We at Vocabulary.com have always believed our system could lead to concrete results for students. Now a team of academic literacy researchers have put Vocabulary.com to the test in a study of eleventh-grade students using Vocabulary.com in classroom and after-school contexts along with other vocabulary-focused digital learning tools.

The results of the study, published in the prestigious, peer-reviewed Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (from the International Reading Association) are unequivocal: Vocabulary.com boosts learning by creating a fun, engaging, and competitive experience where students are in control. (The full study, authored by education professor Sandra Schamroth Abrams of St. John's University, Queens, NY, and English teacher Sara Walsh of EF International Academy in Tarrytown, NY, is available from Wiley Online Library in enhanced HTML or PDF form.)

Walsh and Abrams write: "Not only did students enjoy the adaptive and independent practices associated with a gamified approach to learning vocabulary, they also became more aware of their own word knowledge and developed a nuanced understanding of language.…We found that the game-like features of the site, coupled with its integrated dictionary, offered an effective hybrid teaching tool that honored independent and flexible learning opportunities."

Noting that the eleventh-grade students participating in the study spent time on Vocabulary.com above and beyond their assignments, the study attributed increased student success with the site to some degree to the site's adaptive learning capabilities (the game tailors the words students learn to their existing vocabulary level) as well as a sense of competition and fun. 

The site's amusing quips intrigued the class and made the information accessible; the students even laughed about the site's “wicked sense of humor.”…During one in-class game that involved The Challenge, Antonio, who often looked slightly bleary-eyed during the 8 a.m. class, was rapt and eager to answer, leaning intently forward toward his teammates and whispering loudly, “It's elated! I'm sure!”

But the key element of Vocabulary.com driving student engagement, the study found, was the sense of control students had over when and how long to play the game, and what words they chose to learn.

Many adolescents were especially keen to customize vocabulary lists as they adopted and adapted their online vocabulary sessions to help them learn school-related information. The gamified approach to vocabulary afforded students, like after-school student, Tanya, “to play Vocabulary.com more regular[ly] because I can add any words you want to learn from a vocab list that my teachers give me.” This sentiment was echoed by her cohort, Abigale, who liked “the option [to] add any words you want to learn from a vocab list that my teachers give me.”

The eleventh grade students…outside of class game play, they could choose the time, the frequency, and the duration of their use of online vocabulary sites, and they were publicly rewarded for their progress both in class and on the site's leaderboard.…

Unlike school, where Kendra said she “didn't learn any new words,” the online space of The Challenge was “faster and it seems reliable. Plus it gives me definitions that I can understand.” Online resources typically involve self-directed learning opportunities, and students, like Kendra, were in control of their game play and vocabulary development. 

The result was an experience of "flow" for students, with results to match. 

Flow is an inherent element of gamification (Zichermann & Cunningham, 2011), and the sentiments of students involved in using online vocabulary resources and playing The Challenge revealed that the five categories—control, competence, appropriate challenges, immediate experiences, and clear feedback—were part of their overall playing and learning experience. As tutee Jocelyn explained in an e-mailed reflection, “I think I have the tools and skills to teach myself vocabulary because I can use Vocabulary.com as a game to learn vocabulary because its [sic] fun and entertaining so I learn better when I'm using an interactive source rather than simply making flash cards.”…

Such individualization, interaction, and enjoyment with online vocabulary learning also was evident when students' energy and performance level in Sara's high school English class increased in regard to vocabulary study. The average vocabulary quiz score from the first two novels was a robust 92 as compared to the low B average of prior quizzes during the year. Likewise, when the after-school tutees began mastering words in online and offline assessments and discussions, it became apparent how online resources and their gamified components could be effective, complementary tools for teaching vocabulary.

These study results echo anecdotal evidence we have been gathering from teachers, students, tutors, and individuals playing Vocabulary.com as well as competing in our leaderboard competition and year-long Vocabulary Bowl — because the game is addictive and fun for students, they play longer and faster, and word learning follows. As Walsh and Abrams put it, "In eight years of teaching high school English, Sara had yet to have students, even the most motivated ones, ask when she would be assigning the next vocabulary unit."