Tag Archives: Revision

Learning vocabulary with Memrise – my response to the critics

memrise header

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:

  • create mems – they’re mnemonic devices, such as pictures, sounds, rhymes, etc., used to help you create a vivid mental association and learn the word more quickly. For example, c56db-memseethe










  • create your own courses – there are thousands of courses already on-line, but the real learning starts when you create courses with words you or your students are learning
  • leaderboard – you can connect with other users and see their learning progress. For a teacher this can help track how well your students are doing, while for them it adds a competitive edge, because they can see how many points other learners are scoring
  • ignore button – a nice feature if you’re using courses created by others, which might often contain many words you already know, or simply don’t want to learn. Click on ignore and the word won’t appear in your learning/reviewing sessions any more
  • free app for Android and iOS
  • spaced-time repetition – to me, this is by far the biggest advantage of Memrise over other similar websites as it provides a solid learning and revision structure. The software reminds you when you should revise certain words, depending on when and how many times you’ve reviewed that item and on your previous performance, i.e. the words you find more difficult to memorize will come up more often

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).

  • Criticism #1: The definitions are wrong, poorly graded, or otherwise inappropriate

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.

  • Criticism #2: You learn single words, rather than chunks:

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:

memrise 2



memrise 1

  •  Criticism #3: the words are random, irrelevant, too easy:

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:

memrise ignore items

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:

memrise ignore items #2


  • 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:

memrise record


  • Criticism #5: the ‘mems’ are weird:

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.

  • Criticism #6: words in review sessions come up randomly:

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.

  • Criticism #7: you’re not tested on usage:

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:

memrise 4

 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.

  • Criticism #8: it gets boring and repetitive:

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.

  • Criticism #9: more work for the teacher:

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.

Pronunciation activities: hear/say

Photo from: https://flic.kr/p/7J5PTA
Photo from: https://flic.kr/p/7J5PTA

In this post I wanted to share an idea for e very low-prep pronunciation activity called ‘Hear/Say’. I haven’t invented it, and I imagine it’s been around for quite some time. I wish I could give credit where it’s due, but after so many years of using it, I unfortunately can’t remember who showed it to me. So if you’re reading this, and it was you, please reveal yourself in the comments section.

I like the activity, because it addresses both the recognition and the production aspects of pronunciation. It’s also very quick and quite easy to prepare. As a result, it can be easily re-used in class as a revision, warmer or filler. Students usually have a lot of fun with it as they get mixed up and can’t get to the FINISH line.

Admittedly, the activity focuses on isolated items taken out of context. Therefore, some more meaningful pronunciation and speaking practice should follow.


  • practice hearing and pronouncing the difference between two similar sounds


  • around 5mins


  • any


  • select two similar sounds your students find hard to differentiate between
  • prepare a list of minimal pairs, i.e. pairs of two words that in pronunciation only differ by one sound, e.g. walk and work
  • fold the worksheet in the middle, so that each student can only see half of it
  • sit a pair of students in front of each other
  • the start arrow indicates which student starts
  • when the next student hears a word, they have to locate it in the HEAR column and say the word next to it in the SAY column
  • the students will only get to the finish button if they are able to correctly pronounce the words and identify the words their partner is pronouncing
  • at the end give class feedback and revise any words that were tricky
  • if appropriate, repeat in a different pairing

Below are two example Hear/Say worksheets. The first one is for /l/ and /r/, which are two sounds many Asian students find tricky. The second one focuses on /æ/ and /ʌ/ and uses phonetic script. If your students are unfamiliar with it, you might want to change it to the normal script.

Example 1: /l/ vs. /r/

hear say l and rExample 2:  /æ/ vs. /ʌ/

hearsay ashAdditional ideas:

  1. Get students to prepare their own tables with words and sounds they find difficult. This saves you time, shifts the responsibility for learning and progress onto them and makes the activity more personalised.
  2. Do it as a race and award points to the students that finish first. Change pairs a couple of times and repeat the activity. Whoever get most points wins.

Good luck and let me know how it goes!

Recycling: the best habit on Earth

Without a doubt, learning new lexis is often what many students consider vital in their classes. However, most of them are not sure how to do it effectively. And let’s be honest, few will devote enough out-of-class time to memorise the new vocabulary.

So if we want our students to expand their vocabulary range, we need to find time in class which we will devote to recycling new words.

Don’t we have enough work on our hands, though? Why bother recycling at all?
  1. according to research sts need to see a lexical item between 7 and 9 times in order to memorise it 
  2. your sts will learn a lot of new lexis and very often that’s their priority 
  3. it neither takes much prep nor effort (get the sts to record the vocab!)
  4. you’ll have an endless list of both productive and fun warmers and fillers which need no prep nor   planning!

 So without further ado, here are some practical activities to do with your students. As a disclaimer, I don’t pretend to have invented them. They’ve been around in one form or another for ages, and I’ve picked them up along the way. I’ve also done these activities in a workshop format, so those who worked with me in San Sebastian, Budapest or San Jose might recognise the activities straight away.
If you know any other activities, please let me know. We could add them to the list 🙂


Recycling Vocabulary – Activities

  1. Vocab column on the board: 
  • note lexis that comes up during the class
  • use it at least once to recycle, e.g. give a definition, students run up to the board and point to the correct word (good for shaking the class up if they’re falling asleep)
2. Ranking activities:
  • putting words on a cline, e.g. the strongest to the weakest
  • I like most/least, e.g. for weekend activities
  • in general, pick any order depending on the group of words (i.e. the most to the least serious crime)
3. Taboo: 
  • teacher explains the word, others guess (in pairs, groups, etc)
  • IDEA: get students to explain the words (takes the focus off you; puts the responsibility for learning in their hands)
  • IDEA 2: if you have a very large class, you can have more than one taboo going at the same time to keep everyone busy
4. Gapped sentences: 
  • sts prepare at home or if time in class (more demanding and therefore increases retention, BUT more time consuming)
  • prepared by the teacher
  • IDEA: use questions instead of affirmatives and get sts to do a mingle (more communicative)
  • IDEA 2: do orally as a dictation (more demanding + a listening practice)
5. Coffepot:
  • substitute a word with coffeepot, e.g. I coffeepot in the morning before breakfast.
  • IDEA: do as a dictation
  • IDEA 2: get sts to do it in pairs (increases Student Talking Time)
6. Noughts and crosses: 
  • draw noughts and crosses board on the whiteboard, putting a word in each field
  • sts copy it to their notebooks 
  • in pairs, they have to make a correct sentence with the word to be able to win the field
  • when they’ve finished divide the class in half and play as a whole class activity
  • IDEA: once the sts are familiar with the activity, get them to create their own noughts and crosses with the words they find difficult (makes it more personalised and meaningful)
7. Storytelling: 
  • each st has a set of words on cards (or the whole group has words face up on the desk)
  • continue a story adding a sentence with one of the words
  • IDEA: set a points system, e.g. one point for every correctly used word (makes it more competitive)
8. Collocations/word sets:
  • list all words collocating with _______
  • IDEA: do it as a team race or set a time limit to increase competitiveness
9. Blockbusters:
  • sts move across the board by making correct sentences with the words given
10. Crosswords, word searches:
11. Questions:
  • sts prepare questions for their classmates using the words you are revising, e.g. Have you ever…? Do you….? When was the last time you…? etc.
  • IDEA: sts write questions on slips of paper; mix them up and redistribute randomly
  • IDEA 2: class mingle when sts swap the questions after asking them and move on
12. Recycling worksheets: 
  • prepare a grid, e.g. 5 x 5, where you will put in the words from the class
  • distribute to groups and play various games, such as: 3 in a row, definitions snap, story telling/writing, get rid of your cards(explanations/use in a sentence), use as many as possible in one sentence,  sentences about yourself (true and false, guess which one is false)…
  • IDEA: cut the grid up to make recycling cards
  • IDEA 2: get sts to prepare the grid themselves (more relevant and personalised)
13. Snap: 
  • spread word cards in front of a group of sts
  • one st provides a definition, the others try to grab the right word as soon as possible
14. Spelling race:
  • sts stand in rows at the far end of the classroom facing the board
  • say a word, the first student in the line runs up to the board and tries to spell it correctly
  • IDEA: use a definition instead of the word, or gapped sentence, or the coffeepot
  • IDEA 2: put a student in charge

15. Memrise.com!

  • learn almost 2500 words in a year in a fun way, spending less than 60mins a week on it. Impossible? Read my post about Memrise here.
And after all the fun in the classroom, if you’re still feeling like learning more, read up on lexis:
  • Lewis, M. 1993. The Lexical Approach
  •  Lewis, M. 1997. Implementing The Lexical Approach. 
  • Thornbury, S. 2002. How to Teach Vocabulary.
  • Harmer, J. 2006. The practice of English Language Teaching (chapter 12, 14)