5 things you need to know to learn new vocabulary effectively


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“How can I remember it all?”

“I write down the words but never remember them”

These are typical things I hear my students say. If you have ever said or thought the same thing, then you should read below.

The most obvious thing that I still have to say to some students is “If you don’t write something down, you’re more likely to forget it in the long-term”.

If you’re not writing new vocabulary down, you’re making life harder for yourself and you are slowing down your learning by weeks, months or even years. Writing with a pen in a vocabulary notebook is better than writing on a tablet / computer too.

Writing down is not enough, though. What does it mean to know a word? It’s not just writing words on paper, is it!

  1. The principle of cognitive depth (deeper thinking) 

“The more one manipulates, thinks about, and uses mental information, the more likely it is that one will retain that information. In the case of vocabulary, the more one engages with a word (deeper processing), the more likely the word will be remembered for later use” (Schmitt 2000: 120)

What does this mean? Well, anything! It can be sorting, identifying, classifying, matching. Make choices about the words. Here are some ideas:

Do I like the word?

When would I use this word?

Is it something I / my friend / my husband  likes / does / hates?

Is it something men do? Is it something women do?

This is why you need to have a good vocabulary notebook that you don’t have in class. After a class you should go home and put the new words in your vocabulary notebook.

So what does this mean? Well, anything! It can be sorting, identifying, classifying, matching etc.

The principle of associations (connections) 

“The human lexicon is believed to be a network of associations, a web-like structure of interconnected links. When students are asked to manipulate words, relate them to other words and to their own experiences, and then to justify their choices, these word associations are reinforced” (Sökmen 1997: 241-2).

What does this mean? Well, simply that you need to make connections between words.

A good way of doing this is by organising your vocabulary notebook by topic. Have a few pages for ‘Sport’ words and phrases and a different page for ‘Love and romance’.

Remember by choosing where to put a new word and phrases, you are using principle 1, too!

  1. The principle of Multiple Encounters (meetings) 

“Due to the incremental nature of vocabulary acquisition, repeated exposures are necessary to consolidate a new word in the learner’s mind” (Schmitt & Carter 2000: 4)

Language learning can be slow and difficult. Any teacher or school promising to make you fluent in English in 3 months is trying to get your money, nothing more.

What this principle says is that you need to see the words over and over again in order to remember them. Common sense, right?

So, what can you do? Well, you can simply test yourself from your lexical notebook when you are on the train, bus or metro.

You can also make some flashcards online using programmes like Quizlet. Quizlet prepares games for you to help you too! https://quizlet.com/

  1. The principle of Re-Contextualisation (different situations) 

“When words are met in reading and listening or used in speaking and writing, the generativeness of the context will influence learning. That is, if the words occur in new sentence contexts in the reading text, learning will be helped. Similarly, having to use the word to say new things will add to learning”  (Nation 2001: 80).

This is obvious. You need to hear the words in different contexts, different sentences and types of conversations. How can you do this? Well, lots and lots of listening. Your teacher should provide you with lots of listening and the audioscripts of what you heard.

You can also watch TV series and films to help you. After that, try to use the word in a sentence. If you get your new word wrong, don’t worry! You’ve just learnt something new about the word!


  1. The principle of Retrieval (Remembering) 

“The act of successfully recalling an item increases the chance that the item will be remembered. It appears that the retrieval route to that item is in some way strengthened by being successfully used” (Baddeley 1997: 112).

Simply trying to remember a word helps you to remember it. I’m sure most of you know your phone number, right? Some of you are able to say it straight off the top of your head. Why? Because you remembered it lots and lots of times!

So, read your vocabulary book and then try to remember what was written. In a pair, test each other. For example: “How many phrases of complaining can you remember?”

Practice what you preach. 

Here a few picture of my notebook for learning Russian. There are a couple of mistakes in here that I have corrected since. Notice I use lots of colours.

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