Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Nestor Kiourtzidis. He is the co-founder of Linguahouse.com and develops online resources for EFL/ESL teachers as well as learners of English and other languages.
It’s a familiar problem among language learners and teachers… the lesson goes well, there is plenty of interaction – satisfaction all round. However, the following week the students can barely recognize the new words from the lesson, much less use them in a sentence.
Clearly, the key to genuine, long-term vocabulary acquisition is revision, an activity for which little guidance is given and which many learners find laborious and discouraging.
What happens on the outside
Traditionally, language students have been advised to record new vocabulary in a notebook to review outside of the classroom. Although this is a tried and true study method, many learners tend to revise easy items more often than they should and more difficult items not frequently enough. And in preparation for a test or exam, they often resort to ‘cramming’ (intense, last-minute studying). These habits result in inefficient use of the student’s time and poor long-term memory retention.
Fortunately, modern technology makes it possible to optimize the revision process. The technique is called ‘spaced repetition’, and its foundations date back to the 19th century.
The forgetting curve
Noted German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909) conducted extensive experimentation with lists of ‘nonsense words’. He discovered that the rate at which we start to forget a recently learnt or reviewed ‘item’ of knowledge follows a predictable pattern or curve. Significantly, the process of forgetting slows with each subsequent review and with time increasingly less frequent reviews are needed in order to permanently recall an item of any level of difficulty.
Since Herr Ebbinghaus’ time, sophisticated algorithms have been developed to calculate the optimum intervals between each repetition or review, minimizing the number of necessary repetitions and maximizing the period of memory retention. Early experiments were based on plain paper flashcards. Students were first shown the question part of a flashcard and then, depending on their response, the flashcard was scheduled for future review.
Unfortunately, due to the inconvenience and time-consuming nature of creating physical flashcards and manually scheduling their review, spaced repetition was rendered completely impractical for everyday use – until the arrival of the Digital Age.
Back to the future
A number of offline and online applications now harness these powerful spaced learning algorithms. Most of them offer prefabricated sets of electronic flashcards for review and some even offer users the option to create their own flashcards. Typically, the user runs the software every day. The application displays a flashcard question and the user attempts to recall the answer from memory. After giving it his/her best shot, the user clicks a button to display the answer and clicks a further button to score the response – e.g. from 0 (no idea) to 5 (instant recall). The software then schedules the flashcard to be shown again on a future date, which it calculates from the user’s scoring history. The user continues the review until there are no more items scheduled for that particular day.
Spaced repetition software greatly enhances rote learning and, according to some claims, makes the process 10-50 times faster. In addition, electronic flashcards can incorporate multimedia elements such as audio, images and even animation, strengthening the formation of memories and making the reviews more enjoyable.
Currently, spaced learning apps are designed for independent self-study. However, language learning courses of the future may well incorporate spaced repetition as part of a blended learning system. The new words and structures are first introduced, explained and practised in the face-to-face lesson, thus reducing the drawbacks of rote learning (i.e. students reviewing what they do not understand). With the proliferation of laptops, smart phones and other mobile devices, revision applications are a logical and convenient progression in learning languages (and perhaps other subjects). So as much as the trusty vocabulary notebook is a staple item in the classroom, it could soon go the way of the telegraph.
At Linguahouse.com we have attempted to pioneer this integrated approach by publishing downloadable EFL/ESL worksheets for teachers together with sets of multimedia question-and-answer flashcards for students. Each worksheet has a unique lesson code which students use to access the revision material. The online flashcard application, called Expemo, uses an adaptive algorithm to calculate the optimum intervals between each flashcard repetition, based on the student’s current progress with the material. Development is underway to roll out the system for iphone and Android mobile devices, which is expected around autumn of this year.