Using Spaced Repetition to Learn New Vocabulary Words

What is Spaced Repetition?

Spaced repetition is a learning method that was introduced by Professor Cecil Alec Mace in the 1930s. It was expanded and proven to be effective by H. F. Spitzer in 1939. He proved the effectiveness of spaced repetition by completing a study with 3600 students learning a large number of scientific facts (Spitzer, H. F. (1939). Studies in retention. Journal of Educational Psychology, 30, 641–657).

The method is simple. It says that people learn best when they are exposed to information at certain intervals across time. Here is a good, real-life example of how it works…

Say that you’ve met someone at a party, and you really want to remember their name. What do you do?

You focus intensely on this one simple word that, for the love of god, you are going to remember because it is so very important to you. You say it over and over again 20 times and then go about your business.

What happens? The next day you’ve forgotten it! What went wrong? You tried so hard but still failed to remember the name, and now you feel stupid and frustrated.

What happened is that you were exposed to the “vocabulary word,” Mary, 20 times in about 10 seconds.

You learned without spaced intervals, so the vocabulary word didn’t stick in your brain. It was there for the short-term, but it vanished in the medium and long-term (don’t worry, it’s not your fault). Now let’s look at another scenario.

A friend approaches you at a party and says…

“This is my friend, Mary.” You reply…
“Hi, Mary. It’s nice to meet you.”

You go on your way, and a few minutes later, someone points to Mary and says to you.

“Who is that?” You reply…
“Oh, that’s Mary.”

You move about the party for while, not really thinking about your new friend. Later, though, you are having a conversation with her when another friend, Bill, approaches you. You say…

“Hi, Bill. This is my new friend, Mary.”
Bill says, “Hi Mary. How are you?”

Bill and Mary continue on with their conversation while you go and attend to some other business. At the end of the night, you see Mary leaving and you say…

“Goodnight, Mary. It was nice to meet you.”

Now it’s the next morning and you are sitting down enjoying a fresh, hot cup of coffee. You try again to remember the name of your new friend. You see her face in your mind and immediately think, “Mary.” What’s happened? This time you didn’t say the “vocabulary word” 20 times over and over again in your head. Instead, you were exposed to it just 6 times, but you have remembered it with no problems at all.

The difference is that in the second scenario you were exposed to the word at spaced intervals over the course of the evening, and that is how your brain remembers things best, especially in the medium and long-term.


This example, and this learning method, is very important. In fact, I think that it’s on of the most important language learning methods we have. I also think that, sadly, it is widely ignored by language teachers and language learning textbook publishing companies.

How Can We Use Spaced Repetition to Learn Vocabulary Words?

Before we learn how to use spaced repetition to learn, let’s take a look at something even more important–what NOT to do when learning new vocabulary words. What we want to avoid, first and foremost, is the mistake that I and every other language learner on the planet has made. Recall the example above. What happened? What happened was that we were exposed to the vocabulary word “Mary” many times in a short period of time. Then we forgot about it–and then we failed to be able to recall it the next day.

Now, what do people do when learning new vocabulary words? They make a stack of flash cards (or use some other tool), spend an hour or two memorizing the words, feel like they’re “finished” with those words, and then, finally, move on to a new set of vocabulary words, thinking that they’re “learning a new language.” Now, again, refer back to the example above.

We failed to memorize Mary’s name because we were exposed to it many times in a very short amount of time, and then we moved on–exactly like most do when memorizing vocabulary words. Then when it comes time to actually use those words in a real-life communication situation, they are unable to recall them. I have often heard from students, “I know the words, I just can’t spit them out when I need them!”

What’s the one thing you must get out of all this? It’s simple, but so important…

Memorizing a set of vocabulary words is never an end goal!

Memorizing vocabulary words and phrases is always the beginning, just the first step in some process that is going to help you accomplish a larger goal, whatever it may be.

Doing it Right

If we’re going to have success learning and using vocabulary words, we have to start at the beginning–setting the learning goal. As I said above, your overall learning goal should never be something like, “I will learn 50 new vocabulary words.” You learning goal must always be something bigger and more valuable. For example, you can set a goal like, “I will be able to order food in a Thai restaurant.” or… “I will be able read a Chinese newspaper.” …or, “I will be able to write about my feelings in Spanish.”

In all of those examples, you will need to learn new vocabulary words to accomplish your goal. Learning those words, though, is just step 1, never the end goal!

Setting goals like this does two things. First, it ensures that you’re accomplishing goals that are actually useful. Second, it forces you to learn with spaced repetition–even if it’s not precise and even if you don’t understand the learning method at all! It should work like this…

    • First, define a learning goal, something like I mentioned above.
    • Second, find all the words, phrases and sentences you will need to know. You can find them online or in textbooks.
    • Third, memorize the words and phrases you need to know to accomplish your goal.
    • Fourth, use the words and phrases you have learned to accomplish your final goal.
    • Fifth, make a new goal, one that forces you to use what you have learned AND to learn and use new stuff.

Spaced-Repetition Tools


The best spaced-repetition tool I have found is called BYKI. It comes in 2 versions, a free one and paid one. The free version comes with learning lists already loaded into it. For example, you can download, for free, BYKI Italian. With the free version, you can also download learning lists that others have made. Get it here…

Free BYKI Lite download by Transparent Language

The paid version is called BYKI Deluxe by Transparent Language. With this version, you can do everything mentioned above AND you can create your own lists. Last I checked, the BYKI Premium was selling for $69.

Both the paid and free versions of BYKI are programmed with an algorithm that teaches you vocabulary words (or anything else) using spaced repetition. It is a very effective and easy-to-use tool, and I suggest that everyone at least uses the free version.


You’ve probably heard of Pimsleur language courses, which were designed by a man named Paul Pimsleur. If you haven’t, you can watch a video of how much Thai I learned with Pimsleur Thai, and a complete write-up of the Pimsleur method, here. The Pimsleur Method is a 100% audio-based course that teaches languages using Graduated Interval Recall, a learning method based on spaced repetition. This is a well-researched and refined learning method. The intervals in which Pimsleur found you should be exposed to vocabulary words are…

5 seconds, 25 seconds, 2 minutes, 10 minutes, 1 hour, 5 hours, 1 day, 5 days, 25 days, 4 months, and 2 years.

If you study with a Pimsleur course, you will be exposed to the words and phrases you are learning at intervals similar to these. You should note here that Pimsleur courses do not teach reading or writing. They are 100% audio and 100% designed to get you speaking a language. You can check out Pimsleur here…

Don’t Speak Another Language yet? Try a FREE Lesson today. Risk-Free. No Credit Card Required.

This is a also a pretty interesting and entertaining sales video about the Pimsleur Method

Start Speaking any Language in 10 Days

Another great (free) spaced repitition learning tool is called Anki (“anki” is the Japanese word for “memorize”). Here is the Wikipedia entry, and here is their home page. You may notice that their url is “ankisrs.” The “srs” means “Spaced Repetition Software.”

Anki and BYKI are real standouts in the Spaced Repetition game, but here are some more you can check out…

Final Thoughts

Spaced Repetition is a very powerful learning method that everyone should use to learn vocabulary words and phrases. It is important to remember, however, that learning vocabulary words is never an end goal. It is just a means to accomplishing a bigger goal, such as learning to communicate verbally, learning to communicate in writing, or learning to comprehend communication through reading.

This may seem obvious, but the mistake of memorizing without actually learning to communicate is a mistake made by many language learners–and even many teachers. This is not surprising. Look, for example, at some of the tools I listed above. Do any of them, with the exception of Pimsleur, have any real learning goals. No, they don’t. They just focus on memorizing words. And how do most language learning institutions assess their students? They often do it by giving written vocabulary tests. This does not help you to learn to communicate in a foreign language.

You must take full responsibly for your learning, and you must start by setting proper learning goals. If you have a few minutes, these are some great resources for getting started.

Building a Free Language Learning Strategy

Learning With the Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Outcome-Based Learning

Defining Fluency

Best of luck, and if you have any questions or language learning tips, please leave them in the comments below.

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