Language Learning Tip #23


“I learn the words, but I seem to forget after a few days.”


20 Flashcards, 4 boxes, and the principle of spaced retrieval.

There is no way to learn words without doing some memorization. However, there are inefficient and boring ways to do it, and there are more efficient and less boring ways to do it. Unfortunately, I have not discovered a way that is quick, effective, and exciting. For years one of the boring ways is to drill with flashcards, but with a little tweaking, we can add some turbo power to your work with flashcards. But first, let’s examine the issue a bit more. The following quotes are from an article by I.P. Nation, a leader in the field of vocabulary acquisition.  (Research into practice: Vocabulary 
I. S. P. Nation LALS, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Section from Lang. Teach. (2011), 44.4, 529–539. Cambridge University Press 2011)

A large amount of vocabulary can be very quickly learnt and retained for a long period of time by using spaced retrieval and, where necessary, mnemonic techniques such as the keyword technique (McDaniel, Pressley & Dunay 1987). Vocabulary which is quickly learnt in this way is not quickly forgotten. The use of the L1 and pictures to provide the meaning for words is generally more effective than the use of L2 definitions. …

…The deliberate learning of vocabulary using word cards is one way of speeding up learners’ progress towards an effective vocabulary size. This deliberate learning, however, must be seen as only one part of a well-balanced learning program. …

… Learning using word cards can be done efficiently or inefficiently, and learners need guidance on the principles behind efficient learning. These principles are strongly research-based and include the use of spaced retrieval (Pyc & Rawson 2007), mnemonic techniques where necessary (Pressley 1977), reordering of the word cards to avoid serial learning, the L1 and pictures to represent the meaning of the words (Laufer & Shmueli 1997), repetition, and the avoidance of interfering items (Tinkham 1997; Waring 1997).

One of the keys to keeping things in your long-term memory is repetition at graduated intervals (increasing time between retrieval). The popular Pimsleur method makes this a central part of its approach. That is, the idea that recalling items to memory should happen at gradually increasing intervals. Pimsleur said it should happen at 5 seconds, 25 seconds, 2 minutes, 10 minutes, 1 hour, 5 hours, 1 day, 5 days, 25 days, 4 months, and 2 years! That seems rather extreme and impractical, but it gives you an idea of the increasing intervals designed to help you add vocabulary into your longer-term memory. Some language learning materials make efforts to recycle vocabulary too, but it is usually spotty and incomplete for various reasons. Also, Byki is a helpful computer program that uses this principle ( But you may benefit by creating materials you can touch, manipulate, and customize. That’s where the 20 cards and the 4 boxes come in.

(To be continued…)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *