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In my previous role, I created some educational software for my students to aid them in learning English Vocabulary. I noticed that students of English often spend many unproductive hours studying English vocabulary. It is not uncommon to see students falling asleep while studying or having great difficulty in saying the word they had just learned.

SuperKotoba was an attempt at rectifying this through the use of technology. It was created with the goals of:

  • Making learning new words fun and interesting
  • Allowing students to rapidly test and evaluate their knowledge
  • Giving easy access to the correct pronunciation of the word
  • Giving instant feedback of how the student’s performance
  • Allow students to practice using the word in context

After thinking about the students’ problem I sketched out some ideas and realised that many of them would be solvable with a web application based around testing the students on each section of their vocabulary.

Creating the Database

SuperKotoba DatabaseMy first step was to create a database of questions. This was created in MySQL and featured questions types that would be easy to answer without using the keyboard. This was as one thing I had noticed is that Japanese students are far less computer savvy than their Western counterparts and as a result do not touch type. As a result they do not touch type and text entry be far too cumbersome and slow. Furthermore, technology cannot stimulate the muscle memory that comes through writing a word by hand.

The database would also record all of the students’ answers as this would be valuable in determining troublesome areas that many students struggled with.

Recording Audio

Recording AudioFor each of the 3,466 words that students would learn throughout their 3 years in High School, I created an audio recording of myself saying the word. This was in response to students often having to ask how words were said correctly and regularly saying words with a ‘katakana’ style of pronunciation.

I recorded several long audio files of myself saying each word and then used an audio splitter to divide it up into several smaller files that could be accessed from the webpage. These files were compressed to minimise the load time between clicking and playing the file.


Creating the Application Logic

CodingThe core of the web-application was created in the CakePHP MVC framework (similar to Ruby On Rails). After having done some PHP without a framework in my previous job in the UK, I simply would not want to go back to working outside of MVC. It made developing much more logical and much cleaner.

Each database table was a model and relationships between models were specified as part of the model class. Any data that needed to be processed after a call to the database could be handled in the model’s call backs. After which it is handed to the Controller where the application logic is handled. The controller is responsible for making requests from the model (which accesses the database) and then hands the data to the view which takes care of displaying data in a format that a web browser can understand.

Being able to separate an application into parts like this is so much better than the WordPress style of developing where everything is mixed together and can cause problems.

The User Interface

After lots of sketching, I decided to go with a user interface that mirrored the structure of the book. After Logging in, the main window is a list of pages contained in the book with the corresponding words for each page. Clicking on a word would play an audio file of the word being said to be played.

Clicking on 練習(Practice) takes the user to the corresponding test for the page where they can answer a set of questions related to the words on that page.

After creating several question types, I settled on 3 question types

  1. Multiple Choice English to Japanese. Practicing translating words from English to Japanese.
  2. Multiple Choice Japanese to English. Practicing the reverse of 1.
  3. Sentence rearranging by using the mouse to drag the words into the correct order. This exercised general grammar and usage of the word in context.
  4. After submitting their answers the students would receive instant feedback on how they had done.

The Big Problem & The Potential Solution

After presenting it to my students I met the largest problem for the project. User indifference. The students simply did not have any interest in using their computers to learn English. After having a meeting with the head of Pearson Kirihara Japan, I learned that this was a similar problem they had had. We agreed that the tablet and mobile form factors presented an opportunity to work around this.

Japanese students work with computers much less than their Western counterparts. However they spend a great amount of time on their cellphones, which are rapidly being replaced with smartphones. Being able to study English on a cellphone mobile app presents an opportunity to harness the processing power available and the richness of interaction with the data that would be very difficult for web applications or traditional computers to provide.

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