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What is the best way to learn and remember English vocabulary? Let’s take a look at three of the most popular, researched, and established theories in today’s episode!

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  • Lemma (noun) – A technical term for the base form or root of a word within a word family.
    • When analysing the verb “swimming,” the lemma is “swim.”
  • Vocalize (verb) – To speak out loud or express verbally.
    • When you vocalize the information, you’re more likely to remember it.
  • Content (noun) – The subject matter or material contained in a piece of text or speech.
    • The content of the article discusses various language learning techniques.
  • Theory (noun) – A systematic and comprehensive explanation of a phenomenon
    • The theory behind the Leitner System has been widely adopted in language learning.
  • Spaced repetition (noun) – A learning technique that involves reviewing and revisiting information at increasing intervals over time.
    • Spaced repetition helps improve long-term memory retention.
  • Flashcards (noun) – Cards used for learning that contain questions or prompts on one side and answers or information on the other.
    • Many students find flashcards to be a helpful tool for vocabulary memorization.
  • Simplification (noun) – The act of making something simpler or easier to understand.
    • The Feynman Method encourages the simplification of complex ideas to aid understanding.

Remembering English Words

One of the biggest challenges for language learners is remembering vocabulary.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary there are around 170,000 English words that are currently in use today, and 47,000 words that are now obsolete.

Of course, you don’t need to know all of these words. I definitely don’t know 170,000 words in English.

An average native speaker of English will know somewhere between 15,000- and 20,000-word families or lemmas.

A word family or lemma are the technical terms for groups of related English words. For example, eat, ate, eaten, and eating are all part of the same family. Another example is interest, interesting, or interested.

For all of you out there, the way to become proficient in English is clear, right? Learn at least 15,000 English word families.

Well… no. First, this is really difficult. And second, studies have shown that it is almost impossible for language learners to reach this level.

In fact, one study by Stuart Webb of the University of Western Ontario found that people studying languages in traditional settings will struggle to learn more than 2000 or 3000 English words. A traditional setting is probably how many of you started learning English – in a classroom in your home country, having lessons a few times a week and doing homework.

In this traditional learning setting, there is little language immersion. You are not encountering or using the language in your usual daily life. By listening to Thinking in English, I know many of you have started to immerse yourselves in English, but it is still a challenge to force yourselves to use English.

One of the more depressing studies I found in a BBC article comes from Taiwan. The researchers discovered that after 9 years of English study at school, half of the students still did not know or could not correctly use the 1000 most frequently used English words.

Focusing on frequently used words is a good strategy for learning. Apparently, once you know around 800 of the most common English word families, you will be able to understand 75% of daily English.

But how? What is the best way to commit English vocabulary memory? What is the best way to remembers all of these different English words and word families?

Well… I can’t give you a simple answer to these questions. What I can do, though, is suggest a few different popular study theories and techniques that have been tested by researchers.

This is an important point – I’m not giving you recommendations based on my personal experience, anecdotes I’ve heard from friends, or from companies sponsoring this episode. In fact, memorising Japanese vocabulary is something I am terrible at doing. I failed a Japanese language exam last year because I scored too low in the vocabulary section (I passed grammar and listening).

Instead, I have searched for established memorisation techniques and applied this information to language learning. My hope is to provide you with a variety of different approaches and for you to try a few of these techniques and discover what works best for you!

Without further ado, let’s take a look at these different study techniques!

The Production Effect

Research has shown that there is a difference in memory between words you remember during silent study and words you remember while reading out loud.

This is the production effect.

If you read out loud, or vocalise, study material, you are more likely to remember that content and will probably have a better quality of memory of it.

In everyday life, we can see examples of the production effect, like students remembering what they said in class better than what they wrote in their notes or actors rehearsing by speaking their lines instead of reading them silently.

I’m sure you have also noticed its effect. I often forget appointments if I simply add them silently to my Google Calendar, but if I talk and confirm an appointment out loud it seems to be more present in my memory.

There are quite a few studies online that you can find about this phenomenon. A 2014 article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology looked at the role of “distinctiveness” in the production effect. In other words, they were interested in whether saying content out loud made that memory distinctive, which is why it is easier to remember.  

Another 2014 article in the Journal of Child Language tested the memory of 5 year olds in different situations, and found that there was a “memory advantage for vocally produced words (‘look and say’) over other types of learning (‘look’, ‘look and listen’), suggesting the PE as a prominent memory and learning tool.” In other words, the production effect works!

Why? Why is reading and speaking out loud such a powerful memory tool?

One theory is that the production effect works so well because you are taking in information and then turning it into a different form of language. You are reading and then speaking out loud.

In fact, a fascinating study I found in the journal Memory found that there are ways you can enhance the production effect. While most people think of the production effect as reading out loud, the study found that if you read out items in a loud voice or sing items the effect is greater.  The more distinctly your “produce” the content you want to remember, the more likely it is you will remember!

How can you incorporate the production effect into your English studying?

When you’re studying English texts, whether they are articles, books, or your own notes, try to read them out loud. This simple act of vocalization helps reinforce your memory of the material.

After reading a passage, summarize what you’ve read in your own words. Try to explain the main points and concepts to yourself or to someone else.

If you have access to recording equipment (like a smartphone), consider recording yourself as you explain and discuss the English content. Then, you can listen to these recordings later to reinforce your memory.

The Leitner System

If you use an online vocabulary learning application, like Memrise or Anki, you will be aware of the idea of spaced repetition. It is a way to prioritise and review words based on how well you know those words.

One of the best-known versions of spaced repetition is the Leitner System.

The Leitner System, also known as the Leitner Box or Leitner Flashcard System, is a widely used method for efficiently learning and retaining information, particularly when studying with flashcards. It was developed by the German psychologist Sebastian Leitner in the 1970s.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Create Flashcards: Start by creating flashcards with questions or prompts on one side and answers or information on the other. These flashcards can be used to study any type of material, but for language learners vocabulary words and phrases are often most popular.
  2. Divide the Flashcards into Boxes: Organize five boxes, labelled “daily”, “every other day”, “weekly”, “biweekly”, and “monthly.” This gives you an indication of how often you need to study the contents of the box.
  3. Review and Test: Start your study session by putting all your flashcards into the daily box. As you review each card, attempt to answer the question or recall the information. If you answer correctly, move the card to the next box (e.g., from the daily box to the “every other day” box). If you answer incorrectly, place the card back into Box 1.
  4. Keep studying: The Leitner system is based on the idea that you will study a little every day. The words and phrases that you struggle to learn will remain in the “daily” practice box, while words that you do learn will gradually move up the boxes.
  5. The Boxes: Let’s imagine you start studying on the first Monday of the month. The flashcards in the daily box will be reviewed every day. The content of the “every other day box” on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; the weekly box every Monday; the biweekly box every other Monday; and the monthly box the first Monday of the month. Now, this might seem a little Monday heavy so you can space out when you review cards – you could choose to review your weekly cards on Tuesdays and your Monthly cards on Sundays. The idea, though, is that through regular practice you will be able to work on the terms you struggle with more than those you are confident in!
  6. Progressive Review: This progressive review system allows you to focus more on the material you find challenging while spending less time on material you’ve already mastered. And by tracking your schedule on a calendar, you will make sure to study as efficiently as possible.
  7. Gradual Advancement: As you become more confident with the material on a flashcard, it will move to higher-numbered boxes. Eventually, cards may reach a box where you no longer need to review them because you have mastered the content.
Zirguezi – Leitner System Alternative – Wikimedia

This system might seem familiar to you. It is the base of many popular vocabulary learning apps out there. I used to use a site called wanikani for learning Japanese vocabulary and they definitely use the Leitner System and spaced repetition.

Importantly, this method works best when you have a lot of time to study. If you are studying for a purpose, perhaps you have an exam soon, you should change the timescale on the boxes (maybe “daily”, “every other day”, “twice a week” etc).

The Leitner System works best for regular and consistent studying and learning and can be a really useful tool for all English learners!

For my Patreon subscribers, I create extended vocabulary lists on the blog. I then use this vocabulary list to make Quizlet flashcards for them to use and embed flashcard study activities into the transcript. On Quizlet, you can use a spaced repetition study system similar to the Leitner system.

Of course, you can make your own Quizlet sets… but by joining Patreon you can try mine out!

The Feynman Method

The Feynman Method is one of my personal favourite study techniques. I have used this technique to study since I was a teenager, before I even knew it was an actual technique.

In its simplest form, the Feynman Method is based on the principle that the best way to learn is to teach.

The technique gets its name from the renowned theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, who believed that studying and learning shouldn’t be about passive memorisation, but active learning. He believed that learning through trial and error, or through free discovery, was the best way to really learn and understand something.

The Feynman Method emphasizes the importance of simplifying and teaching a topic to others as a means of deepening your own understanding.

The Feynman technique has four main steps.
Jono Hey – Sketchplantations

Study Something

Choose what you want to learn and start studying. This technique works with studying anything (Feynman was a theoretical physicist after all), but I’m sure all of you would like to use this for learning English.

Let’s say you want to study this Thinking in English episode. You go over to the transcript, listen and read at the same time, and then take a look at the vocabulary list. If you like, you can also look at the extended vocabulary list I make for my paid subscribers.

You try to learn vocabulary and the ideas that I’m talking about.

Teach Someone Else

Step two is to teach someone else all of the content that you have learned. You can pretend to teach someone else, or teach yourself, but this method works best when you teach someone else or a group of people.

The person you are teaching should give you feedback, interact with you, and ask you questions. They should try to find holes in your knowledge and weaknesses in your understanding.

For example, in the scenario of you studying this Thinking in English episode, you would try to teach others about the Production Effect.

Your friends may ask you “why does reading out loud make it easy to remember vocabulary?” or “what evidence is there for this?”

As they ask you core questions, you will begin to realise that you can’t answer everything. There are holes in your knowledge!

Go Back and Study More

You now know that you have gaps in your knowledge, so you can go back to the source material and focus on the things that you don’t know yet.

The aim here is to build your knowledge in the areas that you struggle most with. By teaching the content to someone else, you become acutely aware of the things that you need to study more about!

In our scenario, you can come back to the episode and listen again, this time focusing on the things you couldn’t teach well to your friends. Maybe you need to take a look at the vocabulary list to make sure you understand the meaning of words, or perhaps you need to check the links to journal articles I have included!

Simplify What You Have Learned

The next step is often the most challenging. You need to simplify everything you have learned!

This might sound a little confusing, but if you can’t explain a topic in simple terms to a non-expert, you don’t really understand the topic yourself. I think Albert Einstein said something similar to that!

The aim of simplifying the content is to help you build a clear understanding. By using simple vocabulary and rephrasing the key ideas, it helps you to deeply internalise all of the concepts.

Break down the content into its simplest form, and then try to teach it again!

How Can You Use The Feynman Method?

Ideally, you would teach the concepts and material you are learning to an interactive audience. Someone who can ask you relevant questions and challenge your understanding.

For those of you learning English right now, you might not have any friends or family who speak English well enough to help you!

What can you do in this situation?

Well, to promote myself again, one of the lesser-known benefits of my Patreon is that you are able to organise and run your own events on my Discord Server!

We often have members organising study events, conversation groups, or more. And I am more than happy for you guys to organise sessions with each other to practice the Feynman Method!

Final Thought

Today I’ve looked at 3 different techniques, methods, and strategies that have been proven to improve your ability to remember content.

The Production Effect suggests that you should read content out loud if you want to really remember it. In fact, singing it or shouting it will have even greater effects.

The Leitner system is a method of spaced repetition designed to make you focus on the material you are weakest with. Many existing vocabulary applications are based on this approach.

And the Feynman Method, a personal favourite, is based on the principle that the best way to learn is to teach.

Hopefully you’ll be able to use these methods to improve your knowledge of English vocabulary and deepen your understanding of English content.

In fact, when researching this episode, I originally planned to talk about 6 different study techniques. If you’d like to see me record a second part to this episode, let me know!

What do you think? Which of these study methods would you like to try?

Extended Vocabulary List

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Vocabulary Games and Activities!

Learn and practice vocabulary from this Thinking in English episode.
Practice using 5 different study games and activities – including writing, listening, and memorisation techniques!

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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