From the word go, I was charmed by the idea behind Freerice – get a question right, click through to the next one, help fight world hunger. This worked for my English students, worked for my Arts knowledge – and recently, it’s been part of my 25-minute German daily workout. But the big question remains – for a foreign language learner, how useful is this website – and how can you make it work for you better?
1. Click, click, click – the story of remembering nothing much
There are leagues on Freerice, made up of people trying to outscore one another on how many grains of rice they donated. Atheists fight Christians over top spots, and everyone takes this extremely seriously. One question is very rarely asked, however – does this actually help you learn something?
It’s an important one. If the website has little or no effect on your memory improvement – in short, of it doesn’t add to learning – you may be better off spending your time somewhere else (there are dozens of charity websites out there, and they all could use some help).
In my experience, it’s really easy to click through a relatively “satisfying” number of questions in no time at all on Freerice. With German, getting 500 grains daily was a question of 3, maybe 4 minutes. At a very basic level, this feels good for our brains. We get stuff done. The rice grain counter shows us how much was gathered. Click by click, we move on and are rewarded by a tiny positive kick of feel-good at each step. (For more on how this works, I’d recommend this amazing podcast episode on gambling and addiction)
But does this help me become a more proficient German user?
In a nutshell: it could do much better. Thousands of pages were devoted to memory research, but they all seem to agree on one thing: being simply exposed to an item doesn’t guarantee good processing (to say nothing of efficient recall). This post sums it up nicely – and this course (free) is really good when you want to figure out what’s going on when you memorize things.
2. What Freerice gives you…
Here’s a sequence of how the website works for a German learner:
The screen displays a German term, 4 possible meanings as English translations (one of them is correct) and the vocabulary level (1 – easiest for English speakers, 10 – most difficult for English speakers).
You click on the English equivalent which you think is the correct meaning.
If you were correct, the next screen displays a “Correct! X = Y” message on the next screen, and shows you another question.
If you were incorrect, the next screen will display an “Incorrect! X = Z” message on the next screen – Z being the actual correct meaning – and will show you another question.
Correct answers get you up the vocabulary level tier; incorrect answers make you drop one level to an easier one.
Incorrect answers are likely to be repeated at some point, giving you a chance to have another go at them.
3. And what you can make of it (3 ways to start you off)
This is not the most sophisticated language learning tool out there. But with a bit of imagination, you can make it work better. There are three big areas where you can easily engage with Freerice and its input – each of them will make it more effective in terms of vocabulary processing, storage or recall.
A) Focus on the vocabulary items – this is the most basic technique. Say the words out loud. Try to sound native, or try to have different intonations for different moods. When it comes to the translations given, you can focus on them as well before you click. You’re given four choices, but only one of them is correct – can you recall the other three items before you click on the correct one?
B) Focus on the answers – you get it right most of the time with Freerice (since it’s good at gauging your level). Make sure these interactions mean something more. When you match a useful word or phrase to its meaning, make a note of it (I’d take a screenshot so as to stay on the page and keep it snappy). Then, after the session, transfer this to your vocabulary bank or a flashcard app. If the word seemed useful to you, keep revising it. And when you give the wrong answer – it’s even more important to note this down. I’d definitely go through the process described above, possibly adding some good dictionary research to it.
C) Focus on production – this one depends entirely on you – since Freerice gives you no options for production whatsoever! With every answer you get right, try to come up with a good context for your vocabulary item. The most popular choice could be an example sentence: if you guessed that “Correct! die Zeige = goat,” try to come up with a German sentence along the lines of “His goat ate his hat yesterday” or “They keep a goat in their garden.” To make it more meaningful, try writing those words into a narrative in a genre you prefer. A story could work well – but an email or a descriptive article with several of the words from your Freerice session could also work here. This ensures that you build your own context around the items Freerice throws at you – and this helps you remember them more effectively.
4. Chip in, bilingual wannabes!
How would you tweak Freerice to make it a bit more useful? Which other websites or tools come to mind when you read this? Let us all know in the comments below!
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