Here are 10 research-based strategies for accelerating language learning or any type of learning.
1 | Determine what is worth practicing (Marzano, et al., 2001).
As we all know, practice takes a lot of time and consumes significant effort. For that reason we don’t have time to practice everything to the “mastery” level. For some words simply being “familiar” with them is enough. Sometimes we “recognize” a word, but can’t find it’s meaning, even with context. Sometimes we recognize a word and the context helps us remember the meaning. Sometimes we recognize and use the word regardless of context (mastery). We will typically only “master” 50% of the vocabulary floating around in our brain.
Massed Practice and Distributed Practice. The brain remembers better when we practice small bits many times as opposed to large chunks a few times. Our brain also benefits from a highly compressed routine of practice at the start of learning a new skill. Then, that skill can be “refreshed” by practicing at longer and longer intervals.
For language learning this means, choose what you will use most to practice the most. Mass the practice for the first week. Then, because you are using the new skill, you can slowly stop the formal practice because you will be practicing it in conversation. Remember, you don’t want to reinforce a mistake, so be sure your practice is accurate and correct (especially pronunciation).
Remember the See, Say, and Do strategy. When you do each of these things it engages a different brain system. You are giving the brain triple the capacity to store and retrieve the information.
2 | Memorize information through storytelling techniques (Allen, 2008).
Stories are easier to remember than lists of words. By linking words together into a story, the brain has an easier time recalling them. You are creating a “chain of associations” for the words. Try to fill the story with visual imagery.
3 | Connections link learning to life (Allen, 2008).
Our brain has multiple systems for storing and recalling information (See, Say and Do Strategy). The more we connect something new to something known (background knowledge), the easier it is for us to recall. At the most basic level, this means when you are talking about something, have the physical object present. If you are learning vocabulary for fruit, have the fruits on the table to touch, smell, taste, and see.
Experiences through multiple senses strengthens learning.
Another application of this idea is use something tangible to represent something abstract. For instance, if you are working on a vocabulary list, assign one word to one of your own body parts, e.g. hand, finger, forearm, neck, stomach, etc. Then every time you say the word, touch or associate it with that body part.
4 | Movement magnifies learning (Allen, 2008).
Movement has been shown to deepen learning and enhance recall. The obvious first application is to actually move for any words that are movement related. When studying the word for “sit,” actually sit. When studying the word for “eat,” actually eat or at least make the motion of eating. This is also known as “Total Physical Response.”
This concept can also be applied to words not usually associated with movement. You can attach any movement to a word and then do the movement with the word. Then chain the movements together to work through the words. Or maybe you like to dance, assign a certain dance step to a word and build a routine while saying the words. Maybe work it into your exercise routine!
5 | Novelty intrigues the mind and fires curiosity (Allen, 2008).
Do something to make your practice “novel.” Vary the routine. Go practice in a different place. Do different activities. Make it novel.
6 | Make it social (Allen, 2008).
Add a socializing component to your practice. Work together in small groups or pairs. Don’t just sit on your couch and spend an hour reading flash cards. It will be 58 minutes wasted. That time is better spent engaging the content in a socializing context. Play a word game with new vocabulary. Do a vocab scavenger hunt. Make it social.
7 | Do you see what I mean (Allen, 2008)?
Make it visual. As often as possible connect the concept of the word to a visual image. Looking at the printed word is okay, but that’s not really the best way. Look at a picture of the concept. Draw a picture of the concept and rehearse the word.
8 | Reflect on the learning (Carraway, 2014).
At the end of your practice session, leave a few minutes to reflect on what you’ve learned. Take about 15 minutes to just sit quietly and let your brain process all that it has just taken in. If you drift off for a short nap, it’s okay!
Jensen (2008) also recommends building in a “settling time” and rest. Short walks, or time for some physical activity between learning sessions increases the brain’s ability to continue absorbing information.
“Too much, too fast, it won’t last!”
9 | Revisit the information right before bed (Jensen, 2008).
Re-read your notes, look at the pictures, rehearse the gestures, etc. from your practice session earlier in the day. Don’t consider this a “study time,” but rather just a short refreshing. It’s at night during REM sleep that the brain wires and stores the information from the day. By doing a short review, you are moving that information “up in the queue” to be stored. Did you catch that?…REM sleep is critical for building long term memory. Get enough rest!
10 | Give your brain the chemicals it needs (Jensen, 2008).
The brain uses certain chemicals to store and retrieve information. Some foods that are high in lecithin include eggs, salmon, and lean beef, and they help boost recall. Other foods have been found to support memory function and they include: spinach, lean proteins, most vegetables, and salmon.
For more ideas and detailed explanations…
Allen, R. 2008. Green light classrooms, teaching techniques that accelerate learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Carraway, K. 2014. Transforming your teaching, practical classroom strategies informed by cognitive neuroscience. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Jensen, E. (2008). Brain-based learning: The new paradigm of teaching. Corwin Press.
Marzano, R., Norford, J., Paynter, D., Pickering, D., & Gaddy, B. 2001. A handbook for classroom instruction that works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD