Why We're All Rubbish at Teaching Vocabulary

Rubbish at Teaching Vocabulary

Rubbish at Teaching Vocabulary

Ask anyone that’s learned a language to a reasonably high standard, and they’ll tell you that learning vocabulary is a pain in the backside.

Sure, grammar is hard, pronunciation can be tough, but by the time you’ve learned 5,000 words (along with collocations, sentence chunks and phrases) you’ll have had plenty of time to practice them.

The volume of vocabulary that needs to be learned is incredibly daunting.

So why the hell are we letting our students down by teaching vocabulary in some of the most ineffective ways possible?

I’m talking about (the complete lack of) spaced repetition.

What is Spaced Repetition?

Spaced repetition is simply the idea that after you learn something, you remind yourself just before you forget it. Repeat until the item is in your long-term memory.

Which sounds good. but how do we know the length of time before we’re just about to forget?

Back in 1885, a scientist called Ebbinghaus published a book that detailed his work on memory – specifically how long it takes before the brain forgets. He spent years learning gobbleygook words and then noting how long the intervals were before he couldn’t recall them.  He then repeated this at intervals and noted the improvement in recall.

The result was a graph illustrating this ‘forgetting curve’, below:

Ol' Ebbinghaus had the right idea about teaching vocabulary.

Ol' Ebbinghaus had the right idea about teaching vocabulary.

While there was general interest, Ebbinghaus’ work was only sporadically applied to learning efficiency over the next century. One such application was a professor called Leitner, who applied the forgetting curve to a flashcard system, the Leitner System. I still remember using this when I first arrived in China to learn Chinese!

Spaced Repetition Today

Today though, we have computers, smart phones and tablets. Technology lets us do wonderful things with spaced repetition. For example:

  • Automatic Tracking – a program will show us what we need to repeat, when we need it.

  • Learn Anywhere – we can learn on our computer at home, and continue on the train, using our phone. All progress is synchronised and available across all devices.

  • Gamification and Peer Competition – several apps give us points for how much we’ve learned, let us connect with our friends or classmates, stimulating a natural and friendly competition.

  • Bespoke Courses – we can customise and create the content of the spaced repetition to match whichever syllabus we’re learning from. Or we can download pre-made ‘decks’ of flashcards.

  • Better Memory Encoding – several apps do a great job of helping us encode the memory – either by showing us an emotive picture, or breaking the content into component pieces and making a story from them. All of this helps recall tremendously.

How to Apply it in the TEFL Classroom

How about…

  • Giving students your entire course vocabulary in a spaced repetition program on the first day, and showing them how to use it?

  • Asking the students to create their own spaced repetition modules with words, sentence chunks and phrases that they find interesting or useful?

  • Setting up a friendly leader board for your class which you refer to each class?

  • Asking students to create their own collection of fun, incidental words and phrases that they hear from their peers, classroom usage, movies, books and computer games?

Teaching Vocabulary Benefits

Can you imagine never having to teach vocabulary again in class? Stop spoon feeding students five new words a week, let them reach their potential, and free up class time for more important activities at the same time.

FREE Resources

  • The Leitner System – the original, offline flashcard SRS system.

  • Memrise – learn anything with flashcards! Community made flashcard decks for lots of languages.

  • Duolingo – similar to Memrise, but just for languages

  • Anki – one of the best SRS flashcard programs. Available on desktop, iOS and Android, syncs progress seamlessly.

How could you use spaced repetition with your students? Do you use it already?