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Teacher Double-'Crosses' Students Into Learning Vocabulary

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Eugene Williams talks to young students about vocabulary and his book 'Word Cross and Across.'
Courtesy of Eugene Williams
Eugene Williams talks to young students about vocabulary and his book 'Word Cross and Across.'

A former high school English teacher in Maryland is expanding the vocabulary of disadvantaged children by combining the characteristics of a new president with an old game.

Eugene Williams' father and mother never made it past third grade, and yet they learned and loved to read. One of nine children raised in Orange, Va., Williams' parents encouraged that passion for words using borrowed newspapers from a family down the street.

"We'd bring that newspaper home, and dad would say, 'read!'" he says. "Then after we read, he'd ask us questions about it."

Williams eventually earned his doctorate in education and became a teacher. On one occasion, as he was noting the similarities between Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' speech and a portion of President Obama's book, The Audacity of Hope, to a class of disadvantaged teens in Prince George's County, Williams was confronted with a disturbing truth.

"I discovered that many of the students could not pronounce words like oasis they could not pronounce just basic words, and I thought, 'my goodness we have a problem,'" he said.

The class struggled until one of the students shared an epiphany.

"One young fellow in the back of the classroom said Dr. Williams, 'we will learn those words if you teach us those words using word searches,'" says Williams. "And I thought, 'well if this is important to this young fellow and the rest of the class, then I must do that.'"

Word search is a classic puzzle game which uses blocks of letters to hide words. Williams got busy applying the principles of the puzzle to qualities and characteristics of the president, and his daughters Sasha and Malia. The result is a book called  Words Cross and Across, which is full of word search puzzles with the theme of the Obamas. The text encourages students to apply the words they discover to sentences, and has been used by some educators for SAT prep.

"I do believe that my approach will help so many," he says. "It's a different approach to teaching vocabulary."

Williams has written Words Cross and Across books with other themes, including one on basketball star LeBron James. Williams hopes his latest edition based on first lady Michelle Obama will be available before the end of Black History month.

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