Educators love to talk about how important vocabulary is, but they are often at wits' end trying to figure out how to teach it effectively. Despite the overwhelming evidence that vocabulary knowledge matters to students' reading comprehension and overall achievement in school, it is rare that you will find schools or school districts implementing systematic vocabulary instruction.
Vocabulary.com is dedicated to solving the essential problem: figuring out how to take the drudgery out of vocabulary instruction and create an atmosphere that encourages playful experimentation with word learning. Jane McGonigal's 2011 bestseller Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World suggests we might look to gaming for a possible solution.
McGonigal argues that applying the wisdom of game developers may provide the key to fixing reality. While McGonigal's argument is bold and sweeping — touching upon fixing every aspect of life from personal depression to the global energy crisis, here we'd like to focus on the broken state of vocabulary instruction and how effective vocabulary games can potentially teach us something about how we could be better fostering our students' vocabulary growth in our culture and in our classrooms.
"The truth is this," McGonigal boldly writes, "in today's society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy." She goes on to make three basic points, which we can also apply to teaching vocabulary
Games are providing rewards that reality is not.
When in life are we challenged and rewarded for learning a new word? Research has shown us that we tend to use the same words over and over in our daily oral communication. And, when we violate this norm by experimenting with the use of a new word, we run the risk of being ridiculed for mispronunciation, misuse, or for sounding unnatural or pompous. As a society, we all relish when a celebrity or politician makes such an error, since it gives us a chance to feel intellectually superior and to expose their human frailty (like when Justin Bieber confused "instrumental" with "detrimental" or when George W. Bush coined "misunderestimate").
Learning a new word in a game like Vocabulary.com could not be more different. It's a safe environment where not knowing a word only results in a gentle chiding (e.g., "Strike 1! Give it another try!") and the chance to redeem oneself in a subsequent round. Instead of risking long-lasting public humiliation, failure in missing a question is temporary and private and we are rewarded by the satisfying opportunity to challenge ourselves to remember the word and its meanings in multiple contexts over time. If only the reality of "testing out" a new word in a social or classroom context could be as forgiving and supportive.
Games are teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not.
McGonigal identifies a feedback system as one of the four defining traits of a game. A feedback system lets a player know how close they are to mastering their goal; it's the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel that encourages you not to give up. Feedback makes goals seem attainable and provides players with signs of progress in the forms of points, progress bars, badges, and the opportunity to level up.
In reality, the quest of improving one's vocabulary is an overwhelming goal and there is rarely a feedback system in place to encourage us to keep deepening our word knowledge. There are no scorecards in life that record the incremental steps in learning a new word. In a game setting like Vocabulary.com, however, the system is tracking your performance on every encounter with an unfamiliar word, not allowing you to stop at that vague association phase of learning a word. Tangible learning mileposts encourage you to not give up until you complete your journey to mastery of that word.
Games are bringing us together in ways that reality is not.
One of the intrinsic rewards that McGonigal associates with some games is the social connection that gamers experience when they are contributing to a goal that is not just about individual achievement but one that is a communal effort "bigger than themselves."
People often associate gaming with disconnected and isolated players, playing in dark basements and avoiding social contact. However, the virtual community created when gamers work on a collective goal can paradoxically bring together otherwise unconnected players. One phenomenon we see over and over again at Vocabulary.com is that when students "play for their school" and track their collective contributions on the national school leaderboard, they are less interested in their individual progress and can become immersed in interschool competition. In this video created by Yonkers Public Schools, one student from Enrico Fermi School for the Performing Arts mentions a rivalry with another Yonkers school: PEARLS Hawthorne School. The Fermi student and his peers have made vocabulary learning not an individual pursuit but an epic battle between rival schools.
Where is the fix?
The contrast between learning words in the classroom and learning words in a virtual game challenges us to ask some fundamental questions: How can we as educators mitigate (if not eliminate) our students' fear of failure when it comes to learning words? How can we improve word learners' chances of success? How can we get players to transfer their motivation for learning words in a virtual environment to using words in reality?
We need to start providing students with more satisfying feedback for experimenting with newly learned words in oral discussions and in their writing. If learners make mistakes (and they will), reward them for their efforts, provide feedback, and the opportunity to try again. In other words, we need to model our classroom and social habits around language use on the game experience – where we are consistently and methodically introducing new words into the mix and associating mastery of those words with tangible signs of success.
Georgia Scurletis is Director of Curriculum for the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. Before coming to Thinkmap, she spent 18 years as a curriculum writer and classroom teacher. Georgia has written curriculum materials for a variety of Web sites (WGBH, The New York Times Learning Network, Edsitement) and various school districts. While teaching high school English in Brooklyn, she was a recipient of the New York State English Council's Educators of Excellence Award, the Brooklyn High Schools' Recognition Award, and The New York Times' Teachers Who Make a Difference Award.Click here to read other articles by Georgia Scurletis