Is Writing Sentences With Pen and Paper a Good Way to Learn Foreign Vocab?


Would you remember more writing something down as opposed to just typing it?

Studies suggest: Yes.

And it makes sense:

Typing is just pushing some buttons, while writing involves creating the shape of the characters on your own.

It’s also slower, which exposes you the material for longer at a time.

So then, I thought, it could work with language learning as well.

And that’s what I wanted to find out, albeit in a humble way.

Rules of the Game

In Vocab Wars I test various vocabulary methods and share the results with you.

In four 25 minute learning sessions — spread out over four days — I try to learn 50 Spanish words I don’t know yet.

I then test myself on the 5th day to see how the method’s worked for me over the short term.

I then forget about the words and the method as much as I can, and do a new test two months later to see how it’s worked for me over the longer term.

To sum it up:

  • I pick a vocabulary learning method.
  • I adjust it slightly so it can be used with Vocab Wars’ parameters.
  • Then, I try to learn 50 words in four 25-minute sessions.
  • On day five, I do the short-term memory test.
  • I then leave it all behind until two months later, when I’ll do a long-term memory test. I publish these results later.

So … are all vocab learning methods essentially the same, or are some superior to others? And could weak short-term methods be stronger over the longer term or vice versa?

Disclaimer: This isn’t science. Some methods may work better for me than for you. I also spend some time selecting the words to learn which preexposes me to them, and the time spent won’t be consistent for every method. Note that the words I use are in Spanish. I’m already pretty fluent in Spanish which makes it easier for me to learn new words. In spite of all this, I still believe Vocab Wars could give a good indication of the efficiency of various vocab learning methods.

Vocab Wars #2 Writing Sentences

In this second installment of Vocab Wars, I chose writing sentences with (Spanish) words I didn’t know yet as the method.

And when I say writing, I mean just that: with plain old pen and paper. Back to the Stone Age, baby!

I only wrote the sentences in Spanish, I didn’t translate them back to my native language, Dutch.

So how was my experience?

Well, I found it slightly more taxing than just the basic flashcards of Vocab Wars #1. But the sentences generally came easy.

Once I knew better what the words meant, I could write the sentences at a higher pace.

It’s reflected in these fun statistics:

  • In session one, I wrote 32 sentences in 25 minutes
  • In session two: 39 sentences
  • Session three: 40 sentences
  • And in session four: 47 sentences

Of course, I still couldn’t review the words as much as with the basic flashcards of vocab wars #1. And there wasn’t anything in place that had me focusing more on the harder words either.

So I figured that it would negatively affect (at least) the short-term results.

And it did:

The Results

Here are the numbers you want to see:

Method: The method used to learn the words.
Word List Size: The number of words I started the experiment with.
Total Learning Time: The total time spent learning the words.
Learning Sessions: The number of learning sessions. Sessions are limited to one a day.
Nr. of Words Attempted to Learn: The number of words I could use with the method (in 100 minutes). An important stat as some more advanced (slower) memory system won’t allow me to attempt to learn all 50 words in 100 minutes.
Average Word Length: The average length of the words (number of letters).
Short-Term Test Recall Rate: Recall rate one day after the last learning session.
Short-Term Test Duration: Duration of the test done one day after the last learning session.
Long-Term Test Recall Rate: Recall rate two months after the last learning session.
Long-Term Test Duration: Duration of the test done two months after the last learning session.

As you can see in the short-term memory test, I didn’t do as well as with the basic flashcards.

Making sentences takes up a little more time than just reviewing basic flashcards.

It’s also important to note that the test doesn’t feature the sentences — just the word and its translation. Writing sentences is the learning mechanism. The test is always done in Anki with flashcards.

The final test also took me a little longer to complete than with the basic flashcards from Vocab Wars #1. I see this as further evidence that I didn’t knew the words as well as with the words of the first installment.

So is this reason enough to throw the writing sentences method into the dustbin?

Not at all!

Tell the garbage truck to wait, if you’ve done so ;-).

You see, one of the reasons I started this series is to see what methods would perform better over the longer term. That is: after I drop the method and words for two months.

I will publish the long term results in early May. The long-term results for Vocab Wars #1 will be published in April.

Next Up for Vocab Wars: Smart Flashcards

In the next installment of Vocab Wars, we’ll be testing a method mentioned in the popular Smart Language Learner post:

38 Language-Learning Experts Reveal Their Favorite Methods for Learning Vocabulary

The method’s called: Smart Flashcards, and it was recommended in the post by Camille Chevalier-Karfis. Camille is a French teacher and has created several products to help you learn French.

In her own words:

I am a big fan of “smart” flashcards.

On one side, write the English word, just as a backup, and to test yourself. On the other side, write the word, then the word in a short sentence.

Make the sentence close to “home” – use real people / facts in your life, it will help your brain remember it better.

I like that idea very much! If you connect something unknown to something you know very well, you should remember it better.

Of course, I have to adjust the method slightly so that it goes well with the Vocab Wars format, but the results should still give a good indication of the strength of the method.

So stay tuned…this should be fun!

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