Published 2nd February 2016

Learning the vocabulary of a language can be a daunting task. When you think about it, there are literally hundreds of thousands of words in the English language. What’s more, truly knowing a word means knowing its meaning and its spelling, but also its pronunciation, word class, connotation, synonyms, opposite, formality and other related words. That’s a lot of information for just one word. So it’s not surprising if our learners can be a bit despondent about learning new words. Often it seems like the words just go in one ear and out the other.

Which is where spaced repetition comes in and saves the day.

Spaced repetition is a way of learning vocabulary so that it sticks. We all know the importance of reviewing information so that it passes from short-term memory to long-term memory, but we probably are not sure of how many times we need to study something or how frequently we should study in order for it to be learnt.

Spaced repetition is based on a theory of forgetting which dictates how quickly you are likely to forget information and when you should review that information in order for it not to be forgotten. Can you see where we’re going with this? Instead of trying to learn 20 words in one sitting and never looking at them again, spaced repetition helps you learn information at intervals optimal for language learning. So you learn only when you need to learn and you’ll remember better.

Awesome.

How does this help our students?

As a teacher you can introduce vocabulary revision games at spaced intervals in your lessons to help your students retain the vocabulary. In other words, if you learn 10 words on Monday, revise them on Tuesday (1 day later), Friday (3 days later), Wednesday (5 days later) and so on. The added revision will undoubtedly help your learners remember the words but by spacing the intervals you should be able to make the revision work even more.

For your students, there are software programs which are able to simulate these intervals. Your students can download the programs, create their own vocabulary lists and then let the program decide when a particular word needs to be revised based on the student’s performance.

Both ways will help your learners revise vocabulary regularly so they will be able to retain those words and be able to use them. In this way, these words will be translated from a passive knowledge (being able to understand a word) to an active knowledge (being able to understand and use a word). Our learners need all the help they can get when it comes to learning English vocabulary, and spaced repetition is another way we can give it to them.