How many different ways to spell Muhammad

Ten strategies for learning vocabulary sustainably

For years I have been concerned with the question of how people learn vocabulary in a foreign language. Among other things, we have compiled a wide selection of tips, exercises and studies on the topic here in the vocabulary blog for over three years. In mid-August I had the opportunity to apply the bundled knowledge again in a completely new context - my daughter is now in the fifth grade at the grammar school. The English lessons that were previously at the elementary school, which were rather comfortable, have since given way to a tight schedule, sometimes she has to learn pages of vocabulary from one week to the next.

On the part of the school there is little guidance and support on how the children should proceed. So I tried to find out what works best for her. And since I hear that learning large amounts of vocabulary also worries other families, I have put together ten practical tips that have proven to be not only useful, but also family-friendly. I would be happy if more teachers would take the time to give the children a few of these tips and methods to take with them.

1. You have to feel good

Our brains don't work very well under pressure. That is why a relaxed learning atmosphere is more than just a nice-to-have. Preparing for learning includes: finding a bright, comfortable place to study, eliminating disruptive factors and disorder. Ideally, learning preparation becomes a ritual over time, which also signals to the brain: You will be given new food in a moment, get ready.

2. Plan the learning duration and workload

Every word takes time. Ten words a day (which is a lot over a long period of time!) Stay in the brain more easily than 70 at a time on the weekend. Another advantage of setting a clear workload for each exercise unit: At some point the goal will be achieved and the learning for that day will be over. If you don't do that, the entire set of vocabulary appears like a bottomless pit. And that creates unhealthy pressure (see tip no. 1). Repetitions should also be planned in, because even super-brains have to come across words several times in order to learn them sustainably. If there are a day or two between repetitions, there is a good chance that the terms will remain in the brain for a long time.

3. It's better with music

Most people know this experience: At first we cannot remember a song text, but as soon as the first sounds and words are heard, everything is suddenly there again. The reason for this is the curious ability of our brains to store long word sequences in one piece. This works particularly well when the text follows a rhythm or melody. And therein lies a great - and far too seldom used - potential for learning vocabulary. When we put a melody on sentences with new vocabulary, it is much, much easier to remember them. In order, for example, to link personal pronouns with their respective possessive companions, my daughter wrote sample sentences on the chants of the Fridays for Future demos ("Coal companies - digging in the distance ..."): I am in my house. You are in your house. - and so on. Anyone who thinks they are not so melodic can rap too. If you dance to it, it also creates movement while learning. Speaking of sound: studies show that we better remember words that we hear from different speakers. If ten different native speakers are not available at the moment, you have to do it yourself: Simply speak in a disguised voice. This is fun and - according to my empirically untested experience - also helps a little.

4. Dealing with the word form

The really new thing about new vocabulary is the word form. The meaning is usually already known to us, you just have to link it to the word. In other words: Anyone who learns the word "dog" usually already knows what a dog is. Therefore, learning the word form should first be in the foreground. To do this, you have to deal with it - any form of intellectual examination of the sound of words and the sequence of characters helps. In the case of “dog”, this could be the proximity to the German “mastiff” or a mental image of a dog eating a hot dog. Spell backwards, paint a picture of the word in which each letter looks like a dog, find rhyming words - everything is allowed and serves as a memory aid for the brain.

5. First understand, then produce yourself

Before children produce their first words in their mother tongue, they have received linguistic input for many months. This sequence also applies when learning a foreign language: only after sufficient input can we move on to language production. Therefore it makes sense to first deal with the language direction foreign language - German and to read and hear the new vocabulary several times. Only when the words have arrived in the brain is the moment to reverse the direction of the language and produce the newly learned vocabulary yourself.

6. Inventing communicative mini-exercises

Evolution did not develop our brains to learn vocabulary for school. Its tremendous language learning ability should enable us to communicate with other people. Therefore, what is useful for communication is kept. As soon as the word form is known (but only then!), Self-conceived communicative mini-exercises can help ensure that the words are not only available in query mode, but also for communication. The English textbooks provide inspiration for exercises. Role plays, small dialogues or draft emails - for example to an imaginary friend in Great Britain - are also suitable as initial fields of application.

7. Use mistakes as a learning opportunity

No matter how well the learning goes - it doesn't work without mistakes. Fortunately, our brains have a built-in correction function: we learn particularly well from mistakes. For example like this: All the vocabulary that is not yet correct are put on a “cheat sheet”. This is then deposited in the adjoining room. If it's your turn in the next round of questions, you can go to the next room and look at the cheat sheet. The note remains in the next room - so the vocabulary must be kept at least for the way back. Most of the time, with this method, it remains in the memory for a long time. Incidentally, studies show that no attempt to retrieve a vocabulary from the brain is in vain: Even failed attempts smear the wiring to the vocabulary, so to speak.

8. Practice in pairs

Whether classmates, siblings or parents: With a "sparring partner" there are more opportunities to practice vocabulary in a variety of ways. For example, two different forms of queries and communicative exercises are possible. In addition, exercise partners can give immediate feedback. And finally, it can also be helpful for your own learning if you think up exercises for others.

9. Flash card learning - also digitally

Learning vocabulary with flashcards has many advantages. Above all, words that have already been mastered can be separated from words still to be learned, and the order can be varied. But the classic cardboard index cards also have a few disadvantages: Making them is stupid hard work, and those who tend to chaos will quickly lose track of the many stacks of cards scattered around their home and satchel. The principle can also be implemented with technical aids, such as the favorites function of electronic dictionaries or, for example, with the Phase 6 app. It offers a virtual vocabulary card index on smartphones, tablets or computers. It is particularly practical that the vocabulary of all common textbooks can be bought as ready-made index cards and sorted according to teaching units (approx. 10 euros per textbook).

10. Also learn grammar like vocabulary

A widespread conception of foreign language learning distinguishes between vocabulary and grammar. In this understanding, the words are the content ingredients of the language, while the grammar provides the building instructions to put the words together into meaningful sentences. This view belies how deeply grammar and vocabulary are interwoven. After all, children learn their mother tongue grammar exclusively through communicative input and not through lengthy explanations. This can also be applied to foreign language classes. Knowing grammar rules is important and helpful. In order to be able to apply them, it is useful to learn example sentences such as vocabulary. For example, if you know that “it's raining” means “it's raining” in English, you don't have to first call up the entire “Present progressive” chapter in your brain. If you follow this approach consistently, the brain will receive enough food over time to use the grammar correctly even after the memory of the associated rule has long since faded.


Featured image: pressmaster | Adobe Stock

About Alexandra Mankarios

Studied language teaching research, journalist and privately a real language fan: Speaks four languages ​​fluently and has taught two. Enthusiastic about semantics and would like to open her own mental lexicon one day.

Keywords:Homework, learning strategies, study, keeping vocabulary, learning vocabulary