Focus on Vocabulary – Making words your friends

Part I of a series of posts on ways to learn vocabulary

You know that feeling that the word you want is just on the tip of your tongue, you know what it is you want to say, but the word just won’t come to mind? This is a problem we all have at times. The best thing is to use your words actively, so that they come to mind easily.

English is full of marvellous words, and learning vocabulary is a very personal process. You’ve got to actually want to learn a word before it’s going to stick, and before you are going to feel comfortable using it. So, when you get started with vocabulary work, it’s good to be choosing words you like and can imagine using.

I’m sure that when you are reading in English you often come across words that you know the meaning of but have never used yourself. And because you recognise a word and you know what it means, you think you already know it and don’t put the work into learning it – but you really should.

Those words that you know when you see them but could never use them when you need them are part of what we call our “passive” vocabulary – and what we need to do is activate words so that we can use them in our own speaking and writing. The process of getting to know a word and getting comfortable with using it is what takes the word from our passive to our active vocabulary.

However, finding the words you want to learn can be a challenge. Unless you have a specific word list you need to learn, it can be very difficult to decide which words to learn – after all, there are so many! So, how can you choose which ones you should put your energy and time into learning? And where should you look for new words?

Choose words you like and that you think will be useful

Don’t simply search in a dictionary! Find words in texts you read and programs you watch and listen to. These are words you can see in action, and that gives you first-hand knowledge about how the words are used.

Be curious about new words. Look them up in a dictionary and make sure you have understood what they really mean, not just what you think they mean. Then write them down, including a definition, and including example sentences. If you don’t have a paper dictionary (which I do really recommend), you can find reliable online dictionaries from the major dictionary publishers.

Muscle memory helps with learning

It may sound very old-fashioned in the digital era, but if you have a lot of vocab to learn, try using vocabulary cards. Writing the words by hand (rather than typing them) has been shown to stimulate memory and learning (see, for example, this article on effective note-taking, this one on overcoming learning difficulties, and this one on the impact of handwriting on academic success in children), which will help to store the words in your long-term memory. Write the word on one side and the definition or an example sentence on the other side and test yourself regularly. As you get to know a word, you can move it into a set of cards that you test yourself on less frequently (like once a week), and then into a final set, which you can turn to occasionally just to refresh them. This gives you space to add new words to the set that you test yourself on daily.

Use your chosen vocabulary in sentences

Words do not exist in isolation in a language. They occur in a particular context (e.g. work-related) and take particular grammar structures (e.g. dependent prepositions) in a sentence, as well as having particular words which often go together with them (collocations). So learn words as you would use them, in sentences and in meaningful contexts.

Practice, practice, practice!

Now that you have chosen your words, and have understood their meaning and how they are used, you need to start really making friends with them. Use them. 5 to 10 minutes each day with your vocab cards will see your vocabulary growing at an impressive rate, and you can add a longer period of time once a week for researching and adding new words.

The more often you use your new words, the faster they will become part of your active vocabulary. Write short texts that give you the chance to make use of them. Get your teacher to look through these and let you know if you are using any of them incorrectly. Find opportunities to use the vocabulary in your homework and exam practice.

Also, take time to make use of the words in your spoken interactions – this can be more difficult, but you can make a game out of it: Every time you know you will be interacting in the language you are learning (e.g. lessons, or video calls, etc), prepare a list of vocabulary that you want to make use of during the session. At the end of the session, tick off the words that you used – the more, the better!

So, now you’ve got your vocab cards ready, a dictionary and a thesaurus at hand, even a notebook at your side when you are reading, in order to collect interesting words when they crop up. Now it’s time to get busy – there are so many beautiful words out there to get to know. Start making friends with them.