Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Rote Learning

by AJ

Jack Brown posed some excellent questions in recent comments to one of my posts. They were important questions, so Id like to address them... and present my ideas, in a post.

The big issue is whether repetition, rote learning and drudgery are, in fact, necessary.

I agree 100% with Mr. Brown that repetition is absolutely necessary. No one learns a new word the first time they see it (well, almost no one). You've got to be exposed to it many times... either through drills, memorization exercises, or some other means. The same goes for grammar and pronunciation.

But repetition does not have to equal drudgery or rote learning. In fact, research shows that rote learning is inferior to more pleasant methods. The most striking case is that of vocabulary acquisition and reading. Reading for pleasure is a FAR more efficient means of acquiring vocabulary than directly attempting to memorize words. In terms of words learned per minute,.... reading beats rote memorization by a wide margin (see http://sdkrashen.com for more research details). And few of us would argue, I imagine, that rote memorization is more fun than reading kids books, comics, mini-novels, and the like.

Reading provides a MASSIVE amount of repetition. You read the same words over and over and over again. Better yet, each time the word appears in a slightly different context. And so the reader learns not only a rough translation... but also the connotation and "flavor" of the word. The same is true for grammar. The path of pleasure beats the path of pain.

*Another example: My pre-K cousin Olivia has mastered basic English phonics. She did so without any kind of rote "study" or pain. How did she do it? She watched a few phonics cartoons. She found them very entertaining and so she watched them again, and again, and again, and again. She had fun, she was entertained, and she thoroughly learned basic phonics.

Contrast this with the rote-memory approach: The teacher/parent holds up a flash card of a letter and says "What sound does it make?", The child answers. If wrong, the teacher corrects them. If right, the teacher holds up another card. In five minutes both the student and the teacher are bored. Most likely, the student is also getting quite frustrated.

Once again, the path of pleasure beats the path of pain.

*An example from my own study: In the past I tried to "study" Spanish. I made vocab flashcards and studied grammar in textbooks. But I always found that my mind wandered after only 5 to 10 minutes of this activity. I simply couldnt sustain it. Im sure there are a few hyper-disciplined folks who CAN sustain this sort of activity... but they are a tiny minority.

Now I do not "study" Spanish at all. Im reading mini-novels and listening to mini-stories on CD. Im acquiring a great deal of vocabulary with absolutely no pain. Sometimes I use the dictionary to look up an unknown word.. but I never attempt to memorize it by force. I know I will see it again within the same story... and/or in another story. I get repetition, but without pain or drudgery.

I can sustain this sort of activity much much longer (free reading, free listening). For the first time in many years, Im making consistent progress (not necessarily fast, because Im busy,... but Im sticking with it week after week).

Again, the path of pleasure beats the path of pain.

*Finally, a non-language example. My Mom is overweight. She hates to exercise. Yet every couple of years she decides to go on an exercise kick. What does she do? She rides on a stationary bike.... or walks on a treadmill... or attempts to powerwalk in her neighborhood. She rarely sustains her exercise program longer than a month.

I have always exercised. Ive never had a weight problem. What do I do? I walk to school and work. I go for meandering strolls. In America, I ran often... but I didnt grind it out on a treadmill. Rather, I went for leisurely runs in the woods with my dog. If I got tired, I stopped and walked. I also played games like disc golf (lots of walking). I have never considered any of this drudgery... I find all of these activities inherently enjoyable. Do I get plenty of repetition (ie. aerobic exercise)-- Absolutely! Do I resort to monotony or drudgery-- Absolutely not!

Are there people who can stay in shape by running on a treadmill? Yes... but they are a very small minority of super-disciplined maniacs. Most people cannot sustain painful drudgery for extended periods of time (unless forced to). This is true with exercise and its true with language learning.

The path of pleasure always beats the path of pain.