Good news for fans of word challenges and knowledge quizzes: As of this week, you have two new ways to flex your mental muscles.
Vocabulary.com is the latest offering from ThinkMap, the creator of Visual Thesaurus (to which I’ve contributed for several years). The site is divided into two sections: The Challenge and The World’s Fastest Dictionary. The Challenge is a vocabulary-building game that combines a virtually limitless set of questions (more than 40,000 at launch) with proprietary technology that “learns” what a player needs to know and tailors the questions to the user’s ability. Question categories include synonyms, antonyms, definitions, and sentence completions; answers are multiple-choice. And anyone can play—kids, adults, second-language learners. From the press release:
“For too long, vocabulary instruction has been tied to inefficient and tedious methods of the past -- rote memorization, flashcards, and dry word lists with no context,” said Ben Zimmer, executive producer of Vocabulary.com. “We’ve started from scratch to create a system that models each person’s vocabulary and abilities so that we can serve up a personalized learning experience that is both engaging and effective.”
The Dictionary section of the site uses predictive technology to display possible definitions before you’ve even finished typing the word. Definitions are contextual and image-laden, and usage examples are pulled from literature and journalism.
A Google a Day is a knowledge puzzle that encourages you to use Google search to find the answer to a daily question. For example, Monday’s question was:
Two future presidents signed me. Two didn’t because they were abroad. Despite my importance, modern viewers seem to think I have a glaring spelling error. What is it?
Having Google at your disposal doesn’t make solving the puzzle a slam-dunk. The GoogleADay page includes a search bar powered by “Deja Google,” described as “a wormhole-inspired time machine that enables you to solve today’s puzzle spoiler free by searching the Internet as it existed before A Google a Day launched.”
The quizzes appear online at AGoogleADay.com and in the New York Times above the crossword puzzle. If you’re playing the newspaper version, you’ll have to wait a day for the answer, which includes an explanation of the search method. The online shortcut to the answer is available immediately. Google promises that the quiz will begin each week with easy questions and get progressively more difficult (just like the crossword).
Kit Eaton, writing in Fast Company, speculated that A Google a Day may merely be “some seriously weak-sauce PR” for the company. But I think it’s more than that. Fast Company’s tech-savvy reporters and readers may not realize it, but there are a lot of people out there who don’t have a clue about how online search works. (I can tell from some of the search terms that bring visitors to my blog.) If A Google a Day teaches them to search more efficiently, it will have made a valuable contribution to the aggregate tech IQ.
And maybe some people will even learn something about history, biology, and all the other subjects they slept through in high school.