Free Rice for the Hungry, Free Vocabulary Fun for You

Posted on 1 January 2008. Filed under: Poverty, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

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The Fun Part
You can give free rice to hungry people, play a free game, and improve your vocabulary, all in the same key stroke at a new web site called FreeRice.


If you’re one of my regular readers at We Can Do: my apologies. I know you usually come here to find new resources, information, news, or announcements related to poverty and human rights among disabled people in developing countries. Usually I do try to stay very tightly focused on issues of disability and international development at this blog. But this post IS still about poverty, even though it’s not specific to disabled people. And, more importantly, it IS still a holiday for most readers. So what the heck. I’ll indulge, this once. And I hope you’ll indulge with me.

(For those of you who have been paying attention to the last few posts at this blog: the holiday season in general is one reason why I have been posting fewer new resources and devoting more time in the past week to long-term improvements to this web site. For example, see the new pages on accessibility; announcements for conferences, events, call for papers, and training opportunities; navigating We Can Do to help new readers quickly find the resources they need at this blog site; and news. I WILL start posting more fresh content soon, so do stay tuned. And consider subscribing to We Can Do so you don’t miss anything.)

If you’ve been reading the right blogs lately, then the image near the top of this page might look familiar. For those of you who are not able to view this image, I’ll describe it: this is a horizontal “banner.” At the left-hand side is a brown wooden bowl with a few grains of white rice in it. (Hm. Wouldn’t brown rice be healthier?) At the right-hand side, the text says: “Free Rice” on the first line in large letters and “Play and Help!” on the second line in medium sized letters. The background on the left side is a medium/dark green; on the right side, it’s a lighter shade of green with what I think is supposed to be a blurry image of rice plants. FreeRice has a number of other similar-looking banners available. [Sorry–I’m describing the image here instead of using alt tags because I don’t have a clue how to use alt tags. If you do, please take a few moments to advise me in the comments area below and I’ll fix it.]

So how does FreeRice work? Simple. Go to You will see a vocabulary word at the top of the screen and four possible definitions or synonyms. Choose the one you think is the closest match. If you guess correctly, FreeRice will give 20 grains of rice to hungry people. Then, if you like, you can continue playing. If you’re sighted and able to view images with your computer equipment, then you’ll also see a picture of a bowl of rice filling up each time free rice is given.

This game is tailored to the vocabulary skill of each player who participates. If you answer three vocabulary questions in a row correctly then it gives you a more challenging word. If you continue to guess correctly, the words become harder and harder. If you miss one, it gives you an easier word. If you keep missing, the words become easier and easier. Until you start to answer correctly again. There are 50 vocabulary levels. So nearly all people should be able to find a level that is comfortable for them whether you’re learning English as a second language or whether you’re a vocabulary geek.

You might wonder: if this game is free, then where does the money come from to pay for all the rice that’s going to hungry people? It comes from advertisers. There is an advertisement banner at the bottom of the screen. The ad in this banner changes every time you guess a new word. The more you play, the more ads you see. And the advertisers are obviously hoping that more people playing FreeRice will translate into more sales for their products, or more donations to their charitable causes.

You can guess one word or guess a million. Play for just one day or play every day the rest of your life. Or anything in between. It’s all up to you. The more you play, the more rice you give–and, in theory, the more vocabulary you learn. I say “in theory” because I’ve read some criticism somewhere (sorry, don’t remember where) that says vocabulary games like this one may not be necessarily the best way to learn vocabulary. But I’m sure it can’t hurt. And if you’re serious about it, you could use the game to develop a vocabulary study list and find other ways to rehearse the words you see. (Hint: double check your understanding with a dictionary. And use it in a sentence.)

Accessibility for Blind People
I’m not able to evaluate whether the FreeRice site is accessible to people who use screen readers. If this is you, I would be curious to learn about your experience there. Since the game itself is text-based, I’m guessing there should not be any major problems with it. Though I’m also guessing that the ads won’t be very accessible, unless a given advertiser thinks to use the alt tag for their images. And you won’t see that rice bowl filling up.

The Serious Part
This blog post deviates from the usual We Can Do post in two ways. One, as noted above, it’s not about disability. (Though disabled people do certainly starve also. In fact, given that disabled people are more likely to experience poverty, it’s probably safe to assume that people with disabilities are also more likely to go hungry.) Two, my normal focus in this blog is on finding long-term solutions to long-standing problems. Thus, things like how to better include disabled people in large-scale, long-term poverty reduction strategies. Or how to ensure that disabled children in developing countries are not left behind when their governments try to bring more children into the classroom.

In this view: one criticism I do have for the FreeRice site is that it offers a temporary fix for something that is, for far too many people, a chronic problem. In the long run, it’s not enough to keep shipping free rice to hungry people. That feeds them today, but it doesn’t help them feed themselves tomorrow or next year. That means we also need to invest in more long-term strategies for fighting poverty. That means more schools so that the 77 million children out of school can enter the classroom for the first time. And we need more textbooks and better quality teachers–and possibly more computers–so that children already in the classroom will learn something while they’re there. Poor people who have entrepreneurial skills need small business loans so they can lift themselves out of poverty with their own hard work. And we need to give more aid dollars directly to organizations based in developing countries who are running great projects to fight HIV/AIDS, deliver clean drinking water, or abolish poverty.

But this is not a slam against FreeRice, per se. In fact, I sometimes play this game myself. Yes, more chronic forms of hunger do need a long-term fix. But hunger can also be a short-term emergency, such as during a time of war (though wars, unfortunately, can sometimes be long-term) or in the first few months after a natural disaster. And short-term emergencies, unfortunately, will always happen. Therefore, we will always, to some extent, actually need short-term fixes like FreeRice.

I just feel compelled to point out the need for long-term solutions because I worry that some people in industrialized countries are too quick to donate time (or money) to easy, “feel-good” causes that don’t actually solve problems. If you really want to help, then don’t just help. Instead, make it possible for people to help themselves.

But, there’s nothing wrong with also having a little fun at

In that spirit: Here’s wishing you a Happy New Year. May the year 2008 be delightful and fruitful for you. And for those of you who work to ensure that disabled people are not left out when governments and organizations fight poverty and speak out for human rights: I hope all your endeavors this year will be successful ones.

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