New York: The popular spelling bee contest that goes around thousands of schools before ending up as a hit Broadway show has given ideas to those engaged in making learning fun through innovative interactive media and games.
Publishers of the American Heritage dictionary are hoping to create a cultural moment with a competitive game about word definitions. Dictionary publishers typically send out a news release highlighting new entries like "blogosphere," "instant messaging" and "shout-out" but struggle to find other ways to get attention.
"I think everyone publicizes new words, so I want to go beyond that," said Taryn Roeder, 32, who as Houghton Mifflin's assistant director of publicity promotes the American Heritage Dictionaries reference line.
So this year Houghton Mifflin created and trademarked the Define-a-Thon, which is modeled after spelling bee but instead asks contestants to match words to definitions (and gives them a helpful list of words to choose from). The publisher has dispatched Steve Kleinedler, supervising editor to hold events across the country.
Making dictionaries sexy
The entire idea behind the gaming part is to make the concept of a dictionary and its usability ‘sexy’. It should be perceived as a fun thing and not a dreary chore.
To propagate the Define-a-Thon, Houghton Mifflin is circulating a 70-page event planning kit that includes questions, rules and a certificates that can be presented to winners. In the fall, the publisher will also release two books, "Define-a-Thon for the High School Graduate" and "Define-a-Thon for the High School Freshman".
The success of the book, "100 Words Every High School Student Should Know," which had definitions, word histories and quotations serves as a motivator to the organizers.
First published in 2003, the original "100 Words" book has sold 94,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan. Houghton Mifflin has subsequently released five related titles, including "100 words every word lover should know" (like "ephemeral," and "fecundity") and "100 sords to make you sound smart" (like "ennui" and "lurid"), which have collectively sold another 117,000 copies and have landed Kleinedler, the editor, on hundreds of radio broadcasts, he said.
"Everyone in America loves a list," said Kleinedler. "Doing publicity for those books has been like rolling off a log. Radio hosts love talking about them, and it's a really good hook, because it's easy to segue to talking about the dictionary."
While publishers traditionally promote books in advance of their publication dates and to a lesser degree when they are released in paperback, dictionary publishers face the quandary of releasing new editions as infrequently as once a decade.
Although the fourth edition of the American Heritage dictionary was published five years ago, the Define-a-Thon promotion is linked to the release of a 2007 update, which features new words. "There are long stretches of time when we don't have a new publication, so we have to find a way to keep our name and our brand out there," said Arthur Bicknell, publicist for Merriam-Webster, which publishes the country's best-selling dictionary, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.
While American Heritage does not expect to rival the 79-year-old Scripps bee with its Define-a-Thon soon, it is striking a chord withlanguage experts. Richard Gentry, who has written several books about spelling and literacy development, said that vocabulary aptitude is a stronger indicator of overall intelligence than spelling aptitude, which is one reason why many dyslexics become accomplished scholars. Gentry, who has dyslexia himself, said he was "a horrible speller with a not-bad vocabulary."