Vocabulary Learning Tips

by Sophia McMillan
(Shane Training Centre, Japan)

Shane Training Centre, Japan

Shane Training Centre, Japan

Learning a language involves learning new words. The more words you know the more you will understand and the better you will be able to communicate.


It is said that in order to “get by” in a foreign language you need a vocabulary of at least 120 words.

 Read: The more words you are exposed to the better vocabulary you will have. When you read and see words you don’t know first try to guess the meaning from the sentence/story and then look the word up. Read and listen to things you are interested in. There are lots of graded/guided readers available and even manga/comics.
 Play with words: Do puzzles, crosswords, play scrabble etc. Many of these are available online.
 Themes: Focus on a single theme per week, the mind naturally links connected words together.

 Use context: Research shows that the vast majority of words are learned from context. Pay attention to how words are used, the sentences etc.
 Review: When you learn new words recycle them (use them again and again) this will move them into your long term memory.
 Flashcards: Make flashcards or study aids and review often. These can be pictures and words or just words and sentences. There are electronic programmes that can help e.g. quizlet.

 Write, Look, Cover & Repeat: Split a notebook page in half and down the left side write words in your own language, on the right write the words in English. Fold the page in half so you cannot see the English words and see how many you can remember. Saying the words out loud can help fix them in your memory too. Or record them and listen to the vocabulary list.
 Magnets: Put vocabulary words on your fridge or wall/door and every time you use it you will see them. You can even make sentences or stories with them.
 Choose your words: Learn words that are important you & your life, the ones you read/hear again and again, the ones you want/need to use.

 Practice: It takes about 10-20 repetitions to make a word part of your vocabulary. Write the word (the definition and a sentence with the new word) so that is can be reviewed later. Review your words every week to check you know them.
 Make sentences/stories: If you make a sentence or use the word in a story you will remember it better. Good vocabulary sentences use the words correctly and have the definition of the word within the sentence.
 Play video/computer games: There are lots of English learning apps and games that make learning vocabulary fun.

 Make associations & connections: Say the word aloud to activate your auditory (listening) memory. Relate the word to words you already know, put the new word into a list, link as many things as possible to the new word/s,
create a picture/story that involve strong emotions.
 Set achievable goals: It is possible to retain 10-20 words per study hour. If you do 15 min of study per day set a weekly vocab goal of 20-25 words/phrases.
 Focus on phrases: English is made up of lots of phrases used in daily communication, learn these phrases and you’ll feel more comfortable in conversation.

 Speaking: To really learn words you have to use them. It can be scary talking to people but find groups who share the same interests/friends from class etc and spend time speaking in English.
 Post-it notes: Label objects around your home/office or have phrases/messages in English around e.g. good morning on your mirror. As you will see them regularly the words/phrases will sink in.
 Recording information: Don’t just record the word on its own, record information on how it is pronounced, how it changes, part of speech (e.g. noun, verb etc), other words used with it, who it can be used for and the context in which it is used.

 Use memory tricks: Match it to a similar sounding word in your language, visualise a picture or scene to go with the word. These can be abstract, ridiculous but they can work well especially for longer words.
 Use vocabulary lists: There are many books that focus on learning commonly used words. There are also many interesting word sites on the intranet that will send you a word a day by email.
 Form: Learn the part of speech the new word is and look at its structure, many words contain prefixes and suffixes and understanding these can help learn/understand the new word.

 Look up words you don’t know: Use a good dictionary to check words you do not know, use a thesaurus to look up words with similar meanings and decide which word best fits the situation.
 Take vocabulary tests: Playing games that test your knowledge will help you learn new words and also let you know how much progress you are making.
 Keep a vocab notebook: List the words according to theme, with translations, definitions, pictures etc.

 Be careful with opposites: Sometimes when learning opposites together a crossover can occur and they can be easy to confuse and mix up. Focus on the more common word and then the opposite.
 Dictionary: When you look up a word in a dictionary mark the entry. The next time you look up the word if it is marked try and remember the meaning of the word.
 Blog: Start a blog or keep a diary in English. Using the new words will help you remember them.
 Word of the day: Every day choose 2-3 new words to be your words for the day. During the day try to find ways to use these words. You can play with friends too.

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