Spaced repetition and the classroom: part 1

Posted: October 13, 2014 in spaced repetition
Tags: , , , , ,

After my second aborted attempt to learn some German through Duolingo, I decided to try something a little different. I started using word cards with my students many years ago, but when I say ‘word cards’, I mean word cards (i.e. on pieces of card). Although more recently I’ve encouraged students to use digital word cards with adaptive elements, I’d never seriously experimented with them myself. What I’ve learnt is that, whilst digital word cards are superior in many ways to the old-fashioned cards on card, the problems and limitations remain more or less the same.

Deliberate learning of vocabulary through the use of word cards is well supported by research: Every piece of research comparing deliberate learning with incidental learning has shown that deliberate word learning easily beats incidental vocabulary learning in terms of the time taken to learn and the amount learnt. The deliberate learning studies also show that such learning lasts for a very long time. (Nation, I.S.P. 2008 Teaching Vocabulary: Strategies and Techniques (Boston, MA: Heinle Cengage Learning) p.104) The current crop of digital word cards simplify the learner’s task enormously by allowing sets of words to be imported into the programs, by automatically calculating the intervals between repetitions / exposures, and by offering a range of task types and gamification elements to help motivation. I can’t imagine going back to old-fashioned dog-eared cards stuffed into a ‘vocab bag’.

anki-16I’ve been using Anki , but I didn’t choose it in preference to one of the many other free systems, such as Quizlet , for any particular reason. I’ve looked at a number of these systems, and, frankly, I don’t have any strong preference. Some have games, which are fun for a few minutes. Some have better gamification features than others. Some seem easier than others to use. It’s a fiercely competitive world, and new features are being constantly added. For any teacher wanting to try these word cards (or flash cards) for the first time – either with their students, or for themselves, I’d probably recommend Quizlet, for the simple reason that there’s a very good step-by-step guide to using these cards at Lizzie Pinard’s blog , ‘Reflections of an English Language Teacher’.

Learning vocabulary – the task at the heart of language learning – necessarily entails a lot of memorization, and it makes sense for this to be done, as much as possible, outside the classroom. In fact, it has to be done outside the classroom, as there will simply never be enough time to do it in the classroom. Here is the first big problem. Even when my students, back in the 1990s, were equipped with their sets of cards, and had been instructed how to make the best use of them while sitting on the bus or the train (there were some excellent tips in Stuart Redman et al’s A Way with Words, CUP 1990), the majority just never managed to find the time. Despite all their protestations to the contrary, sufficient motivation was lacking. There is no reason to suppose that things will be any different with word card apps, even with all their gamification and games. It will remain the job of the teacher to push the motivation.

In addition to the central problem of motivation, there are a number of other areas in which digital word cards are no different from their cardboard predecessors. The first of these is that the majority of word cards do not contain enough information. Typically, there is just a translation; possibly a key to the part of speech, an example sentence and access to a recording of the word. There is only very rarely information about collocations, connotations or cultural background. Lexical priming is not going to happen this way! I have learnt, for example, from my Anki cards that die Ansiedlung means ‘location’ or ‘settlement’, but I’m still not too sure how to use the word. Word cards work best for receptive knowledge, for translating from the target language into your own language. They are less useful for learners who want or need to build their productive vocabulary. Learners can be helped by their teachers to produce or edit fuller, more useful cards, but this entails training. Training, in turns, usually entails classroom time.

Time (and motivation) is also needed to prepare the cards. All the digital apps allow lexical sets and ready-made cards to be imported, just as it used to be possible to buy sets of laminated cards and filing boxes. But there are three problems with taking this short-cut. Firstly, the ready-made sets are not usually very good (see the paragraph above), however glossy they may look. Secondly, and more importantly, ready-made sets are highly unlikely to match precisely the needs of individual classes, let alone individual learners. Finally, the effort involved in producing (and subsequently editing) one’s own cards will have a pay-off in long-term memorization. For all of these reasons, digital word card use is likely to be more effective if the teacher addresses these issues in the classroom.

Word cards are also static. Once the card has been prepared with a translation and an example sentence and so on, this tends to remain fixed. The problem here is that learning is strengthened if the learner meets or uses the input again in a way that involves some change to the form and use of the word (Joe, 1998). That is, the new word is put into a slightly different context from the original meeting. This is called ‘generative use’. (Nation, I.S.P. 2008 Teaching Vocabulary: Strategies and Techniques (Boston, MA: Heinle Cengage Learning) p27) Once again, there is useful classroom work that teachers can do to deal with this issue.

Multiple exposure to a vocabulary item through spaced repetition is likely to help the process of that item ending up in the long-term memory. But frequency of repetition (what Patrick Hanks, in his book Lexical Analysis, describes as social salience) is not the end of the story. Long term memorization is more likely to take place when there is what Hanks calls cognitive salience … and this is much more likely when the item is embedded and encountered in some sort of memorable (e.g. weird) context. Teachers can encourage their students to illustrate target items in cognitively salient ways, and they can also exploit the dynamics of the classroom environment to the same effect.

fluent_in_three_monthsDespite the claims of word card enthusiasts like ‘Benny the Irish polygot’ blogger of Fluent in 3 Months , no one is going to learn a language just by using this kind of software. It should not be assumed that learning from word lists or word cards means that the words are learned forever, nor does it mean that all knowledge of a word has been learned, even though word cards can be designed to include a wide range of information about a word (Schmitt and Schmitt, 1995). Learning from lists or word cards is only an initial stage of learning a particular word. It is, however, a learning tool for use at any level of language proficiency. (Nation, P. & Waring, R. ‘Vocabulary size, text coverage and word lists’ in Schmitt, N. & McCarthy, M. (eds) 1997 Vocabulary (Cambridge University Press) ppp.12 – 13)

In order to be able to use the words of a target language, confidently and fluently, learners will need opportunities to use them, meaningfully and communicatively. They will also benefit from feedback on how they are using them. Gamified gap-fills and matching tasks, score cards and progress charts cannot do this. Word card apps are a valuable tool for language learners, and can be very usefully exploited in blended contexts. If (and it’s a big ‘if’) students can be motivated to do this kind of self-study, classroom time can be freed up to spend on meaning-focused language practice and learning strategy training. In the second part of this post, I’ll be looking at specific, practical examples of what teachers can do in the classroom.

  1. Victor Santos says:

    Thank you for your always insightful posts, Philip! Just one request: could you please start including the full reference to your citations at the end of each article? For academics like me, that would be quite helpful. Thank you (PhD student in Applied Linguistics and Technology at Iowa State University)

  2. Hi Philip,
    I echo Victor’s thanks for a brilliantly comprehensive overview of wordcards, their uses and limitations.
    A couple of reactions, firstly, to your comment on the need for classroom time to train learners: ‘Learners can be helped by their teachers to produce or edit fuller, more useful cards, but this entails training. Training, in turns, usually entails classroom time.’ When I’ve used wordcards with my classes the most successful uptake has happened when I tried to make them a part of class time, too, e.g. ‘Get out your wordcards – five minutes to test each other,’
    Training in class for practice outside class might involve an awareness of the different types of information that are needed for different words. For some, phonological aspects may need recording; for others it’s irregularity, connotation, collocation, etc. And this is what I’ve noticed with the apps you cite: a lack of flexibility in design and what fields to fill. Are their any apps that allow IPA fonts, for example? Another reminder that TEFLers need to get involved in CALL design.
    I sympathise with your opinion that ready-made cards are problematic. When I was trying to learn Greek I used home-made cards. The word for ‘chicken’ was particularly hard to remember: ‘kotopolou’. My weird drawing of a ‘cot’ ‘toppling’ over under the weight of a large chicken helped me to fix the word in my head but I doubt it would mean much to anyone else! I found that the labour of love that is manufacturing the cards is in itself a key learning moment and frustratingly, many of my Greek cards became immediately redundant when I started using them because I realised I’d learnt the words so well during that initial stage. It seems that the process of deciding what to include on the card and the actual writing of the cards is a meaningful experience and a useful one for me as learner. Again, time in the classroom encouraging this autonomous practice is time well spent.
    What we’re talking about here is learner training for the digital age. More and more, a teacher’s role must look outside the classroom towards what the students are doing when he or she is not around. One very valuable exercise, for example, would be to have the class use and review the various wordcard apps and feed back to their classmates, i.e. to discover for themselves the relative merits of digital vs. hand-written / anki vs. quizlet and decide for themselves what’s best.
    There’s more about this coaching approach in our blog:

    Oh, another limitation with digital wordcards (when not backed up)… I lost my phone, and with it my entire word list. Gutted.

    • philipjkerr says:

      Thanks for this, Dan. I’ll be getting on to what you describe as ‘learner training for the digital age’ in the next post. It’ll only consider practical ideas … including the peer testing and collaborative card preparation that you mention!

  3. philipjkerr says:

    I’ve just come across another useful blog post with good practical suggestions for using Quizlet, this time from David Read

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