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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 smart.fm 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 smart.fm, 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 smart.fm, 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 smart.fm 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.

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Niigata Teacher Seminar

I just got back from Niigata, where I was invited to present to a great group of teachers from local junior and senior high schools.

My topic was teaching reading and writing to junior and senior high school students, and you can see my presentation slides and notes below:

101111 Niigata Intro
101111 Niigata Reading for JSHS
101111 Niigata Writing for JSHS
101111 Niigata Notes

Thanks for a great day and good luck with your teaching!

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Top Five Free Ways to Learn Japanese Online

I know a lot of people who despite living in Japan, just don’t get the exposure to comprehensible input that they would need in order to really make significant progress.

This is a list of five free ways you can get started on increasing your input, and the best thing is that you don’t even have to be in Japan to use them.
1. rikai.com (or rikaichan plugin for Firefox)
Rikai is a website or app that allows you to read Japanese online by giving you a small pop-up window with the pronunciation and meaning of individual words. Assuming you have a minimal knowledge of Japanese grammar, this is much better than a translation program because it allows you to choose the most appropriate meaning for each word. A few minutes a day reading sites on topics that interest you is sure to boost your vocabulary and reading fluency.
2. smart.fm
This is not a radio station, but rather a website that allows you to learn vocabulary in context, using a spaced repetition system to help you transfer the words to your long-term memory (something that takes between 20 and 50 exposures to the word in context). Including text, pictures, audio, and a really fun practice system, this site makes it easy to study for just five or ten minutes a day.
3. iTunes Store
I finally got my hands on an iPhone recently, and one of the best things I have been doing with it is listening to all sorts of podcasts in Japanese. There is a huge range of material available for free at all levels, and listening to podcasts while commuting or exercising is one of the easiest ways to improve your listening comprehension (with the added bonus that listening will also help your speaking ability).
4. LingQ (pronounced ‘link’, I think)
LingQ is another website featuring a learning system. It is mostly free (you can pay to practice speaking with a tutor online or to have your writing corrected) and offers an easy way to read texts, listen to audio, and learn vocabulary. I always think of it as the grown-up, more serious version of smart.fm (see above). It takes more time and effort to use, but you will make more progress.
5. renshuu.org
This is a site made by a friend of mine, and it is one of the best I have seen for learning kanji or vocabulary sets, particularly if you are studying for the JLPT or the Kanji Kentei (which I thoroughly recommend, more on that in a future post). The site is free and well worth looking around. It is not as pretty as some of the others, but the mechanics are solid.
I am very lazy, so I haven’t used these resources as much as I should have, but for anyone with some self-discipline, they should prove very useful to increase that all-important listening and reading input.