Vocabulary.com’s new app, available as of today, isn’t a mindless-borderline-embarrassing way to occupy yourself while commuting. Yes, it’s a time suck. But like reading the newspaper or watching documentaries, it’s the kind that makes you feel okay about your life choices, because it helps build vocabulary. As a writer, I can even professionally justify tapping away on my phone.
The app works a lot like many smartphone games: complete a task, get points. But, instead of answering trivia questions or connecting dots, players define words. There are seven different question types, including straightforward definition questions and fill-in-the-blank sentences, some of which come from news articles.
While it might sound like a simple virtual flashcard app, the technology is much more complex than a digital notecard. The system is adaptive, asking definitions for words of varying levels as it assesses your level.
Getting a single question right does not mean you will never see that word again. Because, as any teacher knows, memorizing and/or guessing do not a big vocabulary make. As you play, the game learns how big your mental word bankreally is, tailoring the questions to your level. Each player’s game is tailored to his or her ability level, which Vocabulary.com secretly assigns based on how long it took to get previous words, which question types were answered correctly, and which words users missed.
Once the app figures out where you fit in on its continuum of wordsmiths, it can serve the right mixture of easy and difficult questions to keep you hooked. If the game is too easy, then players will get bored. If it’s too hard, users will feel dejected and quit. Tinkler and his team found that people feel like they’re making progress if they’re getting about 70% of the questions right.
The game also borrowed some tricks from other gaming apps to keep people hooked. It offers a mix of “achievements” and “badges,” some of which are relatively easy to attain, others of which take lots of game play, which appeals both to newcomers and experienced players.
Normally, all this baked in game-play psychology would come off asnefarious. And the app is indeed addictive, especially for a boring old educational tool. Every time I reach for my phone to “check something” I click through a few more definitions.
Turning education into a game kids enjoy takes more than compelling software, of course. But the desktop version is already a very popular tool for students and teachers: 6.5 million people have visited the Vocabulary.com website. More than half a million of those are registered users. The app also includes teaching specific lists, such as SAT words and popular literary terms so that educators can incorporate it as an official teaching tool. Students who sign up can also link their accounts to their school and participate in school-wide competitions.
Google Play : Vocabulary.com