Our School Held a Vocabulary Competition and It Changed Everything

Who knew what a vocab contest could do?

dictionary definition - vocabulary competition

Our school is a Title 1, urban elementary school of 390 students just north of Boston. Inspired by the research of Marzano, Marulis and Neuman who proved that strengthening vocabulary skills is a key to school success, we built a school-wide vocabulary initiative. We teamed up with our friends at JogNog to create a school-wide vocabulary competition.

Building a School-Wide Vocabulary Initiative

The school-wide vocabulary initiative was a huge success! The kids loved the competition and their accuracy answering vocabulary questions rose from 78.1% to 97.1%. Ultimately our fourth grade won with more than 6,500 total vocabulary words mastered.

Here are six tips to develop and host your own school-wide vocabulary initiative:

1. Set aside about 30 days for the contest

This worked out to be a good amount of time so that the contest didn’t last forever but also gave the teachers enough time to see the progress.

2. Keep your posters that monitor progress simple

We created and printed giant JogNog tower posters to hang in the school’s front lobby. We recommend making smaller charts to maximize wall space, but use bright colors so they’re easily seen.

3. Take advantage of digital resources

You could certainly run a contest like this with pencil and paper but there are so many online tools out there that easily run on an iPad or Chromebook. We picked JogNog because it already had built in features to help streamline and run the contest.

4. Encourage teamwork

Our students were energized and motivated by their accomplishments despite the competition. They wanted to help each other succeed—and eventually all our students could complete the challenge.

5. Give students immediate rewards

The students were rewarded with a badging system as their vocabulary grew. We experienced a high level of student interest with 98% of our students participating.

6. Don’t forget to celebrate

After your classes successfully review all the words, hold a small celebration in your gymnasium/auditorium/cafeteria. At our party, we shared progress statistics and recognized the top classes. Our top performing students received imprinted pencils and hats. Afterwards, we invited the students to propose challenging vocabulary words that our ‘expert’ had to define. If they stumped the ‘expert,’ the student received a sheet of stickers.

PS: Syzygy was a word that stumped our expert! Do you know what it means? In case you need a refresher, it’s the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies (such as the sun, moon, and earth during a solar or lunar eclipse) in a gravitational system.

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Jacqueline Orphanos

Posted by Jacqueline Orphanos

I have been an elementary educator for over 28 years. This is my 5th school year as the principal of Center School in Peabody, Massachusetts. As a staff we meet students’ unique learning styles through social skills education, differentiated instruction methodology, tech-based resources and facilitating a growth mindset approach to life.

2 Comments

  1. I love the idea vocabulary contest. I’m hosting a contest in Brooklyn this year for several schools teaching them how to use word parts for word smarts. We’re going to be using morphology and encouraging our students to understand roots and prefixes through the keywords they already know. Wish me luck.

    1. Lisa Craig

      My school did the Minutes of Reading competition last year whereas students are divided in teams and they win according to the minutes they recreationally read books every day. It was fun, and a vocabulary competition sounds wonderful! Maybe it is something that I can at least implement in the classroom.