Learning, Forgetting and Words

Teach ESL students why study review is important so they can learn new words. eslwriting.org.


Here are odd bits of trivia about language learning, vocabulary and forgetting. My hope is to inspire and motivate students to learn English and consider the benefits of extensive reading.

The information about learning words comes from this useful site.


  • ESL students need to know about 2000 word families to read and understand 85% of the words in general texts.
  • To read a novel, magazine or newspaper, students need about 8000 to 9000 word families.
  • We need to see or hear a word 10 to 50 times in order to learn the word and its meaning. (Waring)


It’s really easy to forget what we saw and heard in class. That’s the message from research by the University of Waterloo.

This graph shows the speed of forgetting. It starts with material that students learn in a one hour university lecture.

  • At the end of the lecture, students know 100% of what they can learn (the amount of material learned can be different for each student).
  • By day 2, 50 to 80% of that knowledge will be forgotten if there is no review.
  • By day 7, students will remember only 2% … if there is no review.


There is good news for students learning English and language teachers.

A small amount of review can greatly increase your ability to remember (look at the yellow curve on the graph).

  • a 10 minute review within 24 hours of the class will return your memory of the lecture material to almost 100%.
  • after 7 days, you only need a 5 minute review to keep the lecture material fresh in your memory.
  • by day 30, the brain only needs 2-3 minutes to bring back the memories.
  • for students with a normal number of university classes, the website suggests spending 30 minutes each weekday  and 1.5 to 2 hours on the weekend doing review.


The image in this post comes from Chris Piascik and its use complies with the owner’s creative commons licensing terms.

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