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I am an English Teacher in China, and recently I've heard more and more parents and students in China complaining about word memorization when learning English. They feel that kids would be more motivated if they could learn words "naturally", say, through reading or using them in real life contexts. Well, personally I am entirely for the movement of making English Education more function-geared and less test-oriented, and I am really happy to see that Chinese people are changing their mentality towards English learning. However, I am also concerned that people might be in danger of swinging into the other extreme through ignoring the role of active leaning and memorizing in language learning.

So my questions are:

1) Do native speakers need to memorize new vocabulary when they are reading more challenging texts (e.g. an eighteenth century novel or some founding documents);

2) Have you ever done rote memorization for standardized tests, such as SSAT, SAT, ACT, GRE, and so forth?

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    Usually some rote memorization is necessary to form a base, that's why kids are given vocabulary lists to learn. Once enough vocabulary is learned , then the virtuous circle may begin where additional vocabulary can be achieved through context. – Peter Mar 20 '18 at 16:31
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Some kind of routine is absolutely essential if you are trying to cover a “set list” of vocabulary.

How you study the list can vary. A good teacher will try to cover the list by providing examples, directing students to read and write sentences and even make up stories using those words, rather than merely provide them with the list, but the lists are necessary.

However to answer your actual questions:

  1. Yes, but unless it’s intentional study of very old texts where lots of words have changed in meaning (as opposed to becoming archaric or completely disused*), usually¹ people will keep a dictionary / glossary to hand and consult it when needed.

  2. Yes, even at ‘O’ level (I predate GCSEs), we occasionally were given lists of words to learn, but they were infrequent, and usually specific to the texts we were studying, i.e. serving somewhat like a glossary, but we had to provide the gloss by looking them up! This was for Henry IV Part I rather than Beowulf, though. We did get quite a bit of explanation of the dialect in Playboy of the Western World, but during lessons as we read parts of it out loud.

Also, while I understand the frustration of both parents and students, it takes a lot of work to learn a new language, especially when its alphabet (or syllabary or what have you) and vocabulary are very different to your native tongue. I’m trying to learn Japanese, and it’s taken three weeks just to get the hiragana more-or-less down pat(!) though I’m not doing it full-time. I think that’s partly age, though :o)


¹ Obviously I cannot actually speak for everyone! I expect students of particular historical literature will be given glossaries specific to those times / works prior to their study; you will have to ask someone engaged in, say, Mediæval Studies to advise you.

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Native speakers can learn much more slowly.

Suppose you demanded that your students would do over 10 hours of study each day, seven days a week with a private tutor who spends all their time with the student. Imagine that your students would not be expected to learn any words until about 1½ years. Imagine if your students were not expected to form their first sentence until about 2½ to 3 years of study. And even after this period of intense study they are not expected to attain a reasonable level of fluency until 6-10 years after they start learning.

Native speakers put in a massive amount of time and effort to learning. This allows us to learn about 10 words a day.

When people are learning a second language we need a short-cut. They need to get started more quickly. Short-cuts include learning words using translations and studying grammar.

When reading old texts, one would use a glossary and notes to explain points meaning. Editions of older texts will often have extensive notes. One doesn't do "rote memorization" prior to reading such a text, but one might use a dictionary while reading. Most 18th century texts can be read quite easily.

Going back futher, if reading Chaucer, one normally spends a lot of time annotating the text and writing glosses, this can be part of the post-16 study in English.

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