At St. Mark's, Vocabulary Lessons Come With Wild Cheering And Championship Titles | KERA News

At St. Mark's, Vocabulary Lessons Come With Wild Cheering And Championship Titles

May 9, 2016

Vocabulary is a tough sell for school kids, so a program called Word Masters tries to make it fun by challenging students across the country to compete with tricky analogy tests.

This school year, about 22,000 fourth graders took the first test. Fifty kids got a perfect score. Ten of them go to St. Mark’s in Dallas.

Secret Signals And Enthusiasm 

Fourth graders at St. Mark’s School of Texas are obsessed with Word Masters. When they hear or see one of their study words, they go nuts, and flash three fingers pointed up for W, (that’s word) then three fingers pointed down, for M (masters).

“Everybody’s doing it whenever they hear one and now it’s become a really big deal, like screaming and shouting, ‘yeah Word Masters,’” Parker Steinbrueck says.

Parker is one of the word smiths who scored a perfect 20 out of 20 on the first analogy exam.

“It’s fun because I like the competition on the tests," he says.

Some Healthy Competition

And that’s what teachers have tapped into at St. Mark’s. It’s an all-boys school and while boys aren’t always known for their love of language, what they really love to do, is compete.

Felix Ruda put in a lot of work to get one perfect-- and two nearly perfect scores this year. But he’s not about to brag.

“I got a 20 the first time, 18 next time and then now I got a 19. And so, yeah I think I’m relatively satisfied,"  Felix says.

Instead of drilling definitions for hundreds of words, Word Masters puts out a relatively short list of 75 for students to, well, master.

That means understanding multiple definitions, learning words that use more than one part of speech, and most importantly, comprehending context. Felix gets that.

“It’s great to have an understanding of many words and how you can use them," he says. "It helps you with describing things because some simple words don’t describe things perfectly and you’ll have to go more in-depth.”

Understanding Context

Fourth grade teacher Lynn Terman says that just shows the program is working.

“To see the boys using the words, finding the words in their reading, getting excited, one of my favorite things is when I hear somebody say, ‘Mrs. Terman, there are four Word Masters words on my page!’" she says.

Fellow teacher Janet Wadkins agrees. She says vocabulary is a crucial foundation.

“Good readers make good writers, so it flows into that process beautifully, because it’s a strand in that web.”

Taking The Title

And while learning and appreciating language is important, Wadkins says these fourth graders are also clamoring to find out which school took the overall Word Masters title this year.

“Well May 13th is when we’ll have those results and believe me the boys remind us or ask us daily. Is it time? Is it time? It’s like, NO!”

“It’s as if they’re getting ready to bet in Vegas," Terman adds.

Since St. Mark’s had the highest score on the first two tests, coming out on top seems likely, plausible, presumed, odds-on, maybe even inevitable. Words these kids are happy to add to their vocabularies.