Tracking your progress in the WordSwing iOS app

When you're working through WordSwing's text adventure games, dialogs, or comics, it's possible to swipe the text to the left (iOS only for now).

This indicates to WordSwing that you've read that text carefully, and may help encourage you to read everything carefully.

Here's what it looks like (YouTube):

WordSwing uses this information to help you track how much you study and what you're learning.

Why bother swiping?

Reading and listening are normally rather passive activities, and it's easy to gloss over without realizing you're not paying much attention. By interjecting the swipe action we aim to break reading into pieces so you can recognize that you're focusing on each one.

The trick for swiping to be helpful, is that it must gain a personal meaning for you.

For example, if swiping to you means that you put in the dedicated effort to read and understand the text, then each time you swipe, you get to appreciate that you put in this effort. The swipe action will begin to acquire a small mental reward that can help propel you forward despite the frustrations that crop up as you study.

I want to emphasize that swiping is not meant to be some cheeky attempt at gamification, but rather a mechanism for you to recognize and nurture your own intrinsic sense of reward for working hard. Studying a second language presents a continual barrage of little frustrations. This is not a problem if you derive sufficient satisfaction from the learning process and it's result. But too often those are too intangible compared to all the little frustrations. So we hope that this swipe mechanism can help you mentally condition yourself to notice and appreciate the effort you're putting into your language study.

And when you reach the end of the activity, you can look back at all the items you've swiped, and you can see the sweeping scope of what you've read and all the little pieces of effort you put into the activity.

How it works

Before you swipe some text, it looks like this (I've turned the colors on to show my knowledge level ratings):

iPhone screen shots

During the swipe you'll see two numbers in circles, indicating:

  1. The number of Chinese characters in the text (15 in this case).
  2. A count of swipe points, which is a measure that combines the length of the text, the difficulty of the text, and whether the characters and words in the text are new to you.
iPhone screen shots

Notice that after you've swiped the text, there are little yellow and teal circles that appear in the upper left corner of the text. These help you notice which text you've swiped.

iPhone screen shots

Tracking progress

Once place we use this information is in the "Learning Stats" area, which you can get to from the app's main menu:

iPhone screen shots

There are three plots:

iPhone screen shots

The middle plot shows you how much text you've swiped. The yellow line (left axis) is simply a count of how many characters you swipe. The teal line (right axis) gives your swipe points.

There are also plots for how much time you've spent on WordSwing over the last 30 days (left plot) and how many times you've increased your knowledge level ratings of words you're studying (right plot).


Learning a language is a daunting task. And so we'll end with this Itchy Feet comic. We hope to build learning tools that help you overcome some of the obstacles to learning a language, and help keep you on your way up Mt. Fluency.


Kevin & Olle

Introducing WordSwing's New iPhone App

iPhone screen shots

We are pleased to announce our new iPhone App, available now in the Apple App Store.

Our new app packs a few major changes:

  1. Traditional character support!! This has been our most-requested feature. Simplified is still supported too, of course. You can enable traditional characters in expand-out menu under Settings.
  2. A new audio player that underlies text while you listen (see video below).
  3. An entirely new text adventure game interface.

There's one important qualification:

At it's release the app only supports the text adventure games.

We will be adding other activities as we make progress on adding support for traditional characters to those activities.

As I mentioned above, our app has a new audio player that will underline the characters as they are read. This makes it much easier to follow along with the audio if you're not super comfortable with the characters.

Here's a little movie of what that looks like:

Other important changes include a built-in dictionary that doesn't overlay what you're reading, and the ability to restore any text game (not just your most recent one). We are also laying the groundwork for richer progress tracking.

Why a new app?

We have wanted to make WordSwing a more cohesive learning experience rather than the somewhat eclectic activities present in on our website. We decided to use the iOS app as a place to experiment with doing this while at the same time solving a number of longstanding issues, such as lacking support for traditional characters and a suboptimal experience on small screens.

The iOS app is built using the same underlying web-oriented technologies as our web app and so this will make it easy to both bring over some of the other activities and features, as well as bring some of the new design over to the web app. You can expect the iOS app and web site to grow closer together going forward. This will also make it possible for us to offer an Android app in the near future.

You are free to use both the web app and the iOS app; your learn stage ratings and other data are shared between them. And whether you subscribe through the app or through the website, your subscription will be valid both places.

Want to give it a go?

If you play our text adventure games and you use iOS, we encourage you to try out the new app. You can find it in the app store by searching for "wordswing".

After you give it a go, please consider rating the app. This will help other people find it in the app store and it will help us know that our students like the app and want us to continue developing it.

Also, don't forget to tell us what you think. Many aspects of the design of this app have been informed by input from our students. Your voices matter and we listen and try and incorporate suggestions.


Getting up to speed with Chinese reading

Stepping stones in river

A student recently asked me for advice on getting up to speed quickly reading Chinese. I figured I'd share the comments here because it might be useful to those students for whom the material on WordSwing feels a bit out of reach. This advice relates primarily to reading, as that was this student's interest, and it's biased by my own preferences and experiences.

I'm a fan of graded readers. The first good (and perhaps still the best) graded reader was by DeFrancis, Beginning Chinese Reader. These are two volumes (Part I and Part II) and they introduce about 400 (traditional) characters. There is a revised edition that has been updated to be more modern and less literary. These books are just for learning characters and practicing reading. They are very well designed. He also wrote books that go along with them (i.e., use the same characters) but which introduce basic grammar, and the readers are careful to keep pace grammar-wise with the text book. I've never read the grammar books though because by the time I discovered the readers I was familiar with Chinese grammar, which is actually rather simple. A good grammar book is Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar. You might also be interested in Heisig's books on learning characters. He has a very particular method for relating the constituent parts of Chinese characters to stories as a way to memorize the large number of characters. I don't particularly recommend following his method exactly, but some vague familiarity with his ideas is very useful. John Pasden's Mandarin Companion graded readers are also very good. If you were to work your way through the two DeFrancis readers, a grammar book, and some of the Mandarin Companion books, then all of what WordSwing offers would be well within reach.


PS: Look for used copies of these books if you'd like to save money.

Incremental character learning through games

Stepping stones in river
(photo by Susanne Nilsson)

Reading text in Chinese can often seem like looking at wall of inscrutable text if too many of the characters are unfamiliar.

And while we've tried to keep the number of distinct characters low, our text games are no exception. Here's a breakdown of how many distinct characters are in each game:

GameDistinct Characters
Burning Building399
Wandering Cat574
Into the Haze649

Undoubtedly, many of these characters you already know, but if there are substantial gaps, these can interfere with your reading and make the game less fun.

Our goal here is to show you a study strategy for getting to about 95% familiarity with the text of the adventure games.

The characters that will help you play the game the most are also the characters that you see most often in the game, and so by focusing on these you can simultaneously make the experience of playing the game more fun and more useful.

And although the characters that appear only once in a game make up a substantial fraction of the distinct characters in the game, these singletons make up a tiny fraction of the actual text.

In aggregate, the characters that appear only once in a game only make up between 1% and 1.5% of the text in the game.

For these singletons, it makes sense not to worry about them and to just use the built-in dictionary feature to look up words when you encounter them. Later, when there is a context where these characters are more important, you can learn them then.

Fortunately, there is a great deal of overlap among our text adventure games. In what follows, we discuss one way to leverage this.

Stepping stones

The overlap in which characters are used in each game actually suggests an optimal progression through the games.

In total there are 965 distinct Chinese characters throughout our first five text adventure games. But only 197 of these are used in all the games. Furthermore, most of these are very common Chinese characters, and so you likely already know or are familiar with most of them.

Starting from this baseline, if you familiarize yourself with 88 additional characters, then as you play the first game in the progression, Burning Building, you will already be familiar with 93% of all the text in the game.

We're not suggesting mastering all 88 of these characters before you start playing. That would defeat the purpose of playing the game! The whole point of playing is to have fun while improving your knowledge of Chinese. Rather, we are suggesting familiarizing yourself with the ones you don't know so that when you see them in the game, you have an opportunity to recall them, which seems to be the important neural-connection-forming activity of learning.

From there, you can progress through each of the next 4 games, previewing exactly those characters that will most help you through each successive game.

Here I illustrate this progression:

Incremental character learning infographic

At each step of the way you will be familiar with upwards of 95% of all the text in the game! That might be a huge difference from if you dive in without strategically filling in the gaps in advance.

We estimate that the typical student can go from being familiar with less than 75% of text to being familiar with 95% of the text.

This is like going from 1 in 4 characters looking unfamiliar to only 1 in 20 characters looking unfamiliar!

Word lists to the rescue

If you would like to try out the above progression through our five games, we have set up six word lists on WordSwing corresponding to the above sets of characters.

These lists contain words that use the characters at each particular step pictured. Learning the characters in the context of words that are used in the game will provide you more context than learning isolated characters.

Tap the "fork" button to make a personal copy to study from:

The idea is not to learn all the words now, but rather to merely preview vocabulary that involves characters you are unfamiliar with. If you've been using WordSwing's knowledge stage ratings then you can use these to prune the list of words down to only those you haven't noticed yet.

If you tap the Adjust knowledge stages button, you can see your ratings for these words:

Incremental learning knowledge states

You can then tap the Prune list button and tap each of the three links for marking by rating, discovered, learning, and mastered. This will allow you to then delete these words from the list so you can focus on the words you don't know. After you've tapped the three links, you'll see purple X's next to the ones that will be deleted when you tap the trash button:

Prune incremental learning list

One way to preview the words is simply to select Drill down mode when viewing the word list and then tap on any of the words you want to look up. You can then see the pronunciation and meaning in the built-in dictionary.

But you can also use these word lists with any of our word list-oriented activities, including:

Pronunciation Recall - Spaced repetition where you are prompted with a character and are asked to recall it's pronunciation. This is my top choice for this task because it most resembles reading.

Pronunciation Recall screenshot

Frequency-ordered SRS - Spaced repetition where you try and recall how the character is written.

Frequency-ordered SRS screenshot

Character Memory Grid - An fast-paced character memory game where you remember how characters are pronounced.

Character memory grid animation


So if you're looking for a methodical way to use our Text Adventure Games to grow your Chinese vocabulary and character knowledge, we encourage you to try the games following the above progression, and preview the vocabulary before you play the game. This way, as you play the games and master the vocabulary, upwards of 95% of the text will at least be a bit familiar.

And keep in mind you are more than welcome to just dive in and play. This strategy is just an idea, and you're also welcome to use some hybrid approach, whereby you go back and forth between previewing word lists and playing the game.

Have fun!

Kevin & Olle

PS: If you'd just like the lists of characters in this progression, here you go:

Universal (common to every game):


Important for Burning Building:


Important for Escape:


Important for Zoo:


Important for Wandering Cat:


Important for Into the Haze:


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