Free Rice Expands Your Word Power and Feeds the Hungry


FreeRice is a non-profit website run by the United Nations World Food ProgramFreeRice is a non-profit website run by the United Nations World Food Program

FreeRice is a non-profit website run by the United Nations World Food Program

Here at my house we’re in the midst of SAT season. This will be the second go-round for my oldest son, and among the areas that could use a little polishing up are vocabulary. Last year I helped him drill using one of those big old test prep doorstops. The one we had came with little punch out flash cards, the same kind that came with his first-grade reading workbooks only with longer words. So much for 12 years of growth and maturity.

This year, a comment on a homeschooling high schoolers message board reminded me of the website FreeRice. It works like this: You play a synonym-matching game, with the score tallied in grains of rice, and the sponsors of FreeRice donate that food to hungry people around the world.

This simple yet clever site was created in October 2007 by computer programmer John Breen. According to an interview with NPR, Breen actually developed the site when his son needed help studying for the SAT. In March 2009 Breen donated the site to the UN World Food Program, and it is now hosted by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

How effective is FreeRice at providing aid to starving people? Well, its website claims that 75,873,206,440 grains of rice have been donated to date. Over the site’s existence, the amount of rice earned per correct answer has gone up and down with grain prices and advertising revenue. The site hit its high in its first year (perhaps thanks to so-called “rice bot” automated programs, which are discouraged as they are a turn-off for sponsors). Right now, a pop-up box also asks visitors (once only per visit) to donate extra funds to its efforts in Haiti.

And how is it at improving vocabulary? Breen told NPR his son’s word power “improved markedly.” We’ve found that we quickly get up to levels where the words are rarely found in everyday life. (Hint: If stumped, pick the choice that is a horned mammal.) But the levels can be manually adjusted to suit your needs, all the way down to beginning reader. (The site is popular with English language learners.) There are also other drills available, in math, foreign language, geography and even art.

I use it with both my sons. First we read the word aloud and check the pronunciation by clicking on the computer voice button (which eerily seems to take a scolding tone if we don’t get it right). Because the one-word definitions sometimes don’t convey the exact meaning of the word, we also look up the harder words on a dictionary site like Merriam-Webster. This has led us on a few fun digressions (although I may enjoy these more than my kids). We’ve learned a lot about medieval English, Latin roots, and horned mammals. Whether it increases his SAT score remains to be seen.

But in the meantime, we ‘re satisfied knowing that our drill-and-kill sessions are also going to help the hungry.

Kathy Ceceri’s new book World Myths and Legends: 25 Projects You Can Build Yourself is due out this month.

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