The Goldlist Method

I wrote about the “Goldlist method” quite some time ago (just shy of 8 years ago, wow!), but never really gave it a fair try. (If you’re totally lost about what the Goldlist method is, it’s probably best to start with the creator’s page here.) At the time I wrote the original post, I remarked that it sounded rather clunky to me, specifically in regards to the notebooks. I was concerned that keeping track of a bunch of notebooks with dated pages would be cumbersome; I was also quite enamored with Anki, the spaced repetition software that’s quite popular in the language learning community. I figured, why bother with a bunch of dated notebook pages when I have this software that will handle everything?

I’ve decided to revisit the method, though, for a couple of reasons. First, the ideas behind it intrigue me, and second, I’ve lost some of my love for digital vocabulary techniques; I’ve come to find that writing things out is, in and of itself, a good aid for remembering things, and, for whatever reason, Anki never really did work all that well for me. I did the repetitions, I added cards frequently, but didn’t really feel like I was retaining much of it. I’ve had success using Iversen’s word list method (and enjoyed using it), so I figured I would give the Goldlist method a try, too.

Perhaps the biggest idea with the Goldlist method that catches my interest is the idea that our long term memory isn’t really under our control. You can stuff things into your short term memory, but getting it into your long term memory is a bit of a tougher nut to crack. Furthermore, we tend to remember things we enjoy, and so a big part of the Goldlist method is simply taking it easy, enjoying writing out your words and definitions, and not trying to memorize them. By not cramming, you help move things along to your long term memory, rather than to your short term memory. Additionally, since you’ll be revisiting the words in a few weeks / months to distil them, the Goldlist method has a sort of built-in spaced repetition aspect to it, helping things stay in your memory once they’re there to begin with. Not quite the same as Anki’s, which is down to the very day, but it’s still repeated exposure.

I started trying out the Gold list method about 3 weeks ago; at this point, I’ve done about 8 or 9 headlists of 25 words, and 5 or 6 first distillations. (Yes, I need to use it more; life is busy, gimme’ a break). After doing the first few headlists, I found that some of the words I wrote out (and their meanings) kept popping up in my head unexpectedly, days later, so that seemed like a positive sign. The same thing has happened with the distillations. I also found that, as predicted, I felt I knew a solid 30% of the words when I went to distil the headlists. I also think that the creator of the program is onto something, in that the act of actively choosing to “discard” a word – to not repeat it in further lists – triggers your memory to try and hold onto it even tighter. Some of the words I opted to not repeat are still popping into my head on occasion, and I’ve not forgotten their meanings yet. While my experience with the system is minimal at this point, thus far, I’m tentatively impressed (and surprised), and am going to stick with it to see how things go.

In addition to seeming to work, the method has, for me, another major plus so far: it’s incredibly relaxing. Reviewing cards in Anki always stressed me out, and felt like work. Slowly writing out words and their meanings is enjoyable and calming, which, as the creator remarks, is probably part of the reason as to why I’m remembering the words so well. The idea of doing a couple writing sessions over the course of an hour sounds nice; the idea of reviewing 200 cards in Anki over the course of an hour sounds like drudgery (more power to Anki users, though!)

Putting the gold list method to the testThus far, the biggest problem I’ve had with the method was, comically, not really about the method – it was about paper. Due to the length of the lists, the method calls for the use of an A4 notebook. Finding such a thing where I’m at is nigh on impossible, and I didn’t really want to drop $20 on a nice A4 notebook for what, at the time, was simply a test run. I did have a nice notebook that I was able to make work (mostly), by basically using the top left part of the page for 2 columns instead of 1 (see in the picture). It limits how much I can put down by quite a bit, but thus far it hasn’t proven to break the system. Provided I decide to stick with it for the long term, once this book is full, I’ll probably hunt down some high quality A4 notebooks on amazon.

I’ll post more about my experiences with the method after I have some more lists and distillations behind me. If you’ve used the method, let me know how it worked for you in the comments!


By |2015-06-20T12:33:14+00:00June 20th, 2015|Language Learning, Learning Methods, Vocabulary|15 Comments


  1. honingbij June 22, 2015 at 6:55 am - Reply

    Hi Josh:

    Thanks for posting this.
    I have looked at the videos and read some blog posts, but I confess that I’m still very confused about aspects of the method.

    One of the big things I don’t understand is the numbering system of the lists. How do you number the lists on the right hand page? I can’t seem to be able to zoom into the examples and can’t read them unzoomed.

    I do wish someone would put a “Goldlist for Dummies” tutorial. I feel like a moron, but I still don’t have a clear idea.

    • Josh June 22, 2015 at 10:57 am - Reply

      Hi honingbij!

      I totally understand where you’re coming from. The instructions are sort of confusing and overly long. I will be writing another post with a basic guide on how it works (as far as I understand it, anyway), and I’ll include more pictures.

      Regarding numbering the lists – I didn’t follow his instructions for numbering. So basically, on every headlist I do (top left page of a book), I number the words 1-25. On the right page when I do my first distillation, I use write out 1-17 and put the hardest words over there. I believe he says to number each headlist in order, so your first list would be 1-25, next would be 26-50, etc., but I don’t care for that idea. I can still easily count how many words I’ve “done” by counting the headlist pages and multiplying.

      Does that answer your question?

  2. honingbij June 22, 2015 at 11:31 am - Reply

    Tjhanks, Josh. That does help.

    Do you understand how to do the Batch Scheduling? Uncle Dave’s explanation is totally beyond me.

    I really feel like an idiot, but I just cannot understand Uncle Dave. His delivery and writing style make me want to gnaw my arm off. I guess I’m in the minority, as many people seem to get him.

    I really look forward to your basic guide. It will be a pleasure to read a clear, concise and simple explanation.

    • Josh June 22, 2015 at 1:25 pm - Reply

      Hmm; I don’t remember anything about batch scheduling. Can you give me an example of what it’s referring to?

      Don’t beat yourself up. While I like the idea behind the method, Uncle Davey’s writing style is… verbose? 😉 I had to read his instructions many times over, and I’m still not sure I’m doing everything quite right. I’ll try to boil down what I’m doing into a post, though.

    • Josh June 23, 2015 at 8:17 am - Reply

      Wow. At first glance (and first complete read…) of the first link there, I’ve not a clue as to what he’s saying to do. Victor’s post is a little easier to digest, but I’m still not sure I understand it completely. I guess it’s just sort of a giant cycle: do a whole bunch of headlists; distil those; do the next set of headlists; do the next distillation (D2) for the first headlist, then do the *next* headlist batch… so on and so forth.

      I’ll look at it some more, but at first glance, while it is probably more efficient, I will most likely stick to my much more haphazard style of doing headlists when I want, and distillations when they’re “due” (2 weeks to 2 months out). That batch method makes my head hurt.

  3. honingbij June 23, 2015 at 10:54 am - Reply

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds it incomprehensible. It’s so frustrating to have a method that seems very interesting and productive, but whose author is so abysmally unable to explain it in simple and clear terms.

    Re: the batching I’m not at all clear which headlists you’re supposed to use.

    I did email Victor asking him to explain further, but I don’t know if he will have the time to do it. He also may not be interested. If he does, I’ll certainly ping you.

    Thanks for having a look at it, Josh!

    • Josh July 1, 2015 at 8:03 am - Reply

      honingbij: Yeah, I find the batch thing to be largely incomprehensible. I’m not sure which headlists to use during which phase.

      • David J. James July 4, 2015 at 6:07 pm - Reply

        OK guys, let me try to put this whole batch scheduling thing into perspective.

        Firstly, it’s not an essential way of using the Goldlist Method, it is simply my preferred way of using the Goldlist Method, the one that I find most convenient as it helps me keep track of things and motivate myself.

        It’s perfectly OK to jump around the Goldlist and do any part of it that you last looked at more than two weeks ago.

        Batch scheduling is a way of doing things a bit more systematically though. For example, let’s say I want to learn 4,000 lines of a new language, say Lingala or something. If I want to do batch scheduling I will break that material up into parts called batches, for want of a better word, and in my case I would prefer to kick off with a larger amount of lines and then make the next batches smaller. So let’s say I do 1,000 lines first at headlist, and this might take me more than two weeks, which is fine, I have to plan it so that I have enough to do when I distil that that I don’t catch up to within two weeks of when I last did it. If you have a lot of diifferent language projects going on at once, it doesn’t matter so much, as you’d just switch to another one.

        So having done that first batch, which I would call batch A, I go back to the beginning and make that first thousand words go to D1, the first distillation. I would tend not to be adding new words to the head list while I’m doing that, but wait till I’ve done it and then add the next whole batch to the headlist. The second batch, B, as I would call it, might only have 800 words in it. It doesn’t need to be as big as the first batch, because I am now going to go back and do the first batch to D2, and only then do the second batch to D1, and then I’ll do the third batch, C, which might have say 700 words in it, in the Headlist. At this point, which may be something like two or three months into the project, I have a book where the headlist (top left hand part) contains 2,500 lines, the D1 (top right hand part) has distilled 1800 of those into something like 1,100 lines, and the D2 (bottom right hand part) has distilled the first thousand only to something like 400 lines.

        At that point I go back to the beginning and do D3 (bottom left part) for the A batch, do D2 for the B batch, then do D1 for the C batch and then the headlist for D batch, which may only be 500 words. Then I carry on the same way like building a pyramid from bricks and the time comes when the last batches are small. It is simply a technique for not losing track of where you are if you have a lot of projects or a very big project in the Goldlist, but in fact it is not an essential part, it is an advanced technique. Therefore if you still didn’t get it after this explanation, don’t sweat it.

        • honingbij July 8, 2015 at 12:11 pm - Reply

          Thanks for weighting in, David. I appreciate it.

          To be honest, it still is not clear to me, but as you say it’s not essential to the Goldlist method, I won’t worry about it.

          Thanks again.

  4. Jaciel June 29, 2015 at 8:37 pm - Reply

    Hi, Josh! I’m learning Russian and so far I was discouraged by Russian teachers to use wordlists. In fact, I believe this system work well for English language, which cannot be even compared to the Russian declinations. I’ve being learning by phrases, and prioritizing those usual ones for a native speaker ( I do it seaching the word in context by sites like linguee or even Google). I’d like to know if you have already tested this method (by phrases) and what did you thought about. By the way, thank you for sharing your ideas. I’s been really helful for me.

    • Josh July 1, 2015 at 8:16 am - Reply

      Hi Jaciel,

      I’ve not really tried the phrase route. I mean, I do learn set phrases, idioms, and the like, but I feel like learning phrases will only get you so far. Sticking to just phrases will severely limit what you can express. Eventually you’ll know enough phrases that you can sort of mash them together and make your own, but I think going a more traditional route (learning vocabulary / grammar) will get you to that point quicker.

      I assume your Russian teachers say wordlists are bad because of lack of context, right? 🙂

      • David J. James July 4, 2015 at 6:10 pm - Reply

        Basically, teachers in paid schools don’t like you to do anything that makes you independent from them, whereas vocational teachers in state schools want you to be independent and become a self-teacher and they DO encourage good techniques, if they know them.

        • Jaciel July 7, 2015 at 12:24 pm - Reply

          I totally agree with you, James!
          Not to mention that the teachers teach by the way they were taught.

      • Jaciel July 7, 2015 at 12:07 pm - Reply

        Hi, Josh. I gave myself a try on the Goldlist method to check if I understood its puporse in ordter to repply your comment.

        Ok. I agree with you that sticking to just phrases limits what I can express and it is slower. There’s no “but”, here. I only find it a little odd. It is a bit like learning from reading a dictionary randomly. Anyway it is some impression easily compensated by the result.

        About the teacher. Actually I’m not studing with professional teachers. I’d would understand their reluctance exactly because it would make them dispensable, like David James noted below. What I told was from teachers or just Russian native speaker bloggers or vloggers that repeated this observation against wordlists.

        Yes, they say it’s bad because of lack of context and because the Russian declensions. As soon as grammar is not recommended, you’re supposed to learn by assimilations. And there’s not how to be sure of the correct use if not by having the a similar phrase in mind.

        I’m following that Speak from Day 1 approach, from Benny Lewis. That’s why I’m learning by phrases. I made a lot of progress by speaking from what I have. But I want have alternative views so I can study more effectively. I want to follow also this wordlist method, to increase the vocabulary.

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