard to understand how to correctly say the word, too," says Rivas Smith. "Blended learning is really hot now too. Kids don't just want to do drill exercises in a workbook, they want to learn in different ways."

Sadlier thought that creating video clips where real kids explained the definition of almost 900 words would give students a more collaborative way to enhance their vocabulary, and educators a new tool in their arsenal of teaching strategies. Before Vocabulary for Success could take off, though, Sadlier needed to find a video production company to tackle the ambitious project.

The Solution:

"The project was very challenging from the start because the purpose was to create lasting visual imagery that would reinforce the meaning of the word. We hear words all the time, but perhaps we would remember the definitions better if there were some visual image that we could attach to it," says William H. Sadlier's director of digital media, Michael Ferejohn, who has had long-time relationship with Kinetic Media, and knew that it would be the perfect company to take on the Vocabulary for Success challenge. "They are excellent professionals and it was a big, big project that needed a good deal of careful management," says Ferejohn. "Kinetic always brought a great blend of their own creativity. They are filmmakers so they are very creative people, but also have a real understanding of the education market and what we were trying to accomplish in terms of motivating it but also providing instruction to students."

Kinetic Media brought its creativity to the table almost immediately. When Sadlier "first talked to us about it, the idea was that we would get flip cameras and they would send them out to schools and kids would produce them themselves. You'd give them a bunch of words and they would produce them. We further developed the idea because we said, that doesn't give us a lot of control. What if they don't pronounce the word right, what if they don't visualize it right. So we kind of took that idea and said we'll actually write the script of what it should be, and we'll get kids to act it out," says Keogh O'Neill.

To get ideas for how to best explain certain words in the videos, Kinetic Media went straight to the source: kids. They held focus groups and pizza parties, asking the kids for ideas of how they would envision specific words. "Some words are abstractions, so trying to come up with visual imagery that reinforces the meaning rather than makes it more confusing is a challenge by itself. Also, we are dealing with middle school students so we wanted to make sure that they were entertaining enough, that they would hold the students' attention throughout the year. So Kinetic very often brought humor to the videos," says Ferejohn from Sadlier. "You have to get the grammar all right, you can't reinforce any bad habits while you are trying to entertain them."

When it came time to film the video clips, Kinetic Media decided going to schools the way Sadlier had originally planned may not be the best venue. "We came up with the idea of partnering with the local children's theater," explains Keogh O'Neill. "We went to them and they said this was ‘perfect for us, because we have kids who want acting experience.' They would love to do it. It was one of the greatest parts of [the project] because they were enthusiastic."

For Kinetic Media, the challenging part of the project wasn't coming up with script ideas or adhering to Sadlier's guidelines for the videos (which included not poking fun at school); it was keeping tabs on the almost 900 video clips. "The hard part was keeping track, because you'd shoot one, and edit it, and then send a bunch of them in for approval, and then you get comments back and you would re-edit them and resubmit them, so you had to keep careful track of where everything was, or what the problem was with it and did we address it," says Keogh O'Neill.

The Results:

Kinetic Media started the Vocabulary for Success project in April 2011, and delivered videos for 870 words by September 1, 2011, just in time for the school year to begin. So far, the reception for Vocabulary for Success has been very positive. "We see tremendous excitement among the educators that are using it. It's a sort of instant motivator. Vocabulary can be a really dry topic, and this may be the first instance that these students and teachers have had to really have some laughs and excitement about tackling the subject of vocabulary," says Ferejohn.

The results speak for themselves. "We had our first big classroom adoption this fall," explains Rivas Smith. "One of the biggest, most successful ones so far is Pinellas County, Florida, north of Tampa. They had a district wide adoption in their public schools. That's an area that has a lot of migrant workers, lots of English language learners. They were so thrilled with the program that merged two different departments just so they could be able to buy it."

With Vocabulary for Success, students can "access the audio on your iPhone, you can download the words on MP3 player, you could watch the videos online," something that, according to Kinetic Media, capitalizes on how kids today learn. "It just makes so much sense now with the internet. Everything is easy. We watched films and videos in class, now they can click on them, watch them from their laptop, they can go over it again. It just makes all kinds of sense."