memorizing vocabulary

Memory tricks for vocabulary memorization

What happens when you, as a language teacher, try to teach new vocabulary to your students? Do they absorb whatever you expose them to like a “sponge”? Or forget all those word lists you’ve tried to dig into their head during classroom activities? Although it may seem disappointing, it seems that the second scenario is more plausible (unfortunately the scientific studies also confirm that!). But what should be done to help students to overcome forgetting those exhaustive lists and memorize them for life? As teachers, you could do a better job if you know why forgetting happens in general; Although forgetting begins as soon as learning happens, studies show that there’re several strategies teachers can use to help their students learn brand-new vocabulary.


Why does forgetting happen?

Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve showed us that the human brain cannot retain information by reading and learning just once: In his experiments, he discovered that information is quickly forgotten—roughly %56 in one hour, %66 after a day, and %75 after six days.

What has changed from Ebbinghaus’s discovery is a shift in the metaphors used to describe “memory”. Humans always tried to compare the mysterious mind to the most complex technologies of their times: from a hydraulics system, pumping the humour (in ancient Greek), mechanical clock (in 18th century) or electric wires or phone lines (early 20th century) to modern computers or smartphones; In all cases, forgetting considered to be a curse for the human mind, its inability to hold information.

More recent studies have demonstrated that unlike the predominant view of memory, the main goal of memory is not storage of information, but to “optimize decision making” in a chaotic and ever-evolving environment; In such an approach, forgetting is a strategy to filter out unnecessary information that doesn’t promote the survival of the species. The authors believe that  forgetting is not a curse, “rather it may represent an investment in a more optimal mnemonic strategy.”

What neuropsychologists recommend to overcome the forgetting curve?

Memories, from the neuropsychology viewpoint, are more like spiderwebs, a complicated network of neurons; When you teach a new vocabulary to your students it’s encoded across this neural network. In order to avoid memory leaks and strengthen the synaptic connections, researchers come up with two solutions:

  1. If the neurons are frequently fired, the stronger the synaptic connections will get; and the less they’re fired, the sooner they will fade away.  (source). Simply put, “practice makes perfect”.
  1. The more connections neurons have to other neurons, the stronger the memory. Consider two sets of letters:



 For English-speaking individuals, remembering the first set of letters is way easier than the second set. So when a word has more preexisting meaningful connections with other words, it will be retained more easily.

What teachers could do to enhance students’ synaptic connections?

  1. Spaced-repetition of learned material

After Ebbinghaus, cognitive studies suggested that “regular revision of information would be much more optimal than ‘massed’ study (all at once).” They proposed that revision with gradually increasing intervals would be the best way to overcome the natural rate of forgetting. Spaced repetition is a method of reviewing information at systematic intervals. At the beginning of the learning process, the information is reviewed at close intervals (in hours after learning), then the intervals become systematically longer. (3 days, one week, 2 weeks, etc.). Spaced repetition involves the active recall of information once in a while to ensure it’s not forgotten yet.

  1. Frequent practice tests

Giving regular practice tests can boost students’ vocabulary retention as well as protect against stress. Giving low stake regular tests over several months can be an effective way to enhance memory performance based on some scholars (Adesope, Trevisan, & Sundararajan, 2017; Butler, 2010; Karpicke, 2016)

  1. Feynman technique

It’s simply stated that the best way to learn information is to teach it; Ask students to explain to peers what new words they’ve just learned; This strategy increases retention and is the best way to consolidate new words into long-term memory.

  1. Take advantage of the superiority effect of pictures

According to dual coding theory, knowledge about concrete and physical objects is encoded in long-term memory both as units of word-like concepts and in terms of images while information about abstract entities is encoded just verbally. This theory originally was developed to account for the effect of verbal vs non-verbal entities on memory.

The interaction of two coding systems (verbal and visual) results in better recall of information. In this view, concreteness and context are the main factors in vocabulary learning and pictures have value in providing cues to word identity. Sufficient contextual information such as videos, images, and audios will help learners sort the information in visual representations for each word. So, using both verbal contexts and imagery in the direct learning of vocabulary definitions can be a highly effective combination. Some direct instructional techniques that apply imagery such as self-generated imagery, illustrations, or the keyword method have proven effective in vocabulary learning.

  1. Word associations

Teachers could activate learners’ passive words by relating them with their synonyms, antonyms connotations, and super-ordination.) and use them in sentences.

  1. Word questioning

This method is related to critical thinking. Teachers can provide word questioning graphics to teach the words which will help learners to learn vocabulary by defining, analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, and finally by application.

  1. Using WordUp

WordUp both can be used by individual learners and in a class under a teacher’s supervision. Teachers can get ideas about what to teach or how to teach and they can identify their students’ needs better. Teachers can take advantage of the same procedure WordUp uses in introducing new words; They can watch movies, TV shows and listen to songs together and learn related vocabulary in the best way possible. These group experiences will lead to a “flipped learning” environment which helps learners to communicate, share and consolidate their fragmented vocabulary knowledge.