Learning vocabulary is unlike most aspects of a foreign language as it is one of the features that needs to be learned by memorization. Knowing words, especially in the beginning of your language learning journey, is a matter of effort and repetition. You need to look at vocabulary learning as a skill that needs to be developed, the more you practice, the better you will get at it.
The traditional way of vocabulary learning, that is most commonly used, is a vocabulary book where you write down a word in your native language on one half of a page and the equivalent in the target language on the other half of the page. This is one way of learning new words but there is a more effective one.
Several companies already offer a compartment system for vocabulary learning but do not provide the learner with the essential information they would need so that they can use this system most effectively. The scientific foundation of this method originates from research findings in second language acquisition and applied linguistics, most notably by Dr. Paul Nation and Dr. Norbert Schmitt.
It is also important to point out that beginning learners will profit most from this system because it best fits their goal, i.e. learning as many words as quickly as possible so that they can start using the foreign language. Intermediate and advanced learners would profit from this method as well but there are better ways for those students to increase their vocabulary than to memorize individual words on index cards.
Shortcomings of using a vocabulary book
Before I go into details about how to use the 5-compartment-system, I wanted to point out the disadvantages that using a vocabulary book has to highlight the advantages of the 5-Compartment-System. Using a vocabulary book to memorize words has two main shortcomings.
The first shortcoming is that in your vocabulary book you cannot separate the words that you already know from the ones you do not know yet. If you are revising the words, you need to go over the whole page which is extra work that does not need to be done.
The second and much more important shortcoming is the effect of the order of how the words appear in your vocabulary book. Your brain is always keen on saving resources for processing and that is why it will remember the order in which the words appear in your vocabulary book. Your brain also saves the visual information that it is exposed to during the learning process, i.e. it memorizes the word in your native and in the target language next to each other (the way they appear in your vocabulary book) because this makes it easier for the brain to process the information when you study the words.
The latter process leads to a phenomenon that many language learners experience: you are taking an exam and a word that you have studied comes up in a task, you know that you know the word and you might even know which page in your book it is on or which words come before or after the word, but no matter how hard you try, you cannot recall the meaning of the word you are looking for. The reason why you might find it difficult to recall its meaning is the fact that the word appears out of its ‘original’ context in which your brain has remembered it, i.e. the order it had in your vocabulary book and how it was visually organised (target language next to native language).
The 5-Compartment-System only works to its full effect if you do it thoroughly, following all the suggestions and advice that I have summarized in the following. And, as with any skill, you need to do it consistently for it to be most effective, i.e. every SINGLE day. Any alteration to the instructions provided below can and generally will result in reducing the effectiveness of this system.
What you need to do to practice using the 5-Compartment-System is a vocabulary box or a box and something to divide the box into 5 compartments if you want to make it yourself and index cards.
On the index cards you write down the word in your native language on one side and the word in the target language on the other side.
In the first compartment you place all the newly learned vocabulary and they should be revised every day, but you need to be aware that you need to repeat a word at least 5-7 times (some are easier to remember than others) before it can be stored in your memory.
If you have memorized a word in compartment 1, move it into compartment 2. All the words in compartment 2 should be studied every 2-3 days and if you know them then, move them into compartment 3. All the words in compartment 3 should be studied every week (7 days) and if you know them then, move them into compartment 4. All the words in compartment 4 should be studied every two weeks (14 days) and if you know them then, move them into compartment 5. All the words in compartment 5 should be studied every 4 weeks (28 days) and if you know them then, they can leave the box and be stored in a separate box. You might want to go through this box every 3-4 months.
If you do not know a word in a compartment, you need to move it back into the previous compartment. Let’s say you are studying the words in compartment 3 and you encounter a word you do not know, then you need to move this index card back into compartment 2. This works for all compartments between 2 and 5. This way you can guarantee that the index cards that leave the vocabulary box have found their way into your long-term memory.
Make sure that you really know the word on the index card. To know a word means that you should be able to tick off the following three things before you move a word forward into the next compartment: 1. you know the exact translation of the word, 2. you can pronounce the word correctly and 3. you can write the word out correctly. If one of these three conditions is not met, then your index cards has to be moved down one compartment.
Why is this system for vocabulary learning effective?
There are several reasons why the 5-Comparment-System is very effective:
When you are practicing with this method you might experience that it feels more difficult to memorize words, especially in the beginning, and you are right. The reason for this is that your brain cannot take any shortcuts in memorizing the words but it has the advantage that the words you study that way will be retained to a much higher percentage.
Things to consider while using this system:
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