How to best remember new words

DaVinci   Friday, October 01, 2004, 21:26 GMT

I am trying to find the most time-efficient and flexible way of learning and memorising English material (words, collocations etc.) whilst applying insights of psychology and all types of modern technology such as:

desktop and mobile computers, electronic dictionaries, mp3 players, dvd players, learning software, learning techniques, the internet etc.

As far as I understand - please correct me if I am wrong - there are, by and large, 3 crucial key areas to speed up the learning and memorisation process/ flow tremendously:

1. Learning Attitude
A constantly high level of motivation seems to be the optimum
(see also

2. Preparation Process
Optimum: Preparing of to-be-memorised material in a specific way
(see also

3. Repetition Process
Optimum: Repeating of to-be-memorised material whilst applying a flashcard like training system.
(one very interesting article about the process of forgetting and memorising I found on

In this topic I want to concentrate on the repetition process - when and how material should ideally be repeated.

According to my research on the internet I basically found 5 different types of flashcard systems:

The simplest solution:
ordinary flashcards with no built-in schedule - the user has to do everything him/herself when and how often to repeat which words etc.

Solution number 2:
Flashcard programmes with an automatic scheduling facility - based on how difficult a word etc. is (which is being determined by the learner) the best time for repetition will be set automatically. According to tests a programme called VTrain seems to be the best of choices.

Solution number 3:
Flashcard systems that are part of language courses like Steve's method "The Linguist". As far as I understand in this case a course teacher determines, based on a fixed time intervall, when and how often words etc. should be repeated.

Solution 4:
"Intelligent" flashcard programmes that do all the optimum scheduling for the learner: the time when and which words etc. have to be ideally learned is based on how well the learner remembered them last time. Supermemo seems to be the only and therefore most efficient programme in this category.

Solution 5:
In my view the most sophisticated programmes I've found so far are called MemAid and FullRecall which work the same way as Supermemo in doing all the optimum scheduling. However, and in contrast to Supermemo, MemAid and FullRecall seem to be able to "learn" and somehow correct themselves: by applying newly calculated, optimised repetition intervalls based on the unique learning behaviour of each particular learner which might be very different to the standard learner.

Unfortunately all of the above mentioned systems are not very flexible solutions - if you don't have access to your desktop computer you are more or less lost. What do you do eg. when you are on holiday or are simply away for a while? I believe being able to transfer flashcard programmes onto mobile computers would be ideal for these purposes:

Being able to memorise material not just at the right time but also wherever you are!

What hands-on experience with time-efficient and flexible memorisation methods, including the above mentioned ones, do you have?

Msxmanic   Saturday, October 02, 2004, 04:21 GMT
You could buy a lot of English books with all the money you're spending on hardware and software.
Steve K   Saturday, October 02, 2004, 04:35 GMT
You have to learn words and phrases in context. Go to
soni   Saturday, October 02, 2004, 09:01 GMT
If, for example, I find to many difficult words when reading a news online. What should I do best? Just stop reading it?

I am trying to read about the debate between Bush and Kerry at The way the journalist(s) wrote the report, especially the use of English words on the report, has made me to turn to read another website. Again, I failed to read an article written at
Mxsmanic   Saturday, October 02, 2004, 09:51 GMT
There's a threshold below which there are so many unknown words in a text that it becomes unpleasant to try to read it. If you are reaching this threshold with sites like, you might try sites that use smaller vocabularies, if possible.

If you are above the threshold, look up any words that really leave you unable to figure out the sentence, and try to figure out other words from context. Later, if you have time, try to look up all the words about which you are unsure. This will help you build vocabulary, little by little.

Remember that there are free English dictionaries online, at, for example.
Boy   Saturday, October 02, 2004, 12:09 GMT
<<If, for example, I find to many difficult words when reading a news online. What should I do best? Just stop reading it?>>

I can share my experience with you as an ESL. I started reading articles on the net with only a handful basic vocabulary words. I used to encounter like 7-8 new words in one piece of article but later it came down to 2-3 words. The best way I can suggest you is, follow slow reading, pay attention at how words are connected each other. Also, STOP READING, when you see a new word, look it up and move on to the next line. It is much more satisfying to read one piece of article after looking up many words in the article because you GAIN ALOT.

Personally, I notice that if you look up words, and keep reading and listening in the language, you'll encounter same vocabulary words again and this time you'll understand them and they'll be reinforced to your brain memory. The ratio of exposure is very important in order to retain the new words. It is only possible if you keep reading and listening on a regular basis.

I used to subscribe one or two ESl newsletters. They suggested that "If you make 5 sentences of each new word, It'll help you to retain that word." For knowing how far this assessment is true, you have to give it a shot and taste the final outcome by yourself. This is just my personal opinion, anyway.
DaVinci   Saturday, October 02, 2004, 12:53 GMT
@Mxsmanic: If you have to buy everything new such as computers, software etc. you are definitely right. Leaving the financial aspect aside, I am more interested in your hands-on experience with time-efficient memorising:

When you learned/learn new words, expressions etc. in a foreign language - what is your most efficient method of keeping them in your mind permanently? How do you retain as many newly learned expressions as possible with the least necessary amount of reviews?

@Steve K: I fully agree that learning foreign words etc. in context is crucial for a deeper understanding of the usage and as such very beneficial for a better retention rate.

But what about your real world experience with optimised recalling/consecutive reviewing? I mean, what did/do you and your students do in order to keep as much as what you've just learned in mind with the least possible expenditure of time?
Mxsmanic   Saturday, October 02, 2004, 13:33 GMT
Retention is greatly enhanced if you use and reread new words several times within the first hours and days following your initial encounter. This implies that you should read a lot, in order to increase the likelihood of seeing new words more than once over short periods, and it implies that you should try to write or speak using the new words whenever you can.

You can cover just about all daily conversation with a vocabulary of 1500 words or so. Indeed, all the works of Shakespeare combined used only about this many words.

New words fall along a sort of exponential curve. Some words are encountered several times per minute, others may be encountered only once in a lifetime. The words you need most are also the words you encounter the most, and they are the ones you'll naturally tend to memorize first. The words you need the least are rarely encountered, and while you probably won't remember unless you see them at least a few times or try to memorize them explicitly, it doesn't matter much because you probably won't see them again, anyway.

One thing that I believe wastes a lot of time is vocabulary-building exercises. Just looking at lists or artificial reading selections doesn't do much for vocabulary. You have to see the words multiple times over at least a few days in order to commit them to memory. And they must be useful words, not just any words.

Because of the above-mentioned distribution of vocabulary, you tend to learn the most new words fairly early in your study of a language. Thereafter, vocabulary growth continues forever, but at an ever slower pace (all else being equal). This growth precisely matches the pattern of vocabulary encounters. You learn the most common words first, and the least common words last, automatically.
Steve K   Saturday, October 02, 2004, 16:06 GMT
Here is what we do in The Linguist. Perhaps other systems do the same.

1) The learner reads on his computer screen. Ideally this is text with audio (whatever the source, including The Linguist Library of authentic content) or simply selected texts from online newspapers and specialized sites on the web. These texts are saved into the learners files in the system.

2) the learner looks up new words using our online dictionary and saves the word.

3) Saved words are automatically put into the learner's database.

4) All sentences in the learners personal files of saved content that contain the saved words are automatically collected in the learner's database. The more you read, the more example sentences you have of sentences from your reading and listening that contain these new words. The learner is told to listen and read the same content over and over.

5) The learner must test her knowledge of saved words daily from cloze tests of these saved words. In other words, sentences containing these words are chosen at random. The saved word is blank and there is a drop-down list of words to choose from.

6) As she tests correctly, the frequency with which these saved words appear for daily review is reduced. After seven times the words are considered known.

7) Words that the learner does not save are considered known. So the system counts each learner's number of known words. As a result, each time the learner selects a content item in The Linguist Library or on the web, the learner is told how many new words there are for him. These new words are listed.

8) You can create and print print custom lists of saved words based on various criteria, the article where you found them, the last so many days, the suffix, prefix, root etc.

9) You can take the printed list of words and then deliberatly use them in writing submissions which are corrected within 12-24 hours.

10) the same process takes place with phrases, which are in some ways more important then words. In fact the learner is encouraged to save a phrase when she saves a word.

11) When the writing is corrected, the learner receives a detailed analysis of mistake types, but more important, he receives correct phrases to replace his mistakes. These new phrases can be entered into the phrase database.

12) Before starting, the learner sets her own goal of words and phrases to learn and statistics are automatically generated tracking the learner's progress.Thus the learner can deliberately increase his vocabularly of words and phrases which is a useful measure of language competence.
Achab   Sunday, October 03, 2004, 05:55 GMT
Hello DaVinci. How are MemAid and Fullrecall better than Supermemo for you? How do they study a given user’s learning behaviour and act upon it??

Any other people in here tried those two pieces of software?

Best wishes,
Steve K   Sunday, October 03, 2004, 06:40 GMT

You said

"You can cover just about all daily conversation with a vocabulary of 1500 words or so. Indeed, all the works of Shakespeare combined used only about this many words."

This is very misleading.

I do not know about Shakespeare, but I do know that in most content in English the most frequent 1000 words account for 70-80% of the content. But that usually means that the most important words in any content are relatively low frequency words, which therefore are difficult to learn. But make no mistake, to be functionally literate in many situations, you actually need a lot of words. If you want to enjoy reading the newspapers, magazines and books, you need lots of words.

A 14 year old child apparently knows 14,000 words English. A university graduate might know 50,000. With a great deal of specializaton, a non-native speaker who wants to work in English as an academic or professional needs over 10,000 words.

Therefore a systematic approach to vocabulary acquisition is key to langauge learning. Much more important than theoretical discussions of grammar. Hence our system.
Mi5 Mick   Sunday, October 03, 2004, 07:26 GMT
>>You can cover just about all daily conversation with a vocabulary of 1500 words or so. Indeed, all the works of Shakespeare combined used only about this many words.<<

Ah, but Mxsmanic means all the works of Marie-Claire Shakespeare, the budding novelist who learned all her English from cereal packets. :0
Mxsmanic   Sunday, October 03, 2004, 09:12 GMT
Children acquire their vocabularies without any "systematic approach." The best way to improve vocabulary is to use the language.
Mi5 Mick   Sunday, October 03, 2004, 11:19 GMT
But adults don't have the luxury of being or behaving like children.
DaVinci   Sunday, October 03, 2004, 11:40 GMT

MemAid and FullRecall are far superior to Supermemo in the way they calculate the next optimum point of time when to best review new vocabulary.

Each person is different when it comes to forgetting and remembering. There are students with a "good memory" who are able to keep things forever with very little review, others have a bad memory and need to review regularely. As a result their optimum repetition intervalls are very different.

However, Supermemo doesn't take these very different abilities and needs into account. Instead (as far as i know), it assumes that every learner is a "bad learner". As such each learner will have the same repetition intervall - its underlying algorithm is hardwired - but which might not be very efficient if you are a better/different learner.

MemAid's and FullRecall's approach are, in my view, much more realistic and simply much better:

these programmes take into account that there exist very different types of learner as described above who need different optimum repetition intervalls. When reviewing new words and by "telling" the programmes how well/bad they did the learner reveal more and more which type of learner they really are. After this feedback the programmes are able to adapt and optimise their underlying repetition intervalls if necessary.

Achab, I haven't tried the programmes myself yet, but would also be very much interested in people who can tell about their hands-on experience.