Remember vocabulary for longer: spaced repetition

When teaching students English, I often find that they have difficulty when trying to remember new vocabulary that they encounter. Oftentimes they’ll hear or read a new word, and five minutes later try to remember the word and it never comes. They start frantically looking in the dictionary for the same word five or ten times before it becomes fixed in their mind.

Recently I have been using the technique of spaced repetition to help them remember in a much more effective and long-lasting way.


The concept is simple. As you can see in the table above, new information is learnt and forgotten over a relatively predictable period of time. The first time we see new information (vocabulary, for example), we forget it very quickly. Look at the red curve. This represents the first time learning a new item. The line falls sharply as we forget within less than a day! The second time we see that same information, we remember for slightly longer. The third time, for much longer, and by the fourth and fifth time the information enters into our long-term memory. However, results are assured by an important idea. The key is to review information at the moment that we start forget. Given that we remember for longer periods after each repetition, we can review the vocabulary less frequently, and after a longer wait.

Imagine we are learning the word “monkey”.


1st encounter: On day 1, we learn the word.

1st repetition: After  10 minutes, review the word.

2nd repetition: Review again after 1 day.

3rd repetition: Review after 5 days.

4th repetition: Review after 25 days.

5th repetition: After 4 months.

6th repetition: After 2 years.

This seems quite difficult. How are we supposed to remember which day to practice which word? How many times have I seen the word? The best solution I have found so far it to use a free program called Anki. To be clear, I don’t work for Anki, I just think the software they have created is simple and effective, and have found it incredibly useful for my classes and my own learning too.

Anki allows you to enter new vocabulary, it remembers when you last practised a word, how well you remembered it, and then lets you practise according to this information. At first, it seems a bit complicated to use, so here’s a simple guide.

Get a copy of Anki by downloading it at the website –

When you open to programme, click ‘Create Deck’ at the bottom.


Give your Deck a name. You could call it ‘English Vocabulary’, for example.

The Deck will appear on the main screen – click it!

At the top, click ‘Add’.


On the back, enter the new vocabulary that you want to learn. I like to put mine in context so that it makes more sense to me. You can even add a picture as a hint, and customize the fonts with colour.

On the front, put the clue for the word, a synonym or translation.

Press ‘Add’ when you’re done.


Repeat until you have as many words as you want to practice for the day and press ‘Close’.

Hooray, you can now start studying. Press ‘Study Now’ to begin.

You should see your first flash card. Can you remember the word?

When you remember the answer, or if you can’t remember at all, press ‘Show Answer’. The answer, with your visual clues will appear on the screen. If you didn’t know the answer, press ‘Again’, if it was relatively easy, press ‘Good’, and you knew it instantly, press ‘Easy’.


Continue until you see this message:


The next time you open Anki, the program will remember which words you wanted to repeat, and which you found easy, and will test you accordingly!

The thing I love most about Anki is that it allows you to learn the language that is relevant to your learning. Apps like DuoLingo do something similar to Anki in that they occasionally use spaced repetition, but they are not customizable, and will teach you the word someone else decided that you need. In my opinion, it is much better to learn the words that you know that you want to learn, and Anki lets you do it with ease.

Good luck with the new technique! You can leave comments below or on the Facebook page with feedback about your experience, and ask me any questions about Anki or other learning techniques.

For more tips sign up to my free weekly mailing list, or contact me today to start your English classes with 50% off the first lesson.


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