Staggered Reviewing: How to Review a Foreign Language

This tutorial will help you review your foreign language texts more effectively

We’ve introduced several excellent methods for learning a foreign language in our free FEATURED bundle here, but there is one idea that we haven’t explored; reviewing*.

Reviewing is pretty essential to any kind of studying, but this tutorial is specifically about how to review a foreign language text. If you are reading a novel, or a graded reader in a foreign language (which I definitely think you should be), then you could read my in-depth article on graded readers here. However, if you’re using a textbook (which is also something I think is essential), and you know how to get the most out of the text when studying it, then this article is good to go*. 

 

Why?

Cognitive scientist boffins have long been interested in the neurological** processes of the brain when studying, but one idea has been particularly prevalent in applied linguistics during the last decade or so: 

 

“Hundreds of studies in cognitive and educational psychology have demonstrated that spacing out repeated encounters with the material over time produces superior long-term learning.”

 

Online paper accessed here.

 

Nowhere has this line of thinking been applied more than with flashcards (which I don’t use). They have been around for years and have popularised the wonderful idea of spaced repetition:

Basically, the idea is that our memory of a given fact is strongest when we first encounter it and gradually disappears over time. However, once we review the information, the speed with which we forget gradually decreases. 

The image above shows us that our knowledge of a fact is 100% (indicating strength) on day zero when we first learn the material. But the curve plummets to 80% by day 1. We review the material and our memory strength goes back up to 100%, but this time it takes a further 2 days to decrease to 80%. We review the material again, give our memory a Super Mario power-up so it reaches 100%, but this time it takes a further 3 days to fade to 80% strength:

 

Day 0: 100%

Day 1: 80%. Review: 100%

Day 3: 80%. Review: 100%

Day 6: 80%. Review: 100%

What is happening is that our memory of the fact is getting stronger with every spaced repetition. There are very complicated algorithms at play here which I don’t pretend or care to understand, but the good news is that we don’t have to worry about the science behind it; this is the purview of professionals in other areas. We can just rest assured that cognitive scientists are working around the clock to find a formula for the most efficient interlude of repetitions. Yes, that’s right, they’re losing sleep over this very issue as we speak.

This information is wonderful if you want to learn a fact such as Who was the first Roman emperor? or What is the capital of Peru?, but what if we want to review a text? Should we cut and paste whole texts into our flashcard software or add flashcard reminders to read a text? There might be an argument for that; it might just be that typing up a text is a great way of practicing writing without a teacher (see forthcoming tutorial), but….

 

It’s a bloody pain isn’t it? Really, most of us don’t want to have to do that with every text we read. It’s hard enough to find the time and discipline to study a foreign language without the added hassle of typing out every text we read. Luckily, we don’t have to. I’ve found a way*** to approximate the idea of spaced repetition with texts. Yes, we don’t have the mathematical accuracy of flashcard software and fancy algorithms, but we aren’t left in the dark, either. 

Notebooks and pens at the ready!

 

How?

OK, so this is the fun bit. After you have driven your brain cells wild by flooding it with language using methods such as Shadowing or Pacing (or both), you need to think about reviewing the lesson afterwards. Here’s the game plan:

This is both a very simple and very effective review system. Keep in mind that we must review old material alongside learning new material. Let’s imagine that we start a book from lesson one. Here’s how our first week would look:

This will continue until you’ve finished the book. Let’s clarify this by looking at your workload for each day following this scheme:

 

Your workload:

Monday: Study lesson 1

Tuesday: Study lesson 2 + Review lesson 1 x3

Wednesday: Study lesson 3 + Review lesson 2 x3 + Review lesson 1 x2

Thursday: Study lesson 4 + Review lesson 3 x3 + Review lesson 2 x2 + Review lesson 1 x1

Friday: Study lesson 5 + Review lesson 4 x3 + Review lesson 3 x2 + Review lesson 2 x1

. . . 

 

That's basically it. All you need to do now is work yourself through the book and then once you've finished, reread each chapter again x3. Once you’ve reread each lesson 3 times, go back and start the book again and reread it two more times. Finally, go back and reread it one more time. 

You could even experiment with this by finishing a series of five or ten textbooks (see forthcoming article) and then rereading each book once. It’s not an exact science, but it comes closer to the excellent theory of spaced repetition than any other text-based review methods I’ve come across before. As an aside, I’ve tried reviewing each text five times (then four, then three, . . .), but this became too time consuming and quite exhausting. The result was that I lost interest in my studies for about a week and destroyed my excellent study habit I had spent months working on. Remember to keep this fun (or at least in the same barrio where fun hangs out). Leaning a foreign language well takes discipline, but it should be enjoyable most of the time.

 

Conclusion: 

Staggered reviewing attempts to adopt a popular theory in cognitive psychology known as spaced repetition, but with an important modification that makes it suitable for texts, rather than simple facts. It is a simple system that can be readily applied to any study regime at the beginning, intermediate, and to a lesser extent advanced stages of language learning. However, some may lose interest in revisiting the same text a number of times, even though this will save time in the long run. Nevertheless, it’s important to keep in mind that learning a language should be interesting in and of itself. If the system isn’t for you, don’t force the issue. 

 

What do you think of staggered reviewing? Is it something that you could adopt into your own regime? Let us know in the comments below! And as always, if you find value in these pages, please share!

 

Challenge: Try using this review system for a week while using a traditional textbook (click here to see some recommended resources) and see what you think. Does it work for you?  

 

*Not sure why I’ve chosen this particular literary device to try and build up suspense when the title clearly outlines what this article is about…

 

**Lost half of my readership with this word.

 

***It’s a method I cam across here, but have added my own spin on it. 

About Me

My name is Neil and I have been teaching English professionally for almost 20 years, the last ten of which at my language school. 

Apart from a diploma in teaching English as a foreign language (Cert Tesol), I have a BA in modern and Classical Chinese. I also speak Spanish, Italian, and French, and read Latin. 

Besides continuing my daily studies of these languages, I have also set myself a language goal of one new language a year. I’m looking forward to starting Japanese or German on the 1st January 2021.

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