Studying and Retaining Vocabulary: The Leitner System

We all know that repeated exposure to vocabulary and structures is needed so that we can readily recall it.  The longer it’s been since we’ve practiced a word, the more likely it is that we will  have forgotten it.  There’s an initial steep decline in our ability to remember a word after the first time we learn it. However, if we practice a word multiple times we are much more likely to remember it over time.

The idea behind the Leitner System is that the easier it is to recall the words (verb forms, etc.) on a flashcard the less often that flashcard will be need to be studied in the future. The opposite is also true.  The more difficult it is to recall the material on a flashcard the more often it is studied. The repetition of each flashcard is scheduled so that the learner spends most of his time studying material that is more challenging. Material that has been retained well is studied only occasionally to ensure it has not been forgotten.

The method of “Spaced Repetition” works like this:

  • A container  is set up to hold the flashcards. It is divided into multiple individual compartments (3-5).
  • All flashcards start in box 1.
  • When the material on a flashcard is recalled correctly it is moved forward by one box. (See the  diagram above-green arrows). If the flashcard makes it to the last box it remains there.
  • When the material on a flashcard is not recalled it is returned to deck 1 regardless of what box it was in.
  • Each subsequent box has a longer period of time before the flashcards in it  are repeated.
  • Make a time plan: study the Group 1 cards once a day, Group 2 every 3 days, and the Group 3 cards every 5 days, etc.  If you look at a Group 1 card and get the correct answer, you “promote” it to Group 2. A correct answer with a Group 2 card “promotes” that card to Group 3.

How does it work?

The idea is that the easier it is to recall the material on a flashcard the less often that flashcard will be repeated in the future. The reverse follows. The harder it is to recall the material on a flashcard the more often it will be repeated. The repetition of each flashcard is scheduled, or spaced, in such a way that the learner spends most of their time studying material that is more challenging. Material that has been retained well is studied only occasionally to ensure it has not been forgotten.

The Leitner System’s implementation of spaced repetition works like this:

  • A container called a cardbox or a cardfile is set up to hold the flashcards. It is divided into multiple individual compartments. FlashcardDB calls the groups of flashcards in each compartment decks.
  • All flashcards start in deck 1.
  • When the material on a flashcard is recalled correctly it is moved forward by one deck. (See the green arrows in the diagram above). If the flashcard was already in the last deck then it remains there.
  • When the material on a flashcard is not recalled it is returned to deck 1: regardless of what deck the flashcard came from. (See the merged red arrow(s) in the diagram).
  • Each subsequent deck has a longer period of time before the flashcards it contains must be repeated.
    Deck
    Number
    Time until
    next repetition
    One None
    Two 1 day
    Three 3 days
    Four 1 week
    Five 1 month
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One response to “Studying and Retaining Vocabulary: The Leitner System

  1. I’ve been using the Leitner system since 1980, when I ran across his book while studying German for a year in Europe. Even though it’s still hard work for me, using this method moved me from “terrible” to “very good” in vocabulary learning and retention. I also highly recommend taking Leitner’s advice and making some vocabulary cards for phrases and complete sentences, rather than only for individual words. Let me just add that in Leitner’s method as described in his book, “So lernt man lernen” (www.amazon.com/lernt-man-lernen-Sebastian-Leitner/dp/3868201157/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=So+lernt+man+lernen), you don’t even need to decide how often to review cards in the different boxes, even that is taken care of automatically: as you add new vocabulary, you put the cards in box 1, and you have to regularly review the cards in box 1 and promote the ones you know, or it will fill up. Similarly, as cards are promoted into box N, it will fill up and regularly force you to take some out and see whether you still know them or not, moving them on to box N+1 or returning them to box 1. It’s amazing simple, but automatically makes you spend the most time on the cards you happen to have trouble learning.

    Like

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