Leo Selivan’s webinar on Quizlet | A quick summary

Leo Selivan

Leo Selivan is famous among ELT PLNs for advocating the lexical approach through his insightful and aptly named blog – Leoxicon. His webinar from IATEFL last night was on using Quizlet, an online study tool that uses flashcards and associated activities to review content. I have used Quizlet before to study for the Delta Module 1 exam and the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, a Chinese proficiency exam, but I’ve never used it for my learners.

quizlet 1Leo’s talk was essentially on using Quizlet to generate lexical practice exercises like this on words that collocate with ‘look’.  He suggested that lexical notebooks and flashcards which we encourage learners to maintain have many disadvantages including a lack of organization, teacher and student notes not being in sync, and not providing active recall and practice. Leo goes on to quote some research as the rationale for using Quizlet.

Incidental learning is not sufficient. Both contextualized and contextualized practice are needed. Treating vocabulary as an object of study rather than tools for communication is effective as a teaching method.

Laufer, B. (2005). Focus on form in second language learning. EUROSLA Yearbook, 5, 223-250

He goes on to cite that teachers/learners need

frequent encounters with new items.

breadth of vocabulary as well as depth of vocabulary

focus on the word form (e.g., adopt – adapt)

exploit L1 when advantageous

engagement with new items (attention, manipulation, time spent, being tested)

Schmitt, N. (2008). Instructed second language vocabulary learning. Language Teaching Research, 12(3), 329-363

Quizlet offers the following types of activities which go from receptive to somewhat productive, and easy to challenging.

  • Scatter – matching
  • Speller – type in words as they are spoken
  • Learn – type in words
  • Space race – type in words as definitions fly across the screen
  • Test – generates a graded quiz (open-ended, MCQ, T/F)

The workhorse of the Quizlet system is the flashcard. Interestingly, Leo avoids providing definitions on the flashcards, instead providing co-text.

Side 1: The video for Gangnam style went v_______l.

Side 2: Viral


Side 1: Why did you buy so many?  – They were _____ special offer.

Side 2: On

He explains the reason for this using conventional approaches to familiarizing Ss with a word. For example, which of the following definitions is better?

a willingness to accept an obligation and be accountable or an action or a situation.

blame for something that has happened

if you say that something that’s happened is your mistake, you take ________ for it.

Leo discourages using Dictionary.com which he says is inappropriate for learners, instead recommending Macmillan and Cambridge Dictionaries Online. The first of these definitions is in fact from Dictionary.com and would really not make much sense to learners. The other way we define words for learners is through synonyms. This too could be fallacy because for instance happen and occur are synonyms and yet cannot be interchangeably used in many situations. Similarly, vast’s synonyms, enormous and immense, may also end up being unfamiliar to learners.

There are nine different aspects of knowing a word:

Form: spoken, written, word parts

Meaning: form-concept, concept & referents, associations

Use: collocations, grammatical pattern, constraints on use

Nation, P. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. CUP.

Course books tend to focus on the form-meaning link and teachers tend to focus mostly on meaning (70% of classroom vocab teaching segments).

much of what has passed for vocabulary teaching […] addresses only the tip of the lexical iceberg

David Singleton in Exploring the second language mental lexicon. CUP. 1999. p.227

I think I have gone a bit overboard with this summary 🙂 but hopefully you get Leo’s point about why teaching vocabulary as we normally do could be problematic. So, how does Quizlet fit into all of this? Leo suggests some tweaks to definition-based exercises which emphasize co-text (not context!), which is essential for successful vocabulary learning.

Here are his suggested alternatives. In some cases, it wasn’t clear which Quizlet feature he used to create the exercise. With some of them, it might be a good idea to explore his sets to see how he has created these exercises.

1. Example sentence + (definition)


It’s a bit out of town but it’s a popular ______ for wedding receptions.

(the place where an event is held)

2. Collocations (+ definition) 

_________ with a doctor

make an __________ with

I had to cancel my ___________

(formal meeting)

3. Collocations flashcards 

right/wrong… / find an … to his question / give an …

4. Collocation chains (I think this one’s done with scatter)

dish                                   traditional… /vegetarian … /side … /my favourite

5. Collocations scatter 

quizlet 2

6. Collocations – learn mode 

quizlet 3


7. Prepositions – scatter 

I’ve got a really bad cough. I’ve had it _______ days.                                                for

8. Phrase + translation 

all over the world                                                                              partout dans le monde

9. Phrase in a conversation

“———————–?” “Fine, thanks.”                                         How’s it going

(How are you? How are things?)

10 First letter clue 

They conducted a t__________ i__________ but they couldn’t find the cause of the fire.

11. First letter, last letter 

Armstrong was b_______d from cycling for life.

12. Enhanced input

I’ve ______ for a job.                                                                        applied

I ________ to three universities and was accepted by two.

Useful links:

Image attribution: Flickr | TTed SIG PCE Leo Selivan … by Mike H | CC by NC 2.0)


One thought on “Leo Selivan’s webinar on Quizlet | A quick summary

  1. Nice selection of activities to do with Quizlet – cheers!

    I use Quizlet all the time, and must admit I often end up doing simple word-definition flashcards. I’m going to give some of these a spin.

    I’d also add that the Quizlet app is pretty good, and it’s a nice way to get mobiles involved in the class. As a warmer you might ask everybody to open the app, go to a certain set then race eachother on the scatter game in pairs. Setting up a league table for the scatter game for homework goes down pretty well with younger learners as well.




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