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Making words memorable

Most teachers and researchers would agree that knowing words is even more important than knowing grammar if you wish to be proficient in a language. As linguist David Wilkins wrote in 1972: "Without grammar little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed."One of the frustrations for teachers is pupils' inability to retain vocabulary for productive use. A good deal of research has been done over the years into how pupils might better keep words in memory. Two concepts which have come to the fore are spacing and interleaving.

Spaced practice

A 2003 review of the literature by P.Y. Gu reported that most studies show that students frequently forget words after learning them just once.  Anderson and Jordan (1928) discovered that after initial learning, then one week, three weeks and eight weeks thereafter, the recall success was 66%, 48%, 39% and 37% respectively. Other studies have produced similar results. Unsurprisingly, these researchers recommend, spaced repetition to overcome forgetting. The idea of spaced learning goes back to Ebbinghaus.

Spaced repetition can be difficult to build in to your teaching if you meet a class just once a week, but if you see students more often it clearly makes sense to build in opportunities to review vocabulary in as many ways as possible. (Research also clearly shows that vocab learning is most effective when you do it in as many different, memorable ways as possible.)


Research by Brown et al (2014) shows that learning of specific language items is most effective when it is "interleaved" with other activities. This might go against what some teachers and students believe, namely that it's best to do massed practice. Cramming does produce effective results in the short term (e.g. when preparing for an exam the next day) but it is ineffective if you wish to foster long-term retention. Interleaving may be less satisfying for pupils since there is no apparent immediate reward, but in language learning especially, where long-term memory of vocabulary, morphology and syntax is required, interleaving makes the most sense.

In practice this means presenting/introducing vocabulary or structures either in isolation or (better) in context, then returning to it as many memorable times as possible. To some extent text books build this type of review in to their scheme of work, but it is not done with enough regularity or rigour, so you have to make sure you provide the necessary exposure, whether it be during listening and reading tasks, question-answer and other oral interactions and controlled and free speaking and writing. A skilled teacher can do this partly off the cuff if they are fortunate enough to see their class frequently and even year on year.

This is also an argument for not sticking rigorously to the topic you are meant to cover from week to week. The danger with this is that you leave behind one set of vocabulary or a grammatical structure, not to return to it for several weeks, by which time you are reteaching it from scratch with many pupils.

Making words memorable

As well as spacing and interleaving, research also suggests that vocabulary is better retained when it is taught in a memorable context, not just as isolated words from lists. (This may explain my relative aversion to giving lists to learn to pupils - not to mention the fact that it's just boring.) A study by Chamot (2005), for example, showed that when learners engage in deeper processing of words by seeing or hearing them in context, or for example organising them in semantic mind-maps, they retain them better than when they are presented for rote learning in a list. Gianfranco Conti discusses this type of thing in detail here and in other blog posts on his site.

Research also shows that the more complex you can make networks in the brain (by involving phonological patterns, written spelling, visual images, gestures, smells, tastes, you name it...) the better learners will remember words. Various studies have shown the benefit of teaching words with pictures, e.g. Curran and Doyle (2011), Hockley and Bancroft (2011) and Bisson et al (2014).

In a recent study, Mayer et al (2015) compared the memory performance for words that had been learned according to three conditions: by reading only, by reading and enriching them through pictures, and by reading and performing semantically related gestures. Words that had only been read scored worst, whereas words learned with gestures scored best particularly in the long term. The results are not surprising: observing and self-performing a gesture requires more complex processing than just seeing a static picture.

In sum, don't expect students to remember words if you just teach them once and in only one way. Use spaced repetition, interleaving and deep processing as far as possible.

D. Wilkins (1972) Linguistics in Language Teaching. Edward Arnold, Australia.
H. Ebbinghaus (1885). Über das Gedächtnis. Untersuchungen zur experimentellen Psychologie [Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology] (in German). Trans. Henry A. Ruger & Clara E. Bussenius. Leipzig, Germany: Duncker & Humblot.


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