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January 2017

Learn new words fast and efficiently

Using Spaced Repetition to Jumpstart your Vocabulary Learning

One of the keys to approaching fluency in a foreign language is increasing the amount of words you know. Building strength with vocabulary is unavoidable, and there are many ways to approach learning. Reading is, of course, a very good method of learning new words. It’s practical, interesting, and also teaches sentence construction and grammar. However, there is a downside: it is not the most efficient way of learning lots of useful words quickly. For this, we turn to the time-honored practice of using flashcards.

But flashcards, as we all know, are boring if approached without strategy. Rote memorisation is as challenging as it is dull. Thankfully, psychologists have long been touting the benefits of a technique known as spaced repetition.

Spaced repetition (also known as spaced rehearsal, expanding rehearsal, spaced retrieval, etc.) is a technique that helps a learner remember by re-introducing harder-to-learn facts more frequently. For example, if you’re using a set of flashcards with foreign vocabulary on them, you would put the cards you got wrong into a pile for more immediate review, while cards for words you know well would go into a pile for review at a much later time.

First proposed in 1932, spaced repetition rose to popularity in the 1960s when cognitive scientists and the people behind the Pimsleur learning courses began utilizing the technique. Today, spaced repetition can be found integrated into many learning apps, such as the flashcard apps Anki and Memrise.

How to use spaced repetition with flash cards

A useful way for memorising useful vocabulary is to get a dictionary that organises common words into categories, such as food, shopping, around the house, numbers, shapes, adjectives, verbs, etc. Turn these words into flashcards and go through them 20 or so cards at a time. Allow yourself three piles: one for words you can’t remember, one for words you remember but are likely to forget, and one pile for words you think you can remember easily.

When you pick up a card, try to guess the translation of the foreign word. If you get it wrong, put it in the first pile. If you get it right but would like to review it again for memorisation’s sake, put it into the second pile. If you find the word very easy to remember, place it in the third pile.

Every minute, draw a card from the first pile (the cards you got wrong) for review. Follow the aforementioned steps and place the card into the designated pile depending on how well you do. If you keep getting the card wrong, you’ll find yourself placing it back frequently into the immediate review pile, allowing yourself to drill the word into your brain.

Every five minutes, review a card from the second pile. Every ten minutes, review a card from the third pile. When you are certain you will remember a card, place it in a fourth pile for completed words. Keep going until all your cards are in the fourth pile.

During your next session, add a few new cards into your pile and go through them as before. Hopefully you’ll still remember fairly well the cards you already went through the day before.

The process if much easier with a spaced repetition app, of course, but if you’re doing it by hand, it’s best to develop your own system of what rhythm feels right to you in terms of how you review cards. A stopwatch might prove handy, or perhaps a learning partner. The most important thing is that you do it every day. Did you know that telc offers flash cards as well for practising the oral examination? Have a look here!

What are your tips for learning new vocabulary? Let us know on our Facebook Page, and be sure to “like” TELC English for more articles on language learning tips and tricks!