Last week, we announced ten winners and ten runners-up to the Vocabulary Video Contest that we ran in partnership with the New York Times Learning Network. Watch these brilliant videos and you will never forget the definitions of the words the students chose. They're all superlative examples of creative word-learning at work.

But when we finally put the list of winners together, we couldn't help but notice that of the more than 600-plus entries, two of the top twenty videos ("Somnambulist" by Aldric G. and "Evocative" by Nicole V. and Celine T.) were submitted by students working with a single teacher: Elizabeth Ellison of the Robert C. Fisler School in Fullerton, CA. We reached out to Ellison to ask her about her vocabulary teaching program. What's driving her students' success?

This video by Aldric G., defining somnambulist, was the overall contest winner.

"Engagement," Ellison said, accounting for the vocabulary learning energy in her classroom with a single word. When she introduced Vocabulary.com earlier this fall, she explained, the program immediately got students hooked. "Right away I could see that it was going to be motivating for my students and easy for me to use. Within the first day I was getting results. The way the students rack up points is encouraging to them. They're drawn in and keep practicing. They're learning without realizing it. And they're asking for more."

As an experiment, she set her students the goal of mastering 15 words a week. This quickly brought home an understanding of the difference between answering a few questions correctly and truly mastering a word's meaning. "They see, 'Oh, it takes some work to master a word,'" Ellison explained. "They like that." And Ellison liked the way the game allowed for this kind of discussion in class.

Ellison's students also enjoyed choosing the words they want to learn using Vocabulary Lists. "My students find lists that are interesting to them and when I give them lists they are happy to get that [direction]." She also found that the kids succeeding on Vocabulary.com can be kids who are not necessarily succeeding academically elsewhere. "There's a lot of talk about gamification right now and right away this struck me as something that's simple to access but so engaging and challenging and self-directing."

She couldn't have found a better solution to a more pressing need. Overall, "vocabulary is one of our greatest areas of weakness," Ellison reported. "For years I've been frustrated by the lack of word knowledge and word sense my students have." Using a patchwork of teaching materials at her disposal, she said, she felt she was "constantly reinventing the wheel.…[and then] I go to vocabulary workshops and they want kids to draw pictures of every single word. That's so tedious." Meanwhile, "my kids had this mentality that learning vocabulary is simply memorizing the definitions to words." With Vocabulary.com, all that has started to change.

As to the Vocab Video Contest, Ellison chalks up her students' success to their own creativity and drive. She discovered the contest opportunity while reading the Vocabulary.com blog, which she makes a point of looking through regularly to "reinforce my commitment to really using" Vocabulary.com. She then introduced the contest as an extra credit assignment and dedicated only a brief amount of class time to helping her students understand contest rules and directions.

"We looked at some of the examples and I said to them, 'You can win this.'" After that, the students "were self-directed and simply motivated enough to do what they did."


Celine T. and Nicole V.'s video, Evocative, was a contest runner-up.