How to build your vocabulary – and feed the world

A charity website donates rice to the UN every time you choose the correct definition of a word.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

It began as a way for John Breen to help his son prepare for the SAT. Today, some 500,000 people daily visit the vocabulary-quiz website the Indiana-based computer programmer set up. And while word-game fun is part of the draw, players get an extra jolt of "feel good" joy: Every time they get an answer right, they help combat world hunger.

Freerice.com, which debuted in Oct­o­ber, donates 20 grains of rice to the UN World Food Program (WFP) every time a player selects the correct definition for a particular word. Paid for with advertising income, 4 billion grains have been won for the WFP so far. That's 160 metric tons, or enough to feed 200,000 people for one day.

"It's really caught fire," says Brenda Barton, a WFP spokeswoman. "More people visit our site from the link on Freerice.com than any other referral." It's the first site like this she's ever seen, she says. Given its success, however, no doubt copycats will crop up soon.

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When Mr. Breen first thought to create a computer vocabulary game to help his son prepare for the SAT's verbal section, he almost immediately realized he could use it to help raise money for hunger as well. That's because this isn't Breen's first online philanthropy effort. In 1999, he created thehungersite.com. Visitors can "click to donate" a cup of food to an impoverished person. Sponsors pay for the food; visitors are limited to one donation per day. The site averages nearly 200,000 hits daily and has brought in $2.9 million for the WFP so far.

"We see an interest, especially among kids, in the issue of hunger," Ms. Barton says. "We need to talk to them at their level by using the Internet and video games. Freerice.com does that."

People from all walks of life and from around the globe have written in to express their appreciation for the game, she says. Secretaries admit to playing it during boring business meetings. "We get messages from fourth-­graders saying, 'I really enjoyed playing this game in my English class. My teacher has organized a spelling bee using it.' "

The layout of the site is simple: The left side of the page has a word with four possible definitions below. When the user clicks on a definition, a new page loads and indicates whether the answer was correct. If the user was right, a graphic of a wooden bowl on the right side of the page fills with 20 grains of rice. (The average adult needs 18,000-20,000 grains of rice to eat for a day.) At press time, the site had received some 20 million hits.

The difficulty of the words range from common ones like "apt" to more difficult ones like "ruth" (compassion). The site ratchets up the difficulty based on how many definitions a player has chosen correctly. Players strive to work their way up to the highest level of difficulty, 50, but Breen says few players get above 48.

Viral marketing, the compelling game, and the cause it supports are key to the site's success, WFP's Barton says.

An ad is featured on the bottom of each page, and it is these advertisers who ultimately fund the checks Breen writes to the WFP. He is looking into Google ads and hiring an ad agency to run the site. Breen has specified that he wants the WFP to buy locally to support farmers in developing countries, rather than using imported food, which tends to depress local crop prices.

Breen has already sent $113,000 to the WFP and will send more in increments of $10,000 to $15,000 as advertising dollars roll in, Barton says. Breen says he sends all profits to the WFP, and the site has no political or religious affiliation. He donates his time and pays the cost of leasing the site's servers himself. "Some people like to give money to their colleges or whatever," he writes by e-mail, "and this I what I prefer to do with it."

Although Breen spent a considerable amount of time getting the site up and running (not to mention inputting more than 10,000 vocabulary words), he suspects the site can "pretty much run itself" once an ad agency can oversee the ads. He's also hiring a lexicographer to input in some more unusual words so that players won't run out of challenges.

He also operates Poverty.com, which is linked to and promoted by Freerice.com. Poverty.com is an informational site about hunger and includes a tally of the estimated number of deaths from hunger every day – an average he puts at 25,000. Breen also encourages visitors to print and sign a form letter to their governments to encourage them to allocate 0.7 percent of annual income to poverty relief. (The United States, for example, currently gives 0.17 percent.)

Hunger is an increasingly difficult issue for Americans to identify with, Barton says, "with obesity getting so much attention in the media."

"People have this pent-up urge to help. They want to be active if you give them the opportunity," Breen says.

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