Learning vocabulary with Memrise – my response to the critics


In one of the very first posts on this blog – ‘Mem up your memory’ – I wrote about my language learning experience using Memrise, a free on-line software which can help you learn new vocabulary. If you’ve never used it before, I encourage you to read the original post to get an idea of what Memrise is about. In short, some of the strengths and features of Memrise are:










In this post, however, I wanted to give a long overdue response to the most common criticisms of Memrise, some of which were already pointed out by Hugh Dellar back when I wrote ‘Mem up your memory‘ (which you can read if you go to the comments section of that post).

Since the courses on Memrise are created by other learners, it is inevitable that they will contain mistakes. However, it’s not an integral fault of the software, but rather of those who use it. Consequently, as teachers, when we  create courses for our learners, we can ensure that we not only provide appropriate definitions, but more importantly: examples and collocations.

Again, this depends on how you set up the course. For example, instead of isolated items, we can provide 2-3 word chunks or even whole sentences. For example, in this course I created students practice question formation. The ‘definitions’ are the prompts on the right and the students have to type in the question on the left:



This is definitely true in many of the courses available as they were created by users to fit their educational needs. And this is where, in my opinion, the true power of Memrise lies. If you look at some of the courses I created for myself – for example, this one – I’m sure the list will look really random. You might also find many of the words useless. To me, however, the list makes perfect sense. It just reflects the things I was learning at the time in French, the new words I came across that I wanted to learn. It is random, because it’s personalised. If you create a course for your students with the words that come up in class, I’m sure they will find them far from random. In addition, there’s the ‘ignore’ button, which I referred to above and which you can see in the picture below:

When you tick the box to ignore a word, it will stop coming up in your learning and review sessions. You can also ‘unignore’ it:


  • Criticism #4: there’s no pronunciation:

Unfortunately, unlike Quizlet, Memrise doesn’t have a built-in engine that would automatically read the words in the course. As a result, you have to add them yourself. This, however, is very easy and quick. You can do this in the ‘edit’ mode by clicking on the ‘record’ button as shown in the picture below:


They have to be weird! The more personal and bizarre, the better. We’re all different, so it’s logical that the mems other users create, mightn’t appeal to us (think back to my mem for ‘seethe’). The most important thing, though, is that YOUR mem helps YOU memorize the word.

This is true. But if they came up in order as they are on the list, you could possibly respond correctly because you remembered the order, not the meaning. In multilevel courses, you can reduce the randomness of review sessions by clicking on a particular level and only reviewing those words.

I’d definitely welcome a change in this respect. Especially, when it comes to courses which only involve one to one translations or word/definition, which tells you little about how you can use this word. Having said that, there’s nothing stopping you from setting up the course so that students learn chunks or functional language, or that the definitions provide example sentences or typical collocations, like in the picture below. The new word is on the left and the definitions students are tested on are on the right:

 Finally, you should still review the words with your students in class to check if they can use them correctly and to provide some communicative context.

Unlike for example Quizlet, the learning and reviewing modes in Memrise can get very repetitive after a while. It’s either multiple choice, putting words in the correct order, or typing them. It’d definitely be great to see a few more game-like options to increase engagement and motivation. However, I wonder if making it more game-like does actually help you memorize the words. When I used Quizlet, I had the feeling that sometimes I was paying more attention to ‘winning’ the game and scoring points, rather than to the words on the screen. Still, it would be nice to have the option of a few other learning and revision modes.

Yes and no. I imagine most of you keep a record of vocabulary that comes up in class, anyway. The only thing you have to do then, is to transfer it to Memrise. I usually do it right at the end of the class, and it only takes a couple of minutes. Also, I encourage you to get your students involved. For example, a different student is responsible for adding the words after each class. You’ll still have to check it for mistakes, but you’re killing to birds with one stone: you have less work and students become more independent learners.

All in all, I’m not trying to argue that Memrise is the best or the ultimate solution to quickly expanding your vocabulary. My and my students’ experience suggests, though, that it does work pretty well. However, you will still need to use the newly learned words in context. And to experiment with them, making a few errors on the way. Otherwise, the words will slowly fade away.

In the next post I’m going to share with you some practical tips about using Memrise with your students.

For more articles on Grammar and vocabulary click here. If you’re interested in learning languages more effectively, you can find articles with tips here.