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Sentence items vs. definition-word items

Sentence items have important advantages over definition-word items:

They’re easy to review

With definition-word items, you read a definition and you need to say the word which matches the definition. This is often difficult. For example, you may say another word which means the same thing (a synonym). Or the definition may be unclear and you won’t say anything. With sentence items, you just try to understand an English sentence. There are no problems with synonyms, because a sentence normally has only one meaning (you can understand it in only one correct way).

They’re easy to make

Suppose you’re adding a word-definition item, and there are already similar words in your collection. What do you do? If you don’t want to confuse the words, you will have to do something. For example, you may have to put all the synonyms in one item. This means you have to edit other items in your collection. This takes time. Because a sentence has only one meaning, you never have to worry about the rest of your collection. You can add items fast, one after another.

They’re more natural

In a definition-word item, your task is to come up with the right word when you see its definition. The problem is, you can know a word very well and be able to use it naturally in sentences, and still fail to say it when you see its definition.

Why? First of all, it’s not always easy to understand a definition. Definitions can be too general, unclear or ambiguous. Even if the definition is completely accurate, the “correct” word may not occur to you, despite the fact that you use it every day without any problems.

Take a look at this definition:

a number of pieces of paper fastened together and fixed inside a cover of stronger paper or cardboard

It’s not immediately obvious that the definition describes something as simple as a book. If you showed it to a native speaker, they might not give the correct answer, even though they know the word very well.

The point of the above is that you don’t need to know a word’s definition in order to use it correctly. You can just develop an intuitive knowledge of when a given word can be used (in what situations and with what other words) by reading and listening to English sentences, as native speakers do.

Another point is that learning a word’s definition does not guarantee that you will be able to use it correctly. After all, the meaning is only half of the picture — you also need to know how the word connects with other words. It is hard to learn this from a definition.

Definition-word items are a lot like crossword puzzles. They require a lot of effort, but most of the effort is not related to actual English skills that you need in real life. As a result, they are not that effective and they are definitely not necessary for success.

On the other hand, sentence items involve reading real English sentences, which is an excellent, natural way to learn new words — not just their meanings, but also their usage. You simply cannot go wrong with input.