Learning English with Spaced Repetition Programs

Learning English requires organisation. Successfully acquiring new words, phrases, or even grammatical structures can be a long process. Traditionally, I have always advised my students to keep a vocabulary book, writing down new words and phrases as they come across them. The act of recording words and phrases helps greatly in memorising them. However, the process of reviewing the vocabulary in the book is a more difficult habit to acquire.

When, for example, should you review the vocabulary you learnt last class? And what about the phrasal verbs you copied down from the last magazine article you read. Should you still be revising them? Worse still, what do you do about those occasions when you have learnt everything from one unit of your course but there are just a few stubborn phrases that you cannot seem to commit to memory?

Spaced Repetition software (SRS), freely available on the internet, takes care of this process for you. Such programs allow you to create a series of flash cards with your target vocabulary, grammar, phrases (or anything really) for review later. Then, when you elect to study your “deck”, after each card most SRS programs allow you to indicate whether you (a) know the vocabulary shown on it well, (b) know the content quite well but feel you need to review it again, or (c) need to review the card again soon in order to commit the content to memory. Based on your classification of each item, the program will schedule to show you the card again, with the time between each card’s appearance getting progressively longer.

In my own learning of Spanish, I have found SRS to be invaluable. Furthermore, my English students have benefited greatly from such organisational tools. Many of them have incorporated the study of 50 flash cards per day into their study regime and the results have been impressive with particularly visible results in the size of their vocabulary and, in the case of our exam students, we have seen huge improvements in their use of written structures, phrasal verbs and acquisition of fixed expressions.

There are several providers of Flashcard SRS out there, many of them open source, therefore free to download. The one I am most familiar with, therefore confident in recommending, is Anki. Once downloaded, you can create and edit your own deck, in fully customisable fashion. One of the great things about Anki is that it offers a wealth of shared decks, which are already written for you, including SRS versions of Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use to name but one.

Why not try using SRS now, or if you are a teacher, try getting your student to record their new vocabulary in this way. I often spend an entire class giving a tutorial on SRS and, I can assure you it is always worth the time.

Don’t forget to let us know how you get on by posting your comments below.

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