Think about your experiences with learning words in a new language? How did you do it? Many people just white knuckle it and straight up memorize them with flashcards or something similar through various rote memorization techniques. But, is it the best way?
Keep on reading to find out more details about rote memorization. We’ll also answer the question about whether or not students should use this technique for vocabulary acquisition.
What is Rote Memorization?
According to Wikipedia, rote memorization is:
“Rote learning is a memorization technique based on repetition. The idea is that one will be able to quickly recall the meaning of the material the more one repeats it. Some of the alternatives to rote learning include meaningful learning, associative learning, and active learning.”
Rote Memorization: Kind of Out of Favour These Days
It seems that straight up memorization of a language is a bit out of vogue these days with things like the audio-lingual method going out of fashion. These days, things like communicative language teaching and extensive reading are all the rage. In these newer methods, there is almost no emphasis on rote learning. Instead, it’s all about negotiating meaning between communicators or simply learning new words through repeated exposure.
However, I would argue that there is still a place in language learning for rote memorization and that it is necessary, especially for something like vocabulary.
Paul Nation: Rote Memorizing and Vocabulary Acquisition
I went to a couple sessions at a Kotesol conference a few years back with Paul Nation, who is generally considered to be the expert on vocabulary acquisition. The one thing that resonated with me deeply and has stuck with me since then was his emphasis on rote memorization of vocabulary as an essential part of learning another language.
He mentioned that rote memorization is a great strategy to use because it’s quick, easy and effective. My own experience shows this as well. I’ve just “picked up” very few words naturally along the way. The ones I still remember after all these years are the ones I made flashcards for and memorized.
Along with rote memorization, he’s also an advocate of extensive reading as a way to learn new vocabulary. You can learn more about his thoughts here:
My Own Experience with Rote Memorization
From my own experience in studying Korean and Greek, I understood intuitively what he meant when he said that. I’ve picked up some Korean words simply by being exposed to it so often that it’d be impossible to not remember it. Hello, here, thank you, it’s okay. I knew the Korean word by sound even before I knew the meaning of them.
Think about something like parts of the body though. You’re not going to be exposed to enough of these words to remember them without some dedicated study time. There are numerous other examples of important, but not that frequent words in any language that must simply be memorized.
Most of my vocabulary acquisition in Korea came through flashcards—what I know of Greek was done exclusively this way. The videos I watch or the books I study seem like grains of sand slipping through my fingers in a lot of ways and I will remember words I pick up through them briefly, but they’re not really in my brain permanently and they’re hard to access it quickly. It seems that those words I’ve studied with flashcards are the ones that I can recall instantly when needed.
Rote Memorizing and Teaching in South Korea
I got my start teaching in South Korea by working at hagwons which are basically cram schools for kids before moving up to teaching at universities. At the hagwons, the Korean teachers were generally responsible for helping students acquire new vocabulary.
To this end, students had weekly vocab lists that they had to take home and memorize and then there would be a small test on these words each week. The words generally came from the ESL textbooks we were using in class so the students would be exposed to these new words there as well. However, the bulk of the work fell onto the students who had to use rote memorization to a large degree.
The results? Quite good. Most students did indeed learn a bunch of new words on a weekly basis. They were certainly motivated to some degree by the test! And because the words came from the textbooks which did a decent job of recycling vocabulary (bringing them back into readings or listening in later chapters), it seemed that students retained them reasonably well.
What about English Learners and Rote Memorizing?
How can we help our students learn new vocabulary words Is it enough to expose them repeatedly to the same words and hope they pick them up? Is it useful for students to explore and discover the words they want to learn through communicative language activities? Maybe we start an extensive reading or listening program and expose them to new words this way.
Or, is there a place for rote memorization? That’s a great question and certainly one that all language teachers have to consider for themselves. This is because there is on single theory for how people learn languages. There are a lot of questions and theories related to language acquisition but not many definitely answers unfortunately.
Need some ESL Vocabulary Activities?
If you’re looking for some ESL vocabulary games and activities that’ll help your students learn, use and retain new English words, then you’ll need to check out this book over on Amazon:
39 ESL Vocabulary Activities: For Teenagers and Adults.
The way I use these vocabulary activities are as follows. I assign words for students to memorize for homework, and then have little quizzes in class on it.
Then, to reinforce these words and work more on context with them, I use a variety of activities. This helps them to “stick” because it’s easy to forget a word you’ve memorized for a test if you don’t use it.
The book is available in both digital and print formats. Keep a copy on the bookshelf in your office as a handy reference guide. Or, take a copy with you on your phone or tablet for lesson planning on the go.
It really is that easy. Learn more about the book on Amazon:
Have your Say about Using Rote Memorizing for New Vocabulary Words
Do you have any tips or tricks for helping students with vocabulary and are you a fan of rote memorizing? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think. We’d love to hear from you.
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