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Remembering vocabulary

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This article presents ideas on how to help your students remember vocabulary.

Richard Frost, British Council
  • Introduction
  • Forgetting
  • The implications for teaching
  • Memorable teaching
  • Recycling
  • Learner training
  • Noting and storing vocabulary
  • Conclusions

'And what's your mobile phone number, sir?' As the question is put to me I suddenly realise that I can't remember my number. I repeated it to myself over and over a few days before, it's there somewhere in my mind but I just can't get the information. Much to my embarrassment, I have to resort to finding it in my diary.

Everyone who has tried to force themselves to learn information will know the problem. Despite repeating it again and again and being able to hold it in our short-term memory, keeping information in our long-term memory is much more difficult. Despite the fact that there seems to be an infinite amount of information that can be stored there, getting things into our long-term memory and back again can be a difficult process.

So why is it that we forget information? Decay theory suggests that unless we use the information that is stored regularly, it will slowly disappear from our memory. A second theory suggests that information in fact stays in our memory, but we are unable to reach it. Cue-dependent forgetting is an idea based on experiments where subjects found they forgot lists of learnt words but could remember them if they were given appropriate information to help them recall. With a cue, ('It's a fruit' when they were trying to remember the word 'pear') students' performance was greatly enhanced.

The implications for teaching
As teachers we need to take this into account and find ways of helping students to combat the effects of memory decay and give them the tools to improve their retrieval ability. We also need to think of ways of making the experience of learning vocabulary more memorable and of recycling the information that we teach.

Memorable teaching
There are many things we can do to make the learning process more memorable for our learners. Using pictures, interesting contexts and stories can help memory and giving the students the opportunity to practise the new vocabulary in personalised and meaningful tasks are also essential tools. The idea is that if the students are asked to analyse and react personally to new information, it will help them process the language more deeply, facilitating their ability to retain it in their long-term memory. This also is a powerful argument for using guided discovery techniques that require the students to find the meaning of vocabulary (with help and guidance from the teacher) and to own the learning process.

By giving the students opportunities to revise vocabulary in the classroom we will be able to help students remember it. This can be done at the start and end of a lesson with a quick warmer (see these vocabulary activities for suggestions). Getting students to keep a bank of cards (see Vocabulary and autonomy) is also a great idea. I like to divide the class into groups of four or five, giving each group a set of blank cards. At the end of the lesson/week I brainstorm all the words onto the board and ask each group to write the words onto their cards. I bring the cards back every week enabling the students to test each other in groups or in a mingle, put the words into categories and justify their choices and even build a story by sharing the cards and adding sentences using a word on a card. By encouraging the students to retrieve the words in subsequent lessons and repeatedly re-exposing them to what has been presented, we are able to counteract the effects of forgetting.

Learner training
Most of the responsibility for retaining the new items falls on the students' shoulders. Some may be unaware of this and even unsure of the best ways to aid memory.

It is essential therefore that class time is spent highlighting the importance of learning strategies. It is a good idea to start early in the course. Raise your students' awareness of the difficulties they will have remembering, and highlight what they can do. You can tell them some of the following:

  • try to use the new words either in class, for homework or in some other way
  • look out for the words and expressions you are trying to learn when you are reading or listening to English
  • write short stories or paragraphs connecting the words and expressions that you want to learn
  • write personalised sentences using the new words, something that is relevant to your life
  • keep the words you want to learn in a small notebook with an example sentence. You can then take it with you wherever you go and when you have a few minutes (whilst waiting for a bus), test yourself.

It would be very beneficial to point out to the students that they should revise the vocabulary themselves at regular intervals, e.g. looking again the next day, then next two days after that, then four days and then a week later etc.

Noting and storing vocabulary
Helping your students to organise their notes will also benefit them in their studying. You can show alternative ways to organise a vocabulary notebook (using diagrams, word trees or bubble networks) and get the students to compare ways that they find most useful. Also point out to them the benefits of adding things like the phonemic transcription, definitions, example sentences, the part of speech of the item they are recording, prepositions, and the importance of learning words with associated meanings together.

By taking all of this into account we are better equipped to help our students deal with the difficult task of trying to remember all of the lexis that comes their way. And who knows, one day I may even remember my mobile phone number.