‘Cool’ vocabulary app breeds: success

There’s a word for what ‘cool’ vocabulary app breeds: success

By Lisa Falkenberg

Columnist, Houston Chronicle

May 23, 2015 Updated: May 23, 2015 5:21pm

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.

Smith bought the Vocabulary.com app for $2.99 and played it everywhere, at home, during passing periods at school, on the way to the basketball court, even on breaks at his part-time job at McDonald’s. So intense was his pursuit to conquer new frontiers of the English lexicon that sometimes, while playing the app and walking, he ran smack-dab into doors.

The collisions didn’t impair his language skills. He ranked No. 3 for words mastered out of the entire school of 3,000.

The program started in the English department after HISD contracted with Vocabulary.com, and it spread. Soon, teachers were holding events after school, and students were bonding over the game.

To spur competition nationally, Vocabulary.com awarded monthly championship banners for schools mastering the most words. 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. All that matters is growth.

The students and teachers at Chavez got really fired up once they took on the prestigious Bellaire High School during a monthly matchup.

“Once we passed them in January, there was no looking back,” said Chavez’s principal of two years, Rene Sanchez.

Earlier this month, the students at the east-side school – where only half are deemed “college ready” and around 85 percent are low-income – beat Bellaire in the first annual Vocabulary.com Bowl. It’s a significant achievement considering 75 percent of Bellaire’s students graduate college-ready, less than half are low-income and the average SAT score is 340 points higher than at Chavez.

It was a personal achievement for Smith: “I wanted to go to Bellaire, but I guess I didn’t pass the test or for whatever reason, I didn’t get in,” he said. “So, to see Bellaire in competition, I was like ‘OK, I’m going to make you regret not accepting me.’ ”

But Chavez beat more than Bellaire. It defeated more than 16,000 schools nationwide and students in nine Canadian provinces. Chavez students mastered 300,000 words from September to April.

The most-mastered words were rhetorical devices, such as simile and metaphor. The top 100 list included one word I didn’t know: anomie. And one word I wish I didn’t know: secede.

‘Fell in love with it’

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.”

Bellaire, meanwhile, placed third nationally. Brian Wolf, the chair of Bellaire’s English department, applauded Chavez. But he noted that Bellaire had far fewer students participating, and he hopes to recruit more next year.

The system of medals and points and monthly competitions make the vocabulary lessons feel like a video game, students say.

“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!’ ”

Kanchanwala says he’s proud of the vocabulary movement he and his classmates started but a little sad he won’t be there to see it grow.

Forget video games

And it does seem likely to grow. 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.


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