Vocabulary retention can be a battle for teachers and learners alike. We teach more and more vocabulary every day, but when the students’ final test comes around, or when they come back to class after the weekend, they seem to have forgotten everything they have learnt - why?
The answer is the ways in which learners retain the words that they learn. Learning, memorising and retaining vocabulary are very different processes, and in order to say that our students have truly acquired the language we teach, it needs to be embedded in their long-term functional memory. In other words, they have to be able to use the words and phrases they learn independently at any time after they study them in class. So how can we ensure that we are giving our learners the type of instruction which will help them to retain new words long-term?
What is ‘the rule of 7’?
Vocabulary guru Paul Nation suggested that this depends on the number of ‘meetings’ a learner has with a word or phrase. A ‘meeting’ is any moment where the learner sees, hears, says or thinks about the item they are learning. He suggested that in order for new language to be deeply learnt over time, it must be ‘met’ by the learner 7 times, in different ways.
This ‘rule of 7’ is something that we can keep in mind when we teach vocabulary. As every teacher knows, there are different levels of ‘meeting’ with new language in the classroom, some of which result in student engagement and some of which seem instantly forgotten by the class. This is a useful starting point for planning the types of meeting that stimulate your learners’ language brains in your classroom.
Planning for the 7 meetings
When you plan to teach a new set of words, think about how you are going to present them, and what the learners are going to do with them in the class. By showing them a meaning, and then drilling the word, you have already provided 2 meetings (as long as everyone in the class has a chance to hear and then say the word in a focused way). If you are teaching this closed set of words, it is likely that they will then appear in a text or a set of tasks. By answering vocabulary-focused questions, then discussing their answers to the task, students will probably get another 2 or 3 meetings with the target items (again, if they are focused on thinking about each others’ answers and remain engaged in the discussion).
A follow-up task such as a roleplay or mini-presentation might bring up the words one or two more times, and this is usually where the focus on the set of words ends; it’s the ned of the lesson, everyone has done the tasks you instructed and got the answers correct, so that’s the end of that, right? Well… even a very focused vocabulary lesson focusing on a small group of words may only have given specific individuals in the class 3 or 4 meetings with the words (remember, not every student in the class will give an answer using every word, and some students will naturally be less involved in discussions). This is why many students leave the classroom and the vocabulary that they have learnt fades before the next lesson: they haven’t worked with the words that magic 7 times, so they are not embedded in their long-term memories.
There are a few solutions for this: On one hand, you could plan the interaction and tasks in the class so that every single student works with the word 7 times, going around the room and answering individually, or individually presenting sentences one by one in seven different ways. However, this is not realistic - this kind of lesson would be overplanned and leave little room for freedom of expression, real discussion or unpredicted questions and interaction (the key to organic meetings with new vocabulary that are so helpful to retention).
The alternative is to make sure that your vocabulary teaching goes beyond individual lessons, and you provide more opportunities for meetings after the initial class and its 4-5 encounters per student that occur.
Reuse, recycle, retain!
A more continuous solution, which brings vocabulary learning into the longer-term study that your learners are performing, is to return to words and phrases as they crop up in future texts, recordings and tasks, prompting students to rethink their meaning, remember the original lesson, or simply notice that this is a word which they studied a while back. New vocabulary that is the focus of one lesson and is worth teaching specifically is likely to come around again in content presented at the same level. Textbooks often use and reuse words and phrases which are graded at that level, and high-frequency items will be repeated several times in different contexts. By prompting ‘re-meetings’ of new language in this way, the number of encounters with target vocabulary can grow, bringing items back into the learners’ consciousness to be met again a 5th, 6th and 7th time as time goes on.
This type of re-meeting, going beyond the initial presentation class, can easily be planned into a course of study. Vocabulary review and recycling games serve to aid memory, and can be fun and engaging ways to return to important language. It may take a little extra time out of your schedule, but isn’t it worth it, to ensure that your learners really remember vocabulary that they will need in their assessments, or that they will use in their later study?
To support this ‘recycling’ approach, it is a good idea to keep a record of the words and phrases that you teach every lesson, and collect them week by week (or even better, topic by topic) to bring out at the end of the week for a recycling session. This could be as simple as taking a photo or screenshot of a vocabulary presentation on the whiteboard, or jotting down five words from each vocabulary-focused lesson. I used to keep a box of vocabulary cards, colour coded by week or topic, to bring out and play with every Friday - it requires minimal preparation, as a handful of games can be repeated using vocabulary cards or powerpoint slides at the end of each week.
Examples of recycling activities:
Divide the students into teams of two or three and deal out the words and phrase you have been studying to each team, who selects an item to focus on (one which they are confident that they know the meaning of). In groups (or breakout rooms), each team writes a definition of the word or phrase to test the other groups.
One member of each team reads out the definition and the first ‘hands up’ (or quiz-show buzz, or animal noise, etc.) from another team member gets to remember and say the word. Score points for accuracy of pronunciation, and even the accuracy of the definition, and the winning team gets to… (think of a suitable prize to finish the game).
In pairs or teams, students create crosswords where the clues are definitions or gapped sentences, and the answers are the words they have been studying. Groups pass around their puzzles and review each other’s answers, or race to complete the puzzle first in teams.
Tip: there are free online crossword creators that students can use to download their puzzles and share them online, or pass their phones around the classroom for other teams to complete.
This classic word game can be designed for vocabulary practice. Write an incomplete story with enough gaps for the number nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs that appear on your weekly word list. Students classify the words they have learnt as nouns, verbs, adverbs, etc. and complete the story in the wackiest way possible. Score points for appropriacy of word use, and use of correct word classes (nouns in noun gaps, verbs in verb gaps, etc.
…and many more - any game which requires definitions, questions or use of specific language can be used competitively to increase motivation and encounters with the vocabulary you teach.
Overall, it is up to you to manage the meetings that your learners have with the words and phrases that you teach. Think beyond the individual lesson, and bring vocabulary study out into the longer-term learning that your learners engage in across longer periods of time. It will produce long-term results in the end!
Tom Garside is Director of Teacher Training for Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the new RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification for online and classroom language educators with a language proficiency of CEFR B2 and above.