The Word Engine

I think Koichi at Tofugu sums it up much better than I could, but I was very disappointed to hear the news that closed down at the end of March (in order to renege on their pledge to remain a free site).

We’ve now moved all our students onto The Word Engine, an alternative paid site with a lot of nifty features. They have a reasonable sub-2000 yen price point for yearly subscriptions.

What sold it for me was the solid research foundation, the pre-test (V-check) that allows students to skip words they already know, and the teacher management system (V-admin) that makes it easy to keep track of large numbers of students and see how (and how much!) they are doing.

The Word Engine is an online SRS (spaced repetition system) that approaches vocabulary learning based on time boxes.

Signing up for an account is painless and takes less than a minute. Users then take a V-check test, which determines roughly how many words they already know. This is very important, as it allows students to skip items they likely know already and start right away on meaningful practice (this was a big problem with, as it forced students to either guess at their level or start from the beginning). Payment is also easy, either online or by ordering access cards directly from Lexxica. Teachers can track their students via a free V-admin account, that shows student progress alongside the total amount of time they have spent studying online. It’s a great tool, as it allows teachers to sort by different variables.

After a few weeks, I really like the system. By far the best part is that practice is pretty much effortless. There is no penalty for getting items wrong, unlike in, where students occasionally got really frustrated at being unable to ‘clear’ items. In the Word Engine, there is no downside for getting items wrong: they are just quietly moved back into the first box. Practice is also quick, with each session taking only a couple of minutes at the most.

While I would like to see more visuals and example sentences (things I thought did well), these are minor issues.

So far we have over 50 elementary (higher grades), junior high, senior high, university, and adult students on the system. Feedback from the students so far is pretty good and most students are keeping to their 30 minutes a week targets (our best student has completed 22 hours of study in just over a month, and the worst just under 10 minutes, but most students are around the 2-3 hour mark).

If anyone else is using the Word Engine, I’d be really interested to hear how you are finding it.

8 Jun 2011, 1:48pm
by Ryan Hagglund


Hey Ben,

So, you haven’t had problems with students not showing up on the V-admin? We tested Word Engline out about a year ago, but students had real trouble signing up in such a way that they showed up on our V-admin. I was so busy that I didn’t have time to follow up on it with Word Engine and essentially let the test slide. Have they improved the system?

Hi Ryan, thanks for the comment!

No problems yet. We only have about 50 students using the system, so I actually sign them all up myself. It’s very easy if you know how, but I can imagine some students making mistakes if unsupervised.

I really like having an online SRS component to our classes, and so far the Word Engine has been great.

14 Jun 2011, 4:36pm
by Ryan Hagglund


Doing the signups ourselves might be the key. I think it might be worth giving it a try again, though we have heard from some of our adult students that they prefer working with a vocabulary book to using a computer or cell phone. I was surprised by that response, actually. We definitely do need to get MY online more, though.


I work with Laura Macfarlane’s, and she recommended I read your blog on Word Engine. We are trialling it ourselves right now with adult students only.

I was curious what you thought of Word Engine after a few months of using it. In particular, I was curious how helpful it was with the younger students working with it. I had really only considered using it with older students, but you say you’ve been using with later Elementary students. Also, do you have any way of integrating Word Engine into your standard programs?

Hi Nick

Thanks for dropping by! We’ve been using the Word Engine for about six months now. I am fairly pleased with it so far, but my impressions in the original post have not really changed.

We use the Word Engine to give the students something to do outside of class, to encourage them to learn vocabulary systematically, and to complement our other homework (mainly ER and journal writing). I like its simplicity, but I would like to see more pictures, audio, and example sentences integrated into the practice (perhaps new practice modes?). The current offering is fine if a little plain.

Some students love it (we have a few that have completed 20 hours, and one that has spent 80 and almost finished the basic course) and others only do it under duress 🙂

We start students on the site when they can decode basic phonics (ie read most words) and are ready for the study style. For most students, this is JHS, although a couple of 5th or 6th grade ES students also chose to start. They are exceptions though, and we only let them do it because they asked to.

Probably the biggest thing on my wish list is a children’s version based on pictures and sound only. That would be great, but Lexxica does not seem interested in doing it so far.

Overall I would say this is an adequate product that does what we want it to but could be improved. An alternative I really like, although it lacks a lot of the monitoring features, is English Central. Well worth a look.

Not sure what you mean by integrating, we just sign the students up, give them a weekly target (time on task), and check their progress each week.

Hope that helps!

I think the best feature is the V-Admin functionality, although it needs to be expanded to show more detail (for example, how much time the learner spent on the site per week or day).

Thanks for the feedback. Also for the English Central link.

Actually, I’m getting a little overwhelmed with the number of internet English learning resources. We just had someone from Cambridge in talking about a few online courses they offer, and of course we are sampling Word Engine right now. I’m more of the “teaching unplugged” sort, so it’s really important for me to have a sense of what need this particular tool is satisfying before jumping into anything.

We want to use Word Engine in preparation for and then in conjunction with our Extensive Reading program. Actually, Laura got the info on it at the ER World Congress in Kyoto. Paul Nation and Rob Waring’s writings on GSL vocabulary development and ER are my main sources of information here. I’m really interested in Word Engine because of the GSL/ Academic word list focus of the Basic course, the Spaced Repetition, and the initial V-Check. Tracking progress is nice as well.

My main question, I suppose, is whether or not you notice a significant difference between students who use Word-Engine and those who don’t. One concern I have is someone skyrocketing through vocabulary but not noticing any significant change in ability. Particularly adult students who sometimes confuse bulk of knowledge with language learning.

As a side question, how young do you start students on doing Journal writing?


Hi Nick

I know what you mean about the sheer amount of online resources. Just to mess with you, here is another: LingQ It’s great for motivated adults as a self-study aid. Kind of a cross between extensive reading and a vocabulary SRS.

Getting back to the Word Engine though, it’s important to keep in mind that learners are not going to ‘learn’ vocabulary through SRS tools. At best, they are going to encounter the words and learn a basic L2-L1 equivalent. This is a great first step, and the strength of SRS is that is does this very efficiently. I have been really gratified to see some of our students recognizing words they met on the Word Engine when going through texts in class.

However, learners are going to have to then go on to meet the word in context (Rob Waring claims 20-50 times), try to use it in speech or writing, acquire its collocates, learn when it is appropriate to use it (register), etc. before they can reasonably claim to be proficient with it.

I think this kind of deliberate vocab learning, combined with extensive input (reading or listening) is the best way to acquire language. The Word Engine is the best tool we have found so far, in terms of ease of use for students, efficient use of time, and ease of tracking for teachers.

[…] for extensive reading, vocabulary study (using online tools such as the Word Engine), and listening, I tend to look at how much time students spent doing an activity, rather than how […]

26 Mar 2014, 4:38pm
by Trevor Lawless


This is an old post now, but I wonder if you are still using Wordengine? Are you happy with it? Have you tried their new product Cartoonwordpower?

Hi Trevor

Yes, still using Wordengine with university students and some eikaiwa JHS and above. Pretty happy with it. I think it does what it claims to, and it’s easy for the students to do and the teachers to track.

I haven’t had a chance to look at Cartoon Word Power yet. Something else on my plate!


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