Learning by heart

2 Feb

Learning lists of words by heart, rote learning, is deeply unfashionable. It is associated with an approach to language teaching that focuses almost exclusively on the language input (at the expense of language use) (Nation, 2008, p.114); it is seen as uncommunicative and decontextualized, and, perhaps worst of all, it is work, not glossily-packaged fun.

Teachers, however, (especially in high schools and universities) continue to require their students to learn lists of words every week. And learners, even when not directed by their teachers, seem to prefer to adopt approaches involving word lists (Moir & Nation, p.165). Unfashionable it may be, but rote-learning is massively supported by research (see the suggestions for further reading), at least as a step on the way to building a large lexicon, although its value for long-term retention of lexical items is more limited. As there do not seem to be any real alternatives to word list study (incidental learning through exposure to texts will never be enough for most learners), a major concern of language instruction must be ‘how to enhance learners’ memory skills’ (Sharafian, 2002)

Whilst it is relatively easy to acquire many words quickly through memorization, it is much harder to establish them in the long-term memory. Memory decay sets in very quickly (cf the well-known Ebbinghaus forgetting curve of 1885), so it is vital that words that have been memorized are revisited again and again. Repetition is the key (Bilbrough, p.43) and 6 or 7 spaced repeats can lead to substantial memory gains (see Gu, 2003). The later entries in this handout suggest classroom activities that can provide lively, enjoyable opportunities for such revision.

It has also been shown that learners will benefit from strategy training (Oxford, 1990). What are good ways of recording vocabulary? What are good ways of memorizing? How often should vocabulary study be done? Initial word learning is best done at home (although there may be a case, from time to time, for allocating a small amount of class time to this). In the class, we can organise activities that will help students with their home study and we can run activities that exploit the home study that has been done. In the long-term, this will probably be a lot more beneficial than rushing through the next vocabulary section of the coursebook.

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One Response to “Learning by heart”

  1. philipjkerr May 6, 2012 at 9:56 am #

    I came across a nice quote in Daniel Everett’s ‘Language: The Cultural Tool’ (Profile Books, London, 2012), which I’m enjoying reading. He writes:
    ‘Words have to be learned one at a time. […] We cannot, for example, guess what the word for ‘dog’ is going to be in our language just because we know the word for ‘cat’. Word-learning entails rote memorization, the item-by-item mastery of individual signs.’

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