A website that teaches kids new words has touched off spirited digital competition among schools from coast to coast.
Vocabulary.com boasts a Web-based dashboard bristling with points, levels, progress bars and achievement bonuses, among other attractions. Students have long competed with one another.
In October, the stakes got much higher.
The New York-based company that runs the site quietly began pitting school against school, offering a shiny, bold-faced "Vocabulary.com Champions" banner to the school whose students learned the most words by the end of each month. To make sure all comers knew just what was at stake, they built the biggest bit of competitive catnip possible: a digital leaderboard.
That first month, students at Blackman High School in Murfreesboro, Tenn., studied and learned more than 11,000 words, racking up more than 25 million points on the site. In November, students at Corkscrew Middle School in Naples, Fla., snatched the crown from Blackman, earning 27 million points. And in December, despite the winter break (or perhaps because of it), students at Brooklyn Technical High School in the city's Fort Greene neighborhood blew away the competition, earning more than 25 million points. By Dec. 31, the nearest competitor, a high school in Georgia, trailed by nearly 3 million points.
Could academics be the new athletic event?
"Competition can kind of 'up the stakes' a bit, even if it's the idea of pride of place or getting a banner," says Ben Zimmer, the site's executive producer. "It really does seem to add something."
Much of the traffic for the competition has come through word-of-mouth among teachers and students, he says. "Everybody can contribute, everybody can compete." He's also looking at ways to allow several schools in a single district to compete with one another.
Taking part in the competition is free to schools, but teachers can sign up for a paid service that allows them to track individual student progress.
Educators long have relied on competitive interscholastic sports to get students excited about being in school, but schools have rarely relied on academic competition to reach more than just top students.
That could change soon, as technology enables efforts like this one. Already, students at hundreds of high schools are competing in live, head-to-head online math competitions run by in-ter-stel-lar (in-ter-stel-lar.com).
Bring it on, says Brooklyn Tech Assistant Principal Marc Williams, who coordinated the vocabulary effort last month. "As days went by, more and more kids were getting into it," he says. "They really ate it up."
Perhaps more significant, Williams notes, the competition encouraged many boys to get interested in the topic. They tend not to shine in humanities classes, but the competition "might be a hook" to pique their curiosity, he says.
Zimmer, a linguist, also doubles as a language columnist. In 2010, he was The New York Times Magazine's replacement for longtime "On Language" columnist William Safire, and he now writes a language column for
The Wall Street Journal. It was a short subway ride for him on Monday to present the banner to WIlliams' students at Brooklyn Tech, but he or a colleague may need a plane ticket next time: So far this month, Palm Desert, Calif., High School holds the leaderboard's top spot.