What is a Culture of Word Learning?

If you look up the word culture in our dictionary, you’ll see that the concept of culture has to do with a particular group of people in a particular place, and their shared knowledge and values. We’re all familiar with the idea of school culture — the embodiment of the students, the staff and the leadership in the context of their community, shaped by their challenges and their aspirations.

At, we’ve been lucky enough to visit many schools across the country — training you, learning from you, being inspired by you and your students — and we soak up a distinct school culture everywhere we go. Then we come back and share these great stories with each other — stories about how you’re integrating vocabulary improvement with your curriculum, improving literacy skills, and motivating kids to strive for excellence.

In sharing these anecdotes about all the ways teachers and schools are taking and making it their own, it dawned on us that you are creating a new kind of culture — a culture of word learning.

What is a culture of word learning?

In many schools, has become a catalyst for positive outcomes that go beyond our most basic function — to teach words and improve literacy. We see it in the hallways, the libraries, the classrooms and the pep rallies — vocabulary learning has become part of the culture, the identity, of these schools.

Above all, here’s what stands out to us when we reflect on what it means to have a healthy, thriving culture of word learning.

A culture of word learning...

  • is actively cultivated. Just a little nurturing is all it takes to start a healthy culture of word learning that grows over time. It can start with assigning a list a week for homework to prep your students for better reading, or projecting the leaderboard during homeroom to see who can master the most words before the day even starts. It thrives when you involve students, inviting them to create their own word lists, or making a list together as an engaging classroom activity. Over time, these practices become embedded in the teaching and learning of a school.
  • is different everywhere. Some schools thrive on competition, and are spurred on by local rivalries or even the ultimate quest for vocabulary glory — the Vocabulary Bowl championship title. Many teachers have summer reading lists, and have boosted their summer reading with to prep their students for the next grade. Teachers and students love getting creative with their word learning, designing enrichment projects where vocabulary is front-and-center. When it comes to a culture of word learning, every school makes it their own.
  • celebrates success. Whether it’s the principal mentioning top students on the morning announcements, giving every student who completed an assignment on time a shiny star on a classroom bulletin board, or treating the top class to a pizza party at the end of the month, taking time to celebrate successes — both large and small — makes a difference.
  • extends beyond the ELA classroom. A great way to address literacy across the content areas is through vocabulary instruction. With, Social Studies teachers are turning current events into learning events. Science teachers are preparing students for STEM projects, and Math teachers are strengthening problem solving skills and logical thinking. Schools that experience the most success with as a means to improve literacy are encouraging teachers from every discipline to get their classes on board.
  • includes learners of all abilities. We like to say, “It’s not how much you know, it’s how much you grow.” Because is adaptive, learners across a range of reading levels and language abilities can play. And because it rewards effort, everybody’s work counts for their school in the Vocabulary Bowl. Classroom teachers have embraced our “all-in” philosophy of academic competition, and we’re seeing how much that approach “motivates kids and schools to achieve success.”
  • starts small. You don’t have to be the national or state champion to get students involved. It can start in a single classroom. Kids get excited about competing, which propels more learning. Then, more teachers get on board, assigning practice for homework to prep kids for better reading and creating lists connected to their curriculum. Soon the school is topping county and maybe even the state leaderboards. When a school makes it to the top for a day or a week, then they want to see if they can land on top for a month and earn the Champions Banner. The more they play, the more they learn, and the more they want to learn.
  • can be creative, competitive, or better yet — both. So many schools out there are having fun with in ways we never could have predicted, but definitely want to share. How about hosting a Vodunkulary challenge, involving your principal and a dunk tank? What about a lunchtime word eating contest in the cafeteria, or school-wide March Madness challenge? One teacher created a book club Battle Royale, where readers competed against their peers for word domination. It’s pretty amazing to see how teachers, principals and students are coming up with their own ways to make a part of their school.

Why does cultivating a culture of word learning matter?

It all goes back to the concept of culture as a reflection of a community’s shared knowledge and values. When a school actively creates a culture of word learning, it’s making a statement about the importance of literacy and academic achievement. When a school builds a culture of word learning, it is creating an environment where success is an expectation, and where students are provided the opportunities and supports to achieve it.

What will you do to spread the culture of word learning at your school?

We don’t know what you’ll do, but based on what we’ve seen happening already, we know it’ll be creative, and inspiring. Whatever you do, no matter how big or small, we’d love to hear from you — the educators out there making a difference. Drop us a line at [email protected] and tell us your story!

Mr. Toliver made vocabulary learning a priority at Margate Middle School. Amazing things happened.
Principal Nance and Ms. Hyde took learning our May the 4th lists a little too seriously.
One of the crazier (but great) ideas we've seen: Vodunkulary!
Chavez High School in Houston, Texas created their own t-shirts!
Etiwanda High School in Rancho Cucamonga, California celebrates their Vocabulary Bowl Victory