The importance of spaced review in English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching

By on February 17, 2011

In order to use the language, ESL learners need to be able to retain what they have studied throughout their language learning process and to use it when necessary. Part of becoming a fluent speaker is having the ability to speak without constantly pausing to remember words or grammar structures. Such pauses are eliminated when the material is put into long-term memory as part of their ESL studies, in such a way that speakers can recall it without hesitation.

One of the most dependable phenomena in all experimental psychology is the effect of spacing the presentation of material. Research shows that when learners see the material frequently at first, and then at increasingly long intervals of time, the material is solidly retained in long- term memory. In research conducted with learners who studied Spanish for three years, those learners whose study involved spaced review remembered 72% of the vocabulary they had studied 50 years earlier (Bahrick 1984). Those whose study did not involve spaced review remembered less than 10%. Learning which involves spaced review allows for better recall and also decreases the amount of time it takes to master the material. This study confirms that material that is reviewed over time is more likely to be retained over time.

Specifically applied to ESL, spaced review helps learners achieve and maintain language acquisition more effectively than without. A major limitation of other ESL applications is that spaced review is rarely a major area of focus. The graphs below demonstrate the difference between traditional learning, often applied in typical ESL applications and instructions, and systematic spaced review.


The TALL ESL system includes spaced review as an integral part of the application. For example, after learners do various activities in the software to learn new vocabulary words, the software will show them the same words to review the next day, but then will not show these words for a couple of days. The words will later reappear in another review activity. If ESL learners remember the words after this short period of time, the words will disappear again and reappear after another delay in a test. However, if ESL learners cannot remember the words, they are put back into the review cycle until they are mastered.

In this way, TALLʼs Spaced Review system helps ESL learners move the material into their long-term memory. When the material is in the learnersʼ long-term memory, they become masters of the material. The ESL learners can then use the material in communication quickly and easily. Review that is not spaced and repeated may only allow the ESL learners to recognize that they have seen the material before, not actually use the material for communication.  With that in mind, let’s review the graphs one more time:

Adapted from “The TALL Language System: An Integrated, Research-Based Approach to ESL Instruction”, by Dr. C. Ray Graham, and Dr. Kent Parry, both of Brigham Young University. Used with permission.  To receive a free copy of the complete document, click here.

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