Review of brilliant new resource for children learning Chinese Characters - Memrise based on latest neuroscience

Attached Files: 

Resource Title:   Memrise

Author:   Memrise inc

Cost (RRP):  Free

Available from:   www.memrise .com

Reviewer:  Helen Lewis

Resource description:  Launched in September 2010, Memrise is a free online learning tool that uses flashcards augmented with mnemonics—partly gathered through crowdsourcing and the spacing effect to boost the speed and ease of learning.   Memrise was founded by Ed Cooke, a ‘Grand Master of Memory’, and Greg Detre, a Princeton neuroscientist specializing in the science of memory and forgetting.  Memrise is based on  'mems' which are photos, diagrams, mnemonics etc which help you form vivid, sensory memories. Memrise tests users continuously, always making sure to give users’ brains just the right workout.  Memrise reminds users what has been learned at scientifically optimized times so memories are always growing stronger, and never forgotten.   Memrise is also designed to be fun. Learning facts and language is turned into a game where users ‘grow a colourful garden of memory’. Grow and water your memories and rise up the leaderboards. 

Mandarin now features as one of the main languages in Memrise and users can choose between lists of specific beginners’ words to more advanced (eg HSK listed words).  Memrise community users may even contribute their own lists, adding to an ever increasing resource database. 

Reviewer Profile:  My name is Helen Lewis.  I have just graduated from the University of Warwick where I completed  a Primary PGCE with Modern Foreign Languages Specialism.  Prior to that I taught Mandarin part-time at my local primary school for nearly three years.  I currently run a Mandarin after-school club at a local secondary, as well as doing supply in local primaries.

Things I liked about the resource:  The first great thing about this resource is its interactivity.  As well as benefiting from the experience of those who built the website, you can also enjoy other users’ contributions and even devise your own “mems”.   As my daughter says, “You can make your own wordlist so you can revise for tests.”

Another advantage is Memrise’s automaticity.   When I learnt Mandarin initially, I used a system of small flashcards called VOLATS which had to be written out laboriously by hand and then filed in an efficient way to ensure regular testing.  Memrise does all the donkey work for you, ensuring that you can translate from and into the new characters, remember the pinyin and tone for each one (where available) and randomizing the order in which the vocabulary is tested.  It even overcomes my natural laziness and forgetfulness by sending me regular reminders to “water” my plants (practice my new words).

The resource is motivational and provides an individualized programme of study.  Having registered, it keeps track of your progress, so you keep a running total of how many characters are now in your short and long-term memory, and can also measure your progress against the entire Memrise community or against the people who joined at the same time as you, those who study the same language etc.  I’ve found that the stats appeal particularly to my male students.  One learnt 40 characters independently over the Christmas break, having only had four hours of tuition previously.

I find that the website encourages you to really look at the characters in detail, teaching key radicals, grouping characters with similar components together to encourage you to notice the differences and not confuse them. 

From a teacher’s perspective, what an amazing tool for assessment!  Not only can the students self-assess and be motivated by their own progress, you can also gather  independent data on how they are doing.

Finally, the website covers lots of European languages as well as Mandarin.  If your students are learning other languages, or you want to brush up on your own, it is very easy to do this all in the same place, compare your progress in each etc.  Why not recommend it to your colleagues in the MFL department at your school?  It’s a great opportunity to share something with them that really works and to develop your professional dialogue with them.

What didn’t work so well with the resource:  I find it hard to think of anything negative about this resource.  One criticism might be that it doesn’t test students’ written Mandarin, BUT by the time they have examined and revised characters in this much detail, they are in a much better position to write accurately.

Amongst the “mems” for some characters there are video clips of how to write them using a calligraphy brush.  Perhaps a target for development would be to make this available across the whole dictionary, and to include gifs of the stroke order, as these can be more useful for learning everyday writing skills.

In general, I have found the website far more accurate than other free online resources I have used.  However, I have found just one inaccuracy on the website - the tone given for “hu”, tiger.  I would recommend checking carefully through the wordlist you want your students to work from and reporting any glitches to the website so they can be amended. 

Why and how did I use this resource?I have used this resource to refresh my own character vocabulary, which has been sorely neglected since I graduated in 1985!!  It helps me to keep track of how many characters and radicals I know and how many still to go before I reach the magical 2/3,000 for reading newspapers.

I have recommended the resource to all my students as well as my children.  Having failed to get my eldest son interested in Mandarin at the age of three, he is now obsessed with Memrise, aged 19!!  It appeals to his “techy” nature.  Having got numerous characters under his belt, he is now signing up for a module of spoken Mandarin at his University.   My youngest is also using the website to help her revise musical terms for her piano and music theory examinations.

Why may others use this resource?  You could use this resource in all the ways described above.    Here are some other ideas:

·         Encourage the whole class to register, let them tell you their usernames and keep track of their progress that way. 

·         Have a regular treat or prize available for the person who learns the most characters/ gets the best ranking for their cohort/class. 

·         Choose one of the existing vocabulary lists, or devise your own to fit in with the target language you wish to teach.

·         Encourage your students to devise their own “mems” and add to the website.  These could include photos or video clips of their calligraphy, the students presenting their own mems verbally or with flashcards/diagrams.

·         Do a survey on which aspects of the testing programme they find work best for them, then reflect on their own personal learning styles.  What are their strengths, what skills do they need to work on more/develop?

Conclusions / other comments:  Whatever you do, use it to celebrate achievement, develop reading, writing, speaking and listening skills and motivate your students!