Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS): A tool to review information methodically

↓ Summary     → En español

What is a Spaced Repetition System, and how does it work?


During your school or college years, did you ever use little cards (also known as "flashcards") to study and help you remember things? Those cards usually have a question on the front, and on the back they have the answer corresponding to the question on the front.

If you had a "deck" of cards with you about a particular topic, like Geography for instance, the process of reviewing your cards would look more or less like this:
  • You take the first card.
  • You read the question on the front. For instance, "The capital of Argentina is _______".
  • You try to give the correct answer.
  • You flip the card to see what was the correct answer.
  • Whether you gave the correct answer or not, you put the card on the bottom of your deck.
  • And you repeat this process with the next card.
Now, a Spaced Repetition Systems, usually abbreviated as SRS, is a software applications (although some implementations with pen and paper are possible) that works similarly to how flashcards word, but with certain important differences.

First, given that any SRS is usually implemented through software, they allow you to organize and manage several decks of virtual cards about different topics, and you can create new cards for your decks that may include content of almost any kind (like text, images, sounds, videos, etc.) Also, you can study your virtual flashcards using your computer or mobile device, so you don't need to carry around a physical deck of cards to review.

Now, the most important difference between an SRS and using physical flashcards is not that the SRS is based on software. The most important difference between these two systems is that the SRS implements optimization algorithms. When you review a virtual card on your SRS, once you try to give the correct answer and verify which was the real answer, the SRS will ask you to evaluate how well you did in giving the answer. If you couldn't give a correct answer successfully, you will have to give yourself a low grade. If you gave the correct answer, you give yourself a high grade.

Then, if your grade is low, you will have to review that card you failed pretty soon – maybe in a couple of minutes, or the next day, for instance. And if you gave yourself a high grade, then you will have to review that card much later – in a couple of weeks, or a month, or a years, it depends.

If each time that you are going to review a particular card you manage to answer it correctly, each subsequent review will be assigned farther and farther in the future – first one day later, then more or less a week later, then about two weeks later, then more or less three weeks later, and so on.

Most SRS scheduling algorithms are based on the principles of memory and forgetting outlined by Piotr Wozniak, the biologist and researcher who created the first SRS application, SuperMemo. Wozniak's findings basically say that if we review a piece of information just before we forget it, each subsequent review necessary to maintain said piece of content in our memory will be farther and farther in the future.

This is the main function of an SRS: To space out your reviews optimally so you don't have to review information earlier or later than you really need to.

For more information about Spaced Repetition Systems I suggest you read the respective Wikipedia article, and some very interesting articles about memory and spaced repetition at SuperMemo's Official Website.


To use, or not to use an SRS?


Nowadays, several authors who talk about language learning, specially Tom and Khatz, strongly recommend you use an SRS to help you review vocabulary and phrases in English (or your target language) optimally.

Other authors and polyglots in the blogosphere, like Randy the Yearlyglot and Steve Kaufmann, don't like using any kind of SRS or any other kind of flashcards.

In my case, the SRS that I used to use (Anki) was very useful for reviewing kanji using what's known as Heisig's method, and it was useful (not "very" useful... just "useful") to review the Japanese kana and the IPA for English.

For years I tried to use Anki to review Japanese vocabulary (I really tried!) and English vocabulary, but not long ago I decided to stop reviewing vocabulary that way. I decided to just focus on reading and deciphering more content in English (and possibly French pretty soon) instead of wasting time adding cards in Anki to review.

On one side, nowadays I do not recommend you use an SRS to review vocabulary. But on the other side, many language learners have benefited from using an SRS, and maybe you would like to use a tool like that. And if that's the case, then maybe you could leverage it a lot and it could turn out to be really useful for you and your English learning. Just because *I* don't use any SRS to review vocabulary doesn't mean that it wouldn't work for you.

Because I want you to make an informed decision, I will share with you how the heck you could use an SRS to help you review English vocabulary. Once you learn how to do this, then you can decide if you want to try using an SRS like Anki, or better not. Let's go!


What SRS to use?


Anki. Anki, Anki, Anki. Use Anki. This program is free (except the iOS version), it's easy to learn, and the program has many ports available (online version, for Windows, for Ubuntu, for Android, for iOS) that can be all synchronized.

You can download Anki on the link above. Once you install it I suggest you take some time to read the Introduction, Anki Essentials, and the Studying section in the user manual.

To familiarize yourself with Anki you can download any deck that catches your attention in the Shared Decks page, or you can download my "IPA for English" deck, and use it to do reviews (and learn the IPA while you are at it).


How to review English vocabulary using Anki


If after doing several test reviews with shared decks you decide you want to try using Anki to review vocabulary, then this is what I suggest you do:

First, go to the user manual and read the Adding Material and Cards and Templates sections. I also suggest you read the Browser section. Once you do, I suggest you start testing what you just read.

Try to create a new note type, and new deck, and put any notes you want on that deck. Add fields to the note type you created, and edit them on the template page for that note type. In other words, "tinker" with those functions until you feel comfortable using them.

Before I keep going with this, make sure you understand the following, because if you don't you will not understand anything of what I'll be talking about:
  • The difference between a note and a card.
  • How to create new note types.
  • How to create different card types in a note.
  • How to add fields to a note.
  • And how to edit the appearance of your cards on the template editor.
All right, the next step is to choose a format, the structure your vocabulary cards will have. What will go on the front? And what will go on the back of each card?

Some time ago I was thinking about what would be the most simple format to review vocabulary, without losing effectiveness. After analyzing formats suggested by Khatz and Tom, and reading several recommendations on the SuperMemo website about how to best organize your question/answer pairs, the following format occurred to me (call it the "Inglesk format" or whatever you want, I don't know).

I will show you a version of this format for people who are just getting started in English, and a version for more advanced learners. Hope you like them :D

Note: I don't know how to implement this format on SuperMemo, just on Anki.


Beginners format


Ok, first you have to create a new note type on Anki using the "Basic" type as a base. Name that note something like "Vocabulary", or "English", or any of those words translated into your native language (in Spanish it would be "Vocabulario" or "Inglés").

On that note type add the following fields:
  • Phrase in English (rename "Front" to this field if you want)
  • Translation of phrase (rename "Back" to this field if you want)
  • Word
  • Pronunciation
  • Translation of word
  • Extras
You can either name the fields in English or in your native language. In Spanish these fields would be:
  • Frase en inglés
  • Traducción de frase
  • Palabra
  • Pronunciación
  • Traducción de palabra
  • Extras
When you start creating cards for this note type, the information you will add to each field will be the following:
  • Phrase in English - This field will have a phrase/sentence in English, and an unknown word in bold.
  • Translation of phrase - Translation of the phrase in English. DON'T try to translate the phrase by yourself if your English level is still low. Use phrases with translations that are trustworthy enough, like the ones you can find at Tatoeba.org.
  • Word - Add your unknown word in English here.
  • Pronunciation - Add the IPA transcription of the word here. You should be able to copy-paste it from your software dictionary without issues. If you have time and you want to, add an audio file with the pronunciation in addition to the IPA.
  • Translation of word - Put here the translations that appear in your English-(your-native-language) dictionary for your unknown word.
  • Extras - Here you can add any extra information you want, like extra example phrases or the paragraph where you found your Phrase in English, for instance.
Once you have created your note type, let's create three card types within the note. These card types will be:
  • Phrase definition
  • Word definition
  • Word pronunciation
Once again, you can name those card types in your native language if you like. In Spanish they would be Definición frase, Definición de palabra and Pronunciación de palabra.

On a Phrase definition card you will have to remember (more or less) the meaning of the entire phrase. You don't have to match the translation word-for-word, but your interpretation must be close enough to the idea the phrase is trying to transmit.

On a Word definition card you will have to remember more or less what your word in bold actually means for the (mini)context of that phrase. You don't have to remember all possible translations for the word, but you DO have to remember what would be the correct translation of that word for the given context.

On a Word pronunciation card you will have to remember the exact pronunciation of the word in bold, according to what the IPA of that word indicates.

Once you create these three card types, edit the template of each card type like this:


Phrase definition:

FRONT:
What does this phrase mean:
<br><br>{{Phrase in English}}
<br><br>{{Extras}}

BACK:
{{Translation of phrase}}
<hr>
{{Phrase in English}}
<br><br>
{{Word}} {{Pronunciation}}
= {{Translation of word}}
<br><br>{{Extras}}

- - -

Word definition:

FRONT:
Define the word: {{Word}}
<br><br>{{Phrase in English}}
<br><br>{{Extras}}

BACK:
{{Word}} {{Pronunciation}}
<br>= <i>{{Word translation}}</i>
<hr>
{{Phrase in English}}
<br>
{{Translation of phrase}}
<br><br>{{Extras}}

- - -

Word pronunciation:

FRONT:
Pronounce: {{Word}}
<br>= <i>{{Phrase in English}}
<br><br>{{Extras}}

BACK:
<b>{{Pronunciation}}</b> {{Word}}
= {{Translation of word}}
<hr>
{{Phrase in English}}
<br>
{{Translation of phrase}}
<br><br>{{Extras}}


Make any cosmetic or functional changes to the templates as you see fit. Once you define your templates like that, then once you add a new note and add all necessary information on each field, the cards you will review later will look like this (an example with parts of the cards translated in Spanish, and without any information in the Extras field):


Definición frase:

FRONT:
Que quiere decir la frase:

Nowadays, watching death scenes in videogames makes me feel squeamish.

BACK:
Hoy en día, ver escenas de muertes en los videojuegos me "da cosa".


Nowadays, watching death scenes in videogames makes me feel squeamish.

Squeamish /`skwimɪʃ/ = Aprensivo, quisquilloso, que "te da cosa" algo

- - -

Definición palabra:

FRONT:
Define la palabra: Squeamish

Nowadays, watching death scenes in videogames makes me feel squeamish.

BACK:
Squeamish /`skwimɪʃ/
= Aprensivo, quisquilloso, que "te da cosa" algo

Nowadays, watching death scenes in videogames makes me feel squeamish.

Hoy en día, ver escenas de muertes en los videojuegos me "da cosa".

- - -

Pronunciación palabra:

FRONT:
Pronuncia: Squeamish

Nowadays, watching death scenes in videogames makes me feel squeamish.

BACK:
/`skwimɪʃ/ Squeamish = Aprensivo, quisquilloso, que "te da cosa" algo

Nowadays, watching death scenes in videogames makes me feel squeamish.

Hoy en día, ver escenas de muertes en los videojuegos me "da cosa".


Format for intermidiate-advanced learners


This format is very similar to the previous one. The difference is that in this format you won't be using translations in your native language. The phrase in English will not have a translation, and the definition of the unknown word will be written in English.

To use this format I suggest you create a separate note type – something named "English Advanced" or something like that to differentiate it from the bilingual format. On this type of note add the following fields:
  • Phrase (rename "front" to this field if you want)
  • Word (rename "Back" to this field if you want)
  • Pronunciation
  • Word definition
  • Extras
"Phrase" contains a phrase in English with a word in bold that you don't understand well yet. The field "Word" will have the word in English you don't understand, and "Pronunciation" will have the IPA of that word. "Definition" will have the correct definition (written in English) for the (mini)context of that phrase – just copy-paste the definition from your software/web dictionary. And "Extras" is to add any extra information you may want to add, like some more example phrases or the paragraph where you found the original "Phrase".

Create three card types for this note, and edit your templates like this:

Card 1: Understanding the phrase

FRONT:
Read this phrase:
<br><br>{{Phrase}}
<br><br>{{Extras}}

BACK:
How well did you understand the phrase?
<br><br>
{{Phrase}}
<hr>
{{Word}} {{Pronunciation}}
= {{Word definition}}
<br><br>{{Extras}}

- - -

Card 2: Word definition:

FRONT:
Define: {{Word}}
<br><br>{{Phrase}}
<br><br>{{Extras}}

BACK:
{{Word}} {{Pronunciation}}
<br>= <i>{{Definition}}</i>
<hr>
{{Phrase}}
<br><br>{{Extras}}

- - -

Card 3: Word pronunciation:

FRONT:
Pronounce: {{Word}}
<br>= <i>{{Phrase}}
<br><br>{{Extras}}

BACK:
<b>{{Pronunciation}}</b> {{Word}}
= {{Word definition}}
<hr>
{{Phrase}}
<br><br>{{Extras}}

On "Understanding the phrase" you are just trying to evaluate how well you understand the phrase. The more you feel you understand it, and the more secure you feel about it, the higher the grade you give yourself.

On "Word definition" you have to remember (more or less) the meaning of the word in bold. You don't have to give the exact definition, but it should be close enough given the (mini)context of the phrase.

And on "Word pronunciation" you have to give the exact pronunciation of the word as shown on its respective IPA transcription.

An example of how these cards look like (once again, without any information in the Extras field):


Phrase understanding:
FRONT:
Read this phrase:

This is the part where he kills us...

BACK:
How well did you understand the phrase?

Kill /kɪl/
= To put to death; to extinguish the life of.

- - -

Phrase definition:

FRONT:
Define: Kills

This is the part where he kills us...

BACK:
Kill /kɪl/
= To put to death; to extinguish the life of.

This is the part where he kills us...

- - -

Word pronunciation:

FRONT:
Pronounce: Kills

This is the part where he kills us...

BACK:
/kɪls/ Kill
= To put to death; to extinguish the life of.

This is the part where he kills us...


(On the last card, because the dictionary doesn't show you how to pronounce "kills" (just "kill"), in that case you can add the 's' yourself to the IPA of the word. In my experience, every verb/action that ends with 's' is pronounced with an /s/ at the end.)

And now, a couple of examples that do have extra information:


Card with more example phrases:

FRONT:
Read this phrase:

The audience sobbed throughout the climax of the movie.

The fire spread throughout the house.
A serious form of flu prevails throughout the country.
They export their products to markets throughout the world.
The museum is open daily throughout the year.

BACK:
How well did you understand the phrase?

The audience sobbed throughout the climax of the movie.

throughout /θruˈaʊt/ = In or into every part of something; During the whole period of time of something.

The fire spread throughout the house.
A serious form of flu prevails throughout the country.
They export their products to markets throughout the world.
The museum is open daily throughout the year.

- - -

Card with more context:

FRONT:
Pronounce: Hadn't

I was “working” on a project and a friend asked me why I hadn't started yet.

A while back, I was “working” on a project and a friend asked me why I hadn't started yet. I started sputtering up excuses of perfectly good reasons why I hadn't, when he stopped me, looked me in the eye and said: "You know what you need to do... just do it." It hurt, but it was true.

BACK:
/ˈhædnt/ hadn't = Had not.

I was “working” on a project and a friend asked me why I hadn't started yet.

A while back, I was “working” on a project and a friend asked me why I hadn't started yet. I started sputtering up excuses of perfectly good reasons why I hadn't, when he stopped me, looked me in the eye and said: "You know what you need to do... just do it." It hurt, but it was true.


And finally... why this format? First, because with the phrase card you train your sense of grammar, with the word card you train your vocabulary, and with the pronunciation card... guess what you train lol. To me, this format would be a bit more complete than the Sentences format suggested by Tom, and because you are required to remember just ONE thing per card, it's more manageable than the MXD (Massive ConteXt cloze-Deletion) format from Khatz, where you have to remember the writing, meaning and pronunciation of one hidden word, all in the same card.


Where to get content to add to your SRS


If you are a beginner, I would suggest you use a frequency list, and search for phrases on Tatoeba.org that contain those words on the list. Add those phrases to Anki using the beginners format that I just shared with you. AND/OR you could also add phrases you find deciphering simple content like songs and parallel texts.

If you are intermediate+, add phrases from the contents that you decipher normally, like YouTube videos, song lyrics, ebooks, articles, etc.

Add 10-20 new phrases each day more or less, and do your reviews every single day.


All right, if you are up to do aaaaaaaaall that, then I wish you great success using Anki for your English learning. Remember that you can modify these card formats as you want until you find the one you like using the most, and that gives you the best results.

And if you decide to not use an SRS... don't worry. Just read, listen and decipher content in English like I've showed you how. As long as you invest a good amount of time each day reading and listening to content in English (and deciphering it actively, of course), you don't need an SRS.


Summary (plus an extra format)


Would you like to review vocabulary using a program with virtual flashcards that optimally schedules your reviews? Then download and install Anki. Create a new deck.

If you are a beginner, get a frequency list and your English – (your-native-language-here) dictionary. From there you will take words to add to Anki.

If you are intermediate+, take words from the content you usually decipher.

Add to your deck cards that follow the formats explained in the article above, or use this super simple TL;DR format:

FRONT:
(word in English)

BACK:
(IPA pronunciation)
(Translation in your native language of that word in English)

You have to remember both the translations and exact pronunciation of the word on each review. Add 10-20 new cards a day and do your reviews everyday.

Or... DON'T do any of that and just read/listen in English, deciphering actively.


Last updated: May 22 of 2015

↓ Tu atención por favor ↓

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