Sunday, February 15, 2009

How to let your students remember vocabulary and grammar in an effective way

Today's guestpost is written by Ramses, who has his own blog called Spanish-Only.com about learning Spanish as a second language having fun and not worrying about grammar rules.

As a teacher in training (Spanish as a foreign language), I'm always looking for ways to help my students remember vocabulary and grammatical structures. Going to college myself, I had to Spanish from the very beginning, with just a little bit of help from my professors. Still, the advices they gave me to study grammar and vocabulary led to nothing: after three months I still wasn't speaking a word of Spanish, although I was already getting massive amounts of input. The problem? I couldn't remember all those weird words and phrases.

Many teachers (teaching a foreign language) give their students word lists to memorize and loose chunks of grammar. They make three big mistakes:
1) They give single words; without a context a word doesn't say much. A word like haber or que in Spanish can mean so much, that it's impossible to learn it out of context. Everything has to be learned in context, not only because it makes thing clearer, but also because it's generally easier to remember a sentence that means something for you than one loose word with many meanings that doesn't say you anything.
2) They don't tell their students how to memorize the words. This often results in rote memorization, which in turn results in a nice test outcome, but won't stay in the student's head for long. Even if a teacher gives attention to memorization techniques, these techniques often don't work well and include things like: learning the list back and forth, making groups of 5 to 7 words and learn them by heart before moving on, making thematical sets of words (verbs with verbs, nouns with nouns, etc.).
3) They let their students learn loose chunks of grammar. This is really dangerous! I know, many teacher swear by grammar instruction, but ask yourself a question: are my students even slightly fluent after they went to my classes? The answer is probably NO. Telling people how the language function in order to speak, is like telling someone how to build a car in order to learn how to drive. Theory is nice and all, but we should concentrate on meaningful input with as goal meaningful output.

So, when I began majoring Spanish in college, I started looking for alternatives to memorize, and, (more important) remember vocabulary. That's when I discovered Anki. Anki isn't the only program out there to remember things; software like SuperMemo and Mnemosyne does the same, but Anki is the most famous and most complete (in my opinion) out there. Still, I don't use it to memorize single words (see point 1), but "learn" (remember is a better word actually) whole sentences. It's not that amazing how I go over learning a new sentence (which contains at least one new vocabulary item and never more than 3, depending on the size of the sentence): I put the Spanish sentence in the question field and the (in my case) Dutch translation in the answer field. Nothing more, nothing less. Actually, I'm now at the point I only put the Spanish definitions of unknown words in the answer field.

Applications for Education
Spaced Repetition Systems can help your students, and how you can work with them in class. In the first place, the most ideal way for students to learn a sentence (and with that sentence the vocabulary and the grammar, but in an inductive way) is by simply learning (memorizing) the sentence and understanding all its components. After that, the student will add the sentence to Anki (or any other SRS) and the translation to the answer field. With Anki there's also an option to share sentences and decks, but it's important that the student knows the sentence upfront (before seeing it while doing the SRS repetitions).

Then there's still the case of testing. Personally, I don't like standarized tests, but most of us need to limit ourselves to a specific curriculum. So, to avoid losing your job but still using an SRS like Anki you could pick out sentences you gave students and test their knowledge. These tests could consist of translation from Spanish to English or to explain certain parts of the sentence. Never go from English to Spanish; there are too many ways to translate an English sentence into Spanish, it's just too error prone.