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The Inspiration

The initial inspiration for #DECODE came from my long experience as an English teacher using imagery to help with vocabulary retention.

Thirty years ago, I took a diploma in English Language Teaching and in one of the lessons our instructor encouraged us to find visual input to help teach our “guinea pig” students. Somehow, I managed to put together a set of photos cut out of magazines and surprisingly enough, I noticed they had an efficient effect in the subsequent lesson that I gave on vocabulary.
After that experience, I continued to make vocabulary cards, by pasting images onto the back of playing cards. I found that by selecting the most difficult vocabulary, but at the same time useful, frequent vocabulary, I was able in a class (lasting no more than 20 or 25 minutes) to teach most students 15 new words which they would be able to remember efficiently.

I systematically verified week on week whether the new vocabulary had in fact been assimilated. However, I found that with certain individuals with no apparent common element, either in terms of age, sex, profession or general intelligence, the average number of useful vocabulary teachable could rise well beyond 50.
My most astonishing student nearly exhausted my supply of cards over a period of a few weeks and as a challenge, I set out to make 60 new cards to see whether he would be able to manage such a large quantity. To my own personal astonishment the week after, he was able to recall the sense of each one. We even tested his retention some months later and found that he had retained on a permanent basis vocabulary taught in that one session.

An interesting aspect of this particular student’s learning style was that he had initially a very poor level of English and his general mastery of grammar was below average. His ability to use his memory for vocabulary was the strongest point that he had in terms of increasing his ability to communicate in English. I have had a number of other students with a similar, although never equal capacity to this one student.

I have found that students with an already significantly good level of English in terms of vocabulary can also benefit particularly from the use of imagery when it comes to learning idiomatic expressions, which usually contain four or five individual words and they do pose a particular problem for most students, due simply to the number of elements they contain.
However, for a good student whose vocabulary is already fairly strong, image cards can be especially helpful. Now flashcards are nothing new in the world of teaching. What the cards I made have, which is a bit different from most, is that the images themselves are not simple representations of the word.

So frequently a set of flashcards will teach, for example, fruits by showing an image of an apple for an Apple and an orange for an Orange. Psycholinguistic experiments have shown that the simple representation of an image is not enough to stimulate the thousands of brain cells required to acquire a new word. What has to happen is many sectors of the brain have to be mobilised to analyse an image and seek the meaning.

A simple example would be the word ‘therefore’ which is in itself a difficult word to memorise because it is abstract and experiments have shown that abstract words are much less easy to acquire than words which deal with concrete objects. The word ‘therefore’ on one set of cards that I developed is represented by a figure of Sherlock Holmes, the great London detective, in order to suggest the sense of the word.

When a set of 15 words are presented to students to match to a set of 15 images, the brain experiences a significant challenge in matching the word ‘therefore’ to the image of Sherlock Holmes; but once the connection has been made, there is an aha! moment where the brain says ‘of course there is a connection!’ and my experience has shown that that type of aha connection can help the memorisation of vocabulary in a permanent way.

Other elements are necessary to reinforce the use of a word through contextualisation and repetition, but as an initial way of acquiring vocabulary quickly, I am confident that the approach that #DECODE was inspired by is significantly quicker than most other teaching methods.