Cloze deletion for learning Chinese

Cloze deletion is one of the classic methods for using flashcards effectively. It’s recommended in SuperMemo’s 20 rules because it’s straightforward to use and produces great results for all kinds of knowledge.

As with most guidance on memorisation and flashcards, cloze deletion works very well for learning Chinese in some ways, and less so in others. This article covers how you can make the best use of cloze deletion for learning Chinese more efficiently.

How to do cloze deletion

On a cloze deletion flashcard, the prompt is some information with a certain part hidden. Most commonly it’s a sentence with a word blanked out. The desired response to the card is to recall the missing information.

Cloze deletion is convenient because it’s usually easy to convert textbook-style information or online content into cloze deletion cards. You just copy the information you want to retain, and blank out a key word or phrase in it.

For language learning, the most obvious way to apply cloze deletion is to use example sentences with key words blanked out. Note that you can also apply defeat in detail with cloze deletion: you can turn one sentence into many separate cards by blanking out different elements of it.

Context and language learning

One reason cloze deletion is effective is because it provides some context in the prompt, which may guide you to the response in a natural way. In one way this is making the card “easier”, which may seem undesirable, but the goal with flashcards is not to be able to rigidly regurgitate information but to try and emulate a more organic learning process given contraints on cost and convenience.

Reliance on context is a genuine issue when you’re trying to retain information in the long-term, though. It’s possible to be excellent at recalling the knowledge you need in a specific context, but to find yourself at a loss in others. The way to deal with this issue is to recognise it and make sure that you cover the knowledge with a variety of prompts and a variety of approaches. In other words, flashcards are only ever one part of the solution.

The flip-side of context with language learning is that contextual knowledge is an integral part of our language skills. Native speakers can, for example, immediately understand what’s said to them on several levels, disambiguate unclear utterances and intuitively assess the “correctness” of any sentence, all with very little effort. They can do this because they have such a strongly interconnected web of knowledge about the language; everything in their native language has a rich context for them.

As a second-language learner you have a contradictory goal: try and build a strong context for everything you might encounter in the target language, but also avoid relying on context as a crutch. How does that make sense?

The answer is that there’s a crucial difference between the small, specific and isolated context in something like a cloze deletion flashcard, and the gigantic, richly-linked web that an average native speaker holds in their head. It’s like comparing a single web-page to the entire Web. Aim for the latter and try not to rely on the former alone.

AJATT’s Massive Context Cloze Deletion (MCD)

Any article on cloze deletion and language learning wouldn’t be complete without taking a look at AJATT’s Massive Context Cloze Deletion, or MCDs.

MCDs are pretty much plain old cloze deletion cards, but with these key aspects:

  • A lot of context around a very small deletion
  • A focus on the context as much as what’s deleted

You could argue that this isn’t really any different to normal cloze deletions, which may be the case. The small and specific deletion is supported by the minimum information principle. Regardless of how original you think they are, MCDs are a good idea and can be incorporated into any flashcard system. They work well alongside other types of cards, and are a good way to diversify the approaches you take to retaining information long term.

Series: Twenty rules for learning

  1. Understand before you learn
  2. Learn before you memorise
  3. Build upon the basics
  4. The minimum information principle
  5. Cloze deletion for learning Chinese (this article)
  6. Use imagery to learn Chinese
  7. Use mnemonics
  8. Graphical deletion and audio deletion for learning Chinese
  9. Avoid sets
  10. Avoid enumerations
  11. Interference when learning Chinese
  12. 5 ways to optimise your Chinese flashcards
  13. Refer to other memories
  14. Personalise your Chinese learning
  15. Using emotional states to remember Chinese
  16. The importance of context in Chinese flashcards
  17. Why redundancy is good for language learning

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