Retrieval is not enough

Spread the love

I have visited this topic before, but I return to it sometimes because I see a larger problem reflected in foreign language studies that ought to be on the table.

Teachers are taught to emphasize information retrieval skills using available technology. They are taught to use critical thinking questions to stimulate making connections between disciplines. I would like to observe that these approaches do not work well in early foreign language studies, except as an occasional visit into language roots and interconnections. Learning languages requires drilling and memorization.

Yet drilling and memorization are trumpeted as examples of older, outmoded pedagogical methods that show a teacher is not up-to-date on the latest best practices. To say a teacher uses drilling and memorization as part of class expectations has become a criticism of that teacher, proof that he or she is not creating a “child-centered” classroom. Pity the poor classroom teacher who has students seated in rows memorizing words on paper if an administrator walks in nowadays. He or she will certainly receive criticism, even if that criticism comes in the form of helpful suggestions about creating group work or gallery walks. A gallery walk is a discussion technique in which students walk around the room looking at pictures or writing on posters. I like gallery walks. Students need to get out of their seats sometimes. But flashcards — alone or with a partner — will be more efficient for my purposes when my goal is to teach new vocabulary.

Putting a word into long-term memory requires repeating words over and over. The amount of repetition will vary depending upon the student, but that repetition is not optional. How does a person become fluent in another language? A bit of magic comes into play in language-learning. Students practice until suddenly, one day, words begin popping onto their tongues and those words somehow keep rolling.


Modern education theory has created a climate in which too many students consider memorization an imposition. Students want learning to be a game and I am sympathetic to them. I would like all learning to be a game. But language learning goes much faster when students deliberately memorize words.

By all means, students should play online language games. But we should force them to work on flashcards alone, too. They need to make their own cards for words that cause them problems. After the game is over, they need to learn to write lists and definitions, covering either the word or its definition and and working their way down their lists in a memorization exercise. Asking friends to practice new vocabulary in pairs or groups is great — but, in the end, we learn a great deal of language alone, from books especially. Students who are taught to regard learning as a social exercise will always fall behind students who read and consciously work to learn new words.

I believe that teachers must explicitly explain this aspect of language learning to their students. Drilling and memorization will quickly improve vocabulary. We do our students no favor when we always try to make learning fun and easy. Students then may reject learning opportunities that lack entertainment value — and, in the work world, that strategy mostly proves a huge, long-term loser.

Obviously, no one needs physical cards today. Many sites such as are available to provide practice. A search on (Whatever — Polish, Korean, Spanish etc.) language flashcards will get would-be language learners all the resources they need to get started.