I suggested in my last post that vocabulary flashcard systems can have a useful role to play in blended learning contexts. However, for their potential to be exploited, teachers will need to devote classroom time to the things that the apps, on their own, cannot do. This post looks in some detail at what teachers can do.
Spaced repetition may be important to long-term memorization of new vocabulary items, but it will not be enough on its own. Memory researchers refer to three techniques that will improve speed of retention and long-term recall. The first of these is called the ‘generation effect’ – the use of even a little cognitive effort in generating the answer in flashcard practice. A simple example is provided by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel: simply asking a subject to fill in a word’s missing letters resulted in better memory of the word. […] For a pair like foot-shoe, those who studied the pair intact had lower subsequent recall than those who studied the pair from a clue as obvious as foot-s _ _ e. In vocabulary learning, there is much that learners need to know beyond the meaning or translation equivalent: pronunciation, collocation, and associated grammatical patterns, for example. A focus on these aspects of word knowledge will all deepen that knowledge, but can enhance memorization at the same time.
The second of these techniques is called ‘elaboration’ – the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know. The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later. Explaining the meaning or rules of use of a target vocabulary item to a fellow student, or explaining how this word has significance in your life outside the classroom are simple examples of elaboration. Whilst elaboration is important in any kind of memorization, it is probably especially important in vocabulary learning. If the mental lexicon is a network of associations (and we don’t really have a better way of describing it right now!), the fostering of multiple associations or connections will be a vital part of building up this lexicon: When students are asked to manipulate words, relate them to other words and to their own experiences, and then to justify their choices, these word associations are reinforced.
The third of these is getting the right kind of feedback. Feedback on flashcard software is typically of the right / wrong variety. At some point, this is obviously necessary, but it has its limitations. First of all, it is usually immediate, and research suggests that a slight delay in getting feedback aids recall. With immediate feedback, learners can easily come to over-rely on it. Secondly, intelligent, scaffolded feedback (e.g. with hints and cues, rather than simple provision of the correct answer) contributes to the ‘generation effect’ (see above). Thirdly, positive feedback (e.g. where a learner sees that she can accurately and appropriately use new items, especially in new contexts) will enhance both learning and motivation. Flashcard software almost invariably presents and practises vocabulary in one context only, and rarely requires learners to produce the language in a communicative context.
The practical classroom suggestions that follow are all attempts to address the issues raised above. This is not in any way a complete list, and I have prioritized, in the ‘Practice Activities’ section, those tasks that offer more than simple re-exposure (for example, activities such as ‘Hangman’, word quizzes, word squares, definition games, and so on). But I hope that it will be a useful starting point.
- Put students into pairs and give them a few minutes (at any moment in a lesson, but this is often done at the start) to test each other on the words they are studying.
- On a regular basis, allocate some classroom time for students to edit / improve their flashcards. This is best done in pairs. Tasks that you could set include: (1) students find example sentences to add to their cards; (2) students find more memorable / amusing example sentences to add to their cards; (3) students research and find useful phrases which include their target items, and add these to their cards; (4) students research and find common collocations of their target words and add these to their cards; (5) students research and find pictures (from an online image search) which they can use to replace their own-language translations; (6) students research, find and add to their cards other parts of speech; (7) students find recordings (via online dictionaries) of their target items and add them to their cards; (8) students record themselves saying the target items and add these to their cards; (9) students gap (or anagrammatize) some of the letters on the English sides of their cards; (10) students compare cards, discuss which are more memorable, and edit their own if they think this is useful
- The ultimate hope is that learners will become more autonomous in their vocabulary learning. To this end, I’d thoroughly endorse Daniel Barber’s suggestion in a comment on my previous post: get the class to 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.
- Ask students to flip through their flashcard set and make a list of the words that they are finding hardest to remember. They should do this with a partner and, together, should come up with a list of twelve or more words. Ask the pairs to put their words into groups. Initially, it will probably be best to suggest the kinds of groupings they could use. For example: (1) words they think they would probably need to use in their first week in an English-speaking country vs. words they think they are unlikely to need in their first week in an English-speaking country, (2) words they like (for whatever reason) vs. words they dislike; (3) words they can associate with good things vs. words which they can associate with bad things. When students are familiar with this activity type, they can choose their own categories. Once students have completed the task with their partner, they should change partners and exchange ideas. All of this can be done orally.
- Ask students to flip through their flashcard set and make a list of the words that they are finding hardest to remember. They should do this with a partner and, together, should come up with a list of twelve or more words. Tell them to write these words in a circle on a sheet of paper. Tell the students to choose, at random, one word in their circle. Next, they must find another word in the circle which they can associate in some way with the first word that they chose. They must explain this association to their partner. They must then find another word which they can associate with their second word. Again they must explain the association. They should continue in this way until they have connected all the words in their circle. Once students have completed the task with their partner, they should change partners and exchange ideas. All of this can be done orally.
- Using the same kind of circle of words (as in the activity above), students again work with a partner. Starting with any word, they must find and explain an association with another word. Next, beginning with the word they first chose, they must find and explain an association with another word from the circle. They continue in this way until they have found connections between their first word and all the other words in the circle. Once students have completed the task with their partner, they should change partners and exchange ideas. All of this can be done orally.
- Ask the students to flick through their coursebooks and find four or five images that they find interesting or attractive. Tell them to note the page numbers. Then, ask the students to flip through their flashcard set and make a list of the words that they are finding hardest to remember. They should do this with a partner and, together, should come up with a list of twelve or more words. The students should then find an association between each of the words on their list and one of the pictures they have selected. They discuss their ideas with their partner, before comparing their ideas with a new partner.
- Using the pictures and word lists (as in the activity above), students should select one picture, without telling their partner which picture they have selected. They should then look at the word list and choose four words from this list which they can associate with that picture. They then tell their four words to their partner, whose task is to guess which picture the other student was thinking of.
- Ask students to flip through their flashcard set and make a list of the words that they are finding hardest to remember. Individually, they should then write a series of sentences which contain these words: the sentences can contain one, two, or more of their target words. Half of the sentences should contain true personal information; the other half should contain false personal information. Students then work with a partner, read their sentences aloud, and the partner must decide which sentences are true and which are false.
- Ask students to flip through their flashcard set and make a list of the words that they are finding hardest to remember. They should do this with a partner and, together, should come up with a list of twelve or more words. Still in pairs, they should prepare a short story which contains at least seven of the items in their list. After preparing their story, they should rehearse it before exchanging stories with another student / pair of students.
- There’s a fun question-and-answer game, ‘Any Which Way Matching’, from Alex Case, which can be used with any set of vocabulary. It can be found here:
- Play a class game which recycles the vocabulary that students are having difficulty remembering. You can find the rules for one game, ‘Words in sentences’, which can be used with any set of vocabulary here:
 Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L. & McDaniel, M. A. Make It Stick (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2014) p.32
 ibid p.5
 Sökmen, A.J. (1997) ‘Current trends in teaching second language vocabulary,’ in Schmitt, N. & McCarthy, M. (eds.) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy (Cambridge: CUP, 1997) pp.241-242
 Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L. & McDaniel, M. A. Make It Stick (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2014) pp.39 – 40