Rote Learning in TEFL

How To Teach English

Rote Learning is an old-fashioned method of learning by continuous repetition. It is derived from the idea that if a student says something enough times they will learn it and be able to produce it when the time comes.

In English it is also called learning by heart however there are more derogatory terms for it such as learning “parrot fashion” (in English and Greek) and “stuffing the duck” (in Chinese). Many of these imply force feeding of information.


A typical rote learning scenario might occur in learning the conjugation of irregular verbs.

I am
You are
He is
She is
It is
We are
You are
They are

The class might sit and chant the conjugation a dozen times. Likewise with vocabulary, a teacher may give the class a list of 20 or so words to learn by the next lesson and the students go home and learn them by repetition.


Whilst rote learning does have a place in learning (for example, it can be useful to learn the lines of a script or a times-table in maths) the main problem is that it lacks any kind of contextual learning and it can, in a worst case scenario, provide learning without understanding. A student may well be able to learn a list of 30 English idioms and be able to repeat them flawlessly without having any idea of their meaning or when they can be used.

Whilst rote learning can offer quick results (a student might be able to learn vocabulary very quickly) it lacks depth and understanding that only learning in context can offer.


Many school systems around the world use rote learning as a matter of course and your students may well expect to learn English in a similar way. In China, for example, students will expect tables and lists as part of their classes. In countries like France, however, rote learning is disparaged and discouraged.

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  1. paul rowe

    I have taught EFL teachers all over the world. That’s my job. I am stunned by the lack of understanding by about rote learning.

    *The myth about rote learning*

    Language learning is a feat of memory. Humans remember in two ways.
    1. rote, and
    2. by patterning.

    By far the majority of what a person knows has be learned by rote learning. For example, your name, your friends names, your address, your pin number, and nearly every word (vocabulary) you know.
    Professor Paul Nation has done research which shows that for second language learning a new language item needs to be repeated (in context) around 14 times for language acquisition to happen. Even more recent research ups the number to 20 repetitions.

    Patterned memory in second language is not so obvious because it is automatic, the job of the Language Acquisition Device (LAD). It is just as abused by EFL teachers as rote learning is.

    Most EFL teachers I have observed *reverse* the roles of rote learning and patterned learning. For some inexplicable reason they shun teaching vocabulary by rote, yet they are happy to have students rote learn endless amounts of meaningless sentences.

    Nature shows us that vocabulary is learned via rote and sentences are acquired via patterning.

    When working with EFL teachers it is obvious that once teachers understand this basic principal, they quickly move on to become time-effective EFL teachers.

    So, again, successful EFL teachers understand that rote memory is used for vocabulary, and patterned memory is used for sentences.

    So how does this work for the teacher in class?

    To teach vocabulary (and in fact anything that is not a sentence) EFL teachers need a few multifunctional resources and activities. Multifunctional resources (as opposed to one-of resources) provide students with the *volume* (within context) that is needed for learning to happen. Multifunctional resources also provide *variety* to the learning. These resources are also time-effective.

    And what about teaching sentences. We DON’T teach sentences. Successful EFL teachers provide copious amounts of sentences patterns and the LAD automatically problem solves the learners ‘grammars’. So EFL teachers simply need a few multifunctional activities to provide sentence patterning and sentence cues.

    As the header on my website says “We know very little about teaching a second language, and nothing about teaching literacy.” This EFL adage only seems to get stronger with the passing of time. This adage and the above article are worth pondering for a while, they could change the way you see EFL teaching.

    • Jenny Scott

      I think I might disagree with you that we learn by rote names, addresses, phone numbers, etc. These are all learned in context. Rote learning doesn’t include context.