Vocabulary techniques to study ESL abroad at EC San Francisco

English is infamous for having exceptions to rules, and one of the more irritating areas of exception are irregular verbs.  There are well over 200 that can crop up (particularly in reading), and many more when you include base verbs with prefixes.  200 “exceptions” can be a daunting task, yet it can be managed fairly easily, and remarkably quickly, using a totally low-tech system that has been around for a really long time  –  the index card.

An index card (or file card) is a piece of blank cardstock, slightly larger than a standard playing card.  Some have lines on one side; other types are blank on both sides.  They are usually sold in packages of 100, and are very inexpensive.  Yet, for something so simple, they give a quite large “bang for the buck” in language learning.  It works so well that I recommend it to all my students while they study ESL abroad at EC San Francisco.

You can cut these flowers, but can you remember the past and past participle of "cut."
You can cut these flowers, but can you remember the past and past participle of “cut.”

To use them for irregular verbs, start with a fairly complete irregular verb list, and divide it into 3 groups.  The first group is the verbs you already know perfectly.  Congratulate yourself for your accomplishment in learning these, and set them aside.  You will never need to study them again, unless you stop using English for several years.  Group two is all the verbs where you say “What?  Is that really a word?  I’ve no idea what that means!”  If you honestly have never heard of the verb, chances are you won’t need it very often (if ever).  Set aside all the group two verbs to study when you are so bored that even studying obscure verbs sounds good.

This leaves the third group, the verbs you know about, but don’t conjugate perfectly  –  yet.  Choose 10 of these verbs.  Write the base form on the front of the card.  Write the simple past and past participle on the back.  Now you are ready to go!

The technique is simple.  Look at the front of the first card, say the word out loud (it is important that you hear it!), and try to remember the other parts of the verb.  Say them out loud as well.  Then check.  If you got it right, great!   If you didn’t, say it aloud correctly, two times.  Then go on to the next card.  Go through the card set completely one or two times.  Then set it aside.  Do this twice a day.  When you get a verb right three times in a row, set the card aside.

Now you have a personal decision to make.  Do you like to complete tasks, or keep adding to your task?  You can do the ten cards until you have them all, or you can keep replacing the ones you learned with new ones, so that you always have ten.  In either case, if you try this, you should be able to get at least ten verbs perfectly in three days.  Maybe you can do more, but at a minimum, you should be able to get this perfect for 20 verbs a week.  Suddenly, 200 verbs don’t seem like that many.  (Don’t count how many you haven’t learned yet  –  count the ones you HAVE.)

The cards are small so carry them with you.  Elevator moving slowly?  Do the cards.  Stuck on the bus?  Do the cards.  Is there a line to use the bathroom?  Guess what  –  the cards again.  At most, it will take you 5 minutes, and you will be doing something useful with those odd minutes that your day is full of.

P.S.  This works even better if you can do it with a partner.