Writing in Sunday's Houston Chronicle, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Lisa Falkenberg shone a spotlight on the hundreds of Houston students who got hooked on Vocabulary.com, as one "campus-wide obsession" turned into a recipe for district-wide academic success.

Why are students like Travaurus Smith of Cesar E. Chavez High School playing Vocabulary.com "during passing periods at school, on the way to the basketball court, [and] even on breaks at [a] part-time job at McDonald's," while leaving the latest edition of "Call of Duty" unplayed? 

"Besides healthy competition," Falkenberg concludes, "there's something else [Vocabulary.com] brings that's sorely lacking in test-laden public schools: fun."

The "system of medals and points and monthly competitions make the vocabulary lessons feel like a video game," she writes, and "the software adapts to the user's level, so English-language learners and others starting off with limited vocabularies can compete against more advanced students."

She then goes on to describe the rivalry that sprang up between Chavez, which went on to win the 2014-15 Vocabulary Bowl, and another school in the Houston Independent School District, third-place finisher Bellaire High School.

Check out three student success stories Falkenberg tells below, or read the full text of her column, "There's a word for what 'cool' vocabulary app breeds: success," which appeared on the front page of the Chronicle's City/State section.

Travaurus Smith:

Travaurus Smith's mother surprised him in November with the belated birthday gift he'd hounded her to buy — the latest edition of the "Call of Duty" video game series.

The high school senior thanked his mom, but he left the game sitting, fully wrapped, on a kitchen table — for months. His mom grew concerned.

"She wanted to know if everything was OK with me," Smith said. "She asked, 'Is there something I need to know?' "

He assured her he was fine: "It's just a cool thing at school they got me doing," he recalls telling her.

That thing didn't involve his usual interests of varsity football and math.

Smith is one of hundreds of students at Houston's Cesar E. Chavez High School who found themselves hooked on a vocabulary-boosting program that at first was part of classroom assignments and later became a campus-wide obsession. 


Besides healthy competition, there's something else this program brings that's sorely lacking in test-laden public schools: fun.

As for Smith, he's off to Texas State University in San Marcos in a few months, the first in his family to attend college. He aspires to own a business, maybe an accounting firm.

He still loves math, but the once-halting speaker credits the vocab app with his newfound fluidity with words, a higher SAT score and an appreciation for reading for pleasure.

"My teacher just gave away 200 books, and I took home six or seven," he said.

And that video game he got last fall? He played it. Once.

"I don't think I'm too much interested in it anymore," he said.

Devonte Powell

At a ceremony last week in the school auditorium, the principal called 100 of the highest achievers to the stage and handed out certificates and medals. The students, many of them immigrants from Latin America and countries such as India and Vietnam, took their places on risers and posed for a photo with a big silver trophy.

"My mom thinks I'm a genius," 17-year-old Devonte Powell told me afterward, beaming. The B-student didn't expect to like a vocabulary program. He did it because it was a grade in class.

"I fell in love with it at first sight," he said. "It's addictive. You just want to play it all day."

Vrajesh Kanchanwala

"My parents are like, 'You need to get off the computer and go out more,' " said another Chavez senior, Vrajesh Kanchanwala. "And I'm like 'but, I'm studying!' "

Kanchanwala, an 18-year-old originally from India, said he initially struggled to grasp English and was held back in the fifth grade. He eventually appreciated reading but stuck to slimmer books because he'd still stumble over unfamiliar words. Then he started using the vocabulary app on the bus ride to school. He even broke it out recently after finishing a grueling Advanced Placement test.

"Everybody was like, 'Dude, what are you doing? You're such a nerd,' " Kanchanwala said.

Kanchanwala said he's now tackling 400-pagers. He's surprised how many of the words he uses.

"Antidisestablishmentarianism - I don't think you would use that any way in your everyday life," he said. "However, I was reading this article online, and it was mentioned in there. And I was like 'ooh, I know this!' "

You can read the whole article here, or see the page image below. And for more about the words that Chavez students mastered on their way to winning the Vocabulary Bowl, check out the Mental Floss article, "The Sport of Competitive Vocabulary Building."