Volume 5, Issue 2 [August, 2009]
Free Online Vocabulary Study with smart.fm
For students learning a second or foreign language, studying vocabulary is both one of the most important tasks they can do and one of the most tiresome. Vocabulary notebooks, flashcards, even SRS (spaced repetition system) programs take time and effort to set up and use regularly, and many students find themselves slipping when it comes to keeping to their vocabulary study schedule.
Due to its time-consuming nature and the fact that different students will progress at different rates, vocabulary study is best done outside the classroom. Traditionally, teachers have assigned lists of words to be learned and have monitored student progress by use of quizzes or tests. These, too, take up valuable class time that could be used more productively.
For the last year or so, I have been encouraging my students to do independent vocabulary study using a free website called smart.fm (it used to be called iKnow! but went through a name and image change early in 2009). I encourage teachers to try the site for themselves before explaining it to students, and I would like to introduce several features and characteristics that I think make this one of the best online tools I have seen for vocabulary review for ordinary students (extremely motivated students would probably be better off using SRS software with content they created themselves, but for most students, including me in Japanese, that would be too much work).
Registering at smart.fm
The website is at http://smart.fm, and can be tried without registering. However, in order to get the most benefit from the site, it is necessary to create a user account, which requires a working email address for confirmation.
There are two ways to get students registered on the site. For adults and older children with their own email addresses, it is possible to ask them to register directly with their own address. However, for younger students and adults who are unwilling or unable to use their own address there is a simple workaround: this requires a gmail address.
Each account requires a different email address, but for instructors to create a new account for each user would be extremely time-consuming. Instead, it is possible to take advantage of a gmail feature in order to register all users from one account. Adding +username to a gmail address allows you to make the smart.fm website think that it is a new address while still delivering confirmation emails to the same account. For example, if your gmail address is email@example.com, you can use firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org and receive all those emails to the email@example.com account. In this way it is very easy to register multiple users using one email address.
Once students are registered they can look for appropriate content and courses. Japanese-to-English and English-to-Japanese courses are probably the most well-established at the moment, but the site also features a number of languages and topics, including Chinese, Korean, Spanish, French, German, and subject-specific content areas.
Studying with smart.fm
Users can log on to smart.fm from any Internet-capable PC or mobile phone. It is helpful but not essential that they have speakers or headphones in order to benefit from the audio content. The display language can be switched between English and Japanese, so learners should be able to click around and discover much of the functionality for themselves.
There are three main study modes, once you have chosen a vocabulary list. The iKnow mode introduces vocabulary with a translation, example sentences, sample audio, and typing practice. Users are then quizzed on the content in progressively more difficult ways, from choosing the meaning from a short list of words up to typing the answer in response to a context sentence. The system logs your performance and recycles the items so that users will see each item at least four times (more if they make mistakes).
Dictation is similar but requires users to type in sentences they hear. Finally, Brainspeed takes the form of a fast-paced game where users must choose the correct answer within an increasingly tight time limit.
The site logs all study, and users can see when they studied, how much, and how much progress they have made. Many learners find this a powerful source of motivation since they can easily set goals and try to improve on past performance.
Tips for teachers
Create your own account so that you can learn how to use the site and answer questions from students. Find out your students' user names and follow them (use the search for users function). This will allow you to look at their progress reports and see how much time they have spent using the site, how many items they have completed, etc.
Create your own lists and encourage your students to study them (from the textbook you are using, for example).
Look for new interesting content on the site and share it with your students.
Benefits and drawbacks
My students and I have been using smart.fm for about a year now and have found it a useful study resource. Some students take to it more than others, but it should be helpful to almost any learner of English or Japanese. One area that I would like to see improved is class management. It is not possible at the moment to make class groups of students, and this makes tracking student progress difficult and time-consuming if you have more than thirty or so students. However, this is not an insurmountable problem as it is possible to ask students to report on their own progress by email or in class. The teacher always has the option to check if they suspect someone is not being entirely truthful as to how much study time they are putting in.
All in all, I highly recommend this website as a free supplementary resource for language learners, particularly adults who may have trouble making it to classes regularly. The simple interface, automatic record-keeping, completion statistics, and ever-increasing amount of content make this a great self-access resource and one that many of my students find addictive.
About the writer/presenter
Ben Shearon was born in Germany, but claims to be British. After arriving in Japan in July 2000, he worked at the elementary, junior high, high school, and university levels, and, after a stint as an advisor at the Miyagi Board of Education, is now a lecturer at Tohoku University. He has no connection with the website smart.fm other than being a user. Contacts: firstname.lastname@example.org or sendaiben.com.