When I was at school learning languages I thought the performance of the top students was forever beyond my reach. I believed this so strongly that I never even tried to work out how to catch them up. I may have had some encouragement from the school on that.

First, WHY go to the top of your class? I can think of three reasons immediately: it’s more fun, it’s less stressful, you get to develop your self-confidence every day rather than destroy it every – single – day.

Here’s a little known fact. The vocabulary for the old ‘O’ levels was 2,000 words. The course was 5 years (11 – 16). That was about 1660 days. An A* requires a mark around 85% (that’s grade 8-9 in ‘new money’). 85% of 2,000 words = ABOUT 1660 words. Do you see where this is going? So an A* student is, at best required to learn 1 word per calendar day for the duration of the course. Attainable? I think so! In case you are worried that GCSE’s are a higher standard (or even the same standard) as the old ‘O’ Levels – they are not. Not even close.

Imagine you make me run a 100 metre race and when the first person crosses the finish line you stop me where I am. I am a terrible sprinter so I might be 40 yards back from the finishing line. Start me in the next race with the 40 yard deficit with which I finished the previous race. Rince and repeat 100 times. I will look like a pretty miserable failure as a runner and that is because I am a miserable failure as a sprinter.


Let me run at a gentle pace continuously over a long distance I will come out near the front. Different method, different result. The first method favours the type of runner I am not, the second favours the type of runner I am.

Instead of allowing my school to wait a week and then make me learn 20 words in one night – an activity at which I was terrible at the time – imagine that I had been smart enough – imagine that you had been smart enough or your teacher had been smart enough to say to you – you can ALL do fantastically well. Learn one word each day (and don’t forget it) and you will all get A* – do you honestly believe that any child in your class or any adult in your current language learning group couldn’t manage that?

Here is a well known but peculiar fact – in England about one million students take a French GCSE every year. About half a million of them FAIL the exam. The pass mark is 50%. To get a 50% mark requires less knowledge than 50% of the curriculum for technical reasons. That is less than 1,000 words in total. So for 1660 days they expanded their vocabulary by just less than 2 words every 3 days. Do you honestly believe that’s not possible? Or do you think that perhaps the method being used might be the problem?

So learn and remember one word per day from the beginning and you’ll be in the top few percent. If you are half way through a course, no need to panic, two words per day every day will do it. If you are in your last year then 5 words per day will get you to the top by the time of the exam. And if you are smart about what you learn, you can rise to the top of your class in two months – I don’t care who you are.

Might this knowledge be of use to someone you know? These days it is even more worthwhile than previous to leave school feeling confident and capable, and with something to distinguish you from the crowd.

*It’s worth noting that in discussion with hundreds of language teachers I have not met ANY who knew the size of the vocabulary requirement for the exam courses they taught even though that information is reasonably easily obtained which may explain why they never proposed this simple method to you when you were at school.