Not many people remember watching a popular and widely televised quiz show from the mid-50’s called You Bet Your Life. I stumbled upon it thanks to the cultural repository known as YouTube. Hosted by Groucho Marx, one of the show’s hallmark features, called the “word of the day,” or “magic word,” (or “woid,” as Marx pronounced it) made great use of dramatic irony and the iconic rubber chicken, both of which have since become indelibly associated with Groucho Marx’ particular brand of verbally playful comedy. At the beginning of each segment, before the next pair of contestants came out, the “magic word” was shared with the studio (and television) audience. If, at anytime during the contenders’ chat with Marx, either of the participants uttered the “word of the day” by chance (or sheer luck), the rubber chicken dropped from the ceiling (with the “magic word” printed on a card held in its beak) and the contestants won an additional cash prize!
While most of us probably can’t rig our classrooms so that a rubber chicken falls from the ceiling (but wouldn’t it be fun if we could?) we can still adapt the concept of a “word of the day” or “magic word” to reinforce vocabulary words. The show’s successful implementation of this idea relies on two key factors: surprise and randomness. Although they surely knew this was part of the show’s premise, the contestants who said the “magic word” always seemed surprised – but who wouldn’t be to see a rubber chicken drop from the sky? However, the studio (and television) audience also reacted with surprise, even though they were in on it from the outset. This must be attributable, then, to the randomness with which it happened – no one knew ahead of time when or even if any pair of contestants would manage to say the word. And if they did, having been uttered, that word was taken out of circulation and replaced with a new “word of the day”.
As a classroom strategy, then, the same basic principles should be in play:
- Surprise! – to be fair, the students should know that there is a “word of the day” in play, but they can’t know ahead of time what it is. Rubber chicken notwithstanding, if the fact that someone actually says the word aloud is not enough of a surprise already, perhaps some sort of visual and/or sound cue could be produced with little difficulty, using whatever instructional media is on hand. A word or image printed on a card or projected on a whiteboard would work, or a bell or buzzer used for another purpose (say, timed writing, for example) could be used to alert the class that the “magic word” has just been spoken.
- Randomness – if a student in one class period says the word, the word has to be taken out of circulation and replaced with a new one. In a contained classroom, once the “word of the day” for that day has been uttered, play can be suspended for that day and resumed the next day. Also, while the “word-of-the-day” can be used to reinforce the vocabulary that’s currently being studied, the words may be chosen from previously studied vocabulary as well.
- You Win a Prize! – finally, although awarding a cash prize is quite impractical, offering another token prize, (i.e. a pencil, sticker, bookmark, etc.) or even a couple of points of “extra credit” can be just as effective, as long as the prize is presented with some degree of fanfare, and specifically reserved for “word of the day” recipients.
Like studio and television audiences, students respond to game-play. It makes learning fun. More importantly, however, will Groucho Marx’ clever little device tempt students to work “difficult” words into classroom conversation, pronounce them aloud, and remember them later on? You bet your life!