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In this Free Tools Challenge, you will learn a little bit about the following:

  1. What Is Vocabulary.com?
  2. How Can You Use It In The Classroom?
  3. How Does Vocabulary.com Work?
  4. The Challenge!
  5. Extending The Discussion


Vocabulary.com is an online application designed to make teaching vocabulary easier and more engaging.  Whereas Memrise (Teacher Challenge #27) focused on making vocabulary words “stickier” and hacking how people remember things, Vocabulary.com is all about building retention through testing.  Their website features three major sections that work to build the user’s vocabulary in different, and sometimes overlapping, ways: The Challenges, The Dictionary, and The Lists.

The Challenges: When a user visits the site, they are immediately presented with a vocabulary question.  Depending on whether the user answers the question correctly or not, they are then served another word which is either more difficult or less difficult than the last one.  In this way, Vocabulary.com’s algorithm constantly adjusts the questions served to the user to ensure that students are challenged enough to make progress, but not so overwhelmed that they become discouraged.  The constant challenge also works to create a certain competition in the mind of the user and can make even the task of learning vocabulary curiously addictive.

The Dictionary:  Vocabulary.com also provides an excellent dictionary function that, much like Memrise, is specially designed to  make the looked-up word “sticky”.  It does this in two ways.  First, in addition to displaying a basic definition and example for the word, they provide their own auxiliary definitions and examples which can be surprisingly clever.   These definitions and examples also include a discussion of the etymology of the word and a suggestion for a mnemoic that will help the student to remember it.   Second, they include a function which helps you to look up the word in VisualThesaurus.com, a sister site of Vocabulary.com.  By seeing how the word connects with other words and meanings, the student is better able to contextualize the word and therefore remember it.

The Lists: If the students are tired of the challenge questions track, they can also build their knowledge with vocabulary lists.  There are plenty of lists available that have been created by other users and Vocabulary.com itself, but you can also create your own lists using the dictionary’s list builder and another function we will discuss below. These lists cover a wide variety of different subjects, topics, and purposes. Some examples include: Spanish Borrowings Into English250 Words From The Domain Of Diplomacy; and 100 SAT Words Beginning With “A”.

Want to see it in action?  Check out this How-It-Works video from Vocabulary.com itself:

Possible Educational Uses:

For teachers looking to get the most out of this application, the real value is in the ease with which you can create or find vocabulary lists. If you want to target subject/topic/class-specific vocabulary, you can either make your own vocabulary lists from the texts that you are currently using with your students or find existing vocabulary lists that apply to the material.

On the other hand, if your interest is in improving the quality and size of your students’ base vocabulary, there is also a lot of value in getting students to use the machine learning function for self-study.  In this case, though, I suspect the biggest challenge  might be to get them to do it in the first place.  Extra credit, anyone?

How To Use Vocabulary.com:

The Challenge function is pretty self-explanatory (just answer the questions), The Dictionary function is, well, a dictionary (look words up there as you would normally), and finding a Vocabulary List is really just a matter of entering your search terms in their search field.   The only tricky bit is the process of creating your own Vocabulary List, so I will take you through that step-by-step now.

A Screen Of The Create A Vocabulary List Box.
The “Create A Vocabulary List” Box.

As you would expect, the first step is to create an account with Vocabulary.com.  The service is free, so all they require from you is an email address (you can also do a one-touch login with Facebook).

Once logged in, click on the the Vocabulary Lists tab and find the square box that lets you Create A Vocabulary List. When you press on the button, you will be directed to the interface you will use to create your vocabulary list.  First, you have to give a name and description to your vocabulary list, as well as decide whether you would like your list to be for general use or just for your own:

Name, Describe, And Set The Privacy Level For Your Vocabulary List.
Name, Describe, And Set The Privacy Level For Your Vocabulary List.

Now you can begin entering words in the vocabulary list you have just named.  Using the section directly below the one you used to enter the title and description, you can enter words One At A TimeAll At Once, or From Text.

This Is The Portion Of The Interface Where You Add Words To The List.
This Is The Portion Of The Interface Where You Add Words To The List.

The first two work in roughly the same way.  Once you enter the word (or with All At Once, the words separated by commas) they present you with a few more options: you can Add NotesAdd Example Sentence, and Choose Definition.  The first option just creates a text area in which you can add notes.  When you click on Example Sentence, you get the following:

Example Sentences That Vocabulary.com Generates.
Example Sentences That Vocabulary.com Generates.

When you enter the word, you can either enter in your own example sentence or choose from one of their example sentences.  Their sentences are snipped from an internet search of the word as it appears in a variety of reputable publications.  Once you have chosen the example you like, you can then click on Choose Definition to grab the definition:

Choose The Vocabulary.com Definition For Your List Word.
Choose The Vocabulary.com Definition For Your List Word.

When you have the words that you want in the list, you can just press Save List and it will be ready to use.  Students can be tested, or test themselves, with the list as they would any other words or lists. Vocabulary.com will generate the practice sentences for you and grade the results.  If you choose to enter words From Text, the process is only slightly different:

Their Tool For Pulling Vocabulary Words From Texts.
Their Tool For Pulling Vocabulary Words From Texts.

Simply copy your text of any size (it can be a few sentences or a hundred pages) and Vocabulary.com’s program will both snag the most interesting words from the passage and grab the sentences which contained those words.  After you have picked the words you would like to include in your list, you can save it and use it like any other.

The Challenge:

  1. Take a page of a text you are working with in class
  2. Create a vocabulary list from the page’s content.
  3. Test your students on that vocabulary list.

Extending The Discussion:

  • Do you think that constant testing (Vocabulary.com’s approach) or sticky memes (Memrise’s approach) do a better job of getting a student to retain information?  In the short-term?  In the long-term?
  • How important is learning vocabulary in a programmatic fashion?  Is it more important to have students know the definition of a word precisely or to have the skills to be able to infer the meaning of a word from context?
  • Is there a way to get students curious about vocabulary and interested in looking up words on their own?   What causes you to look up words you don’t know?

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