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How to Learn English Vocabulary (and remember it!) – Video

by Oli Redman on 22 September, 2014 , No comments

In this lesson, you can learn how to learn English vocabulary as well as how to use and remember it.

You can see the common mistakes which many English learners make when learning vocabulary, and you’ll see several simple, practical ideas that you can use to build your English vocabulary and remember what you learn. Learn how to learn English vocabulary quickly and efficiently and remember it too.

Learn Only What Has Meaning To You

Here are some things we often hear from English learners:

“I couldn’t read it. There were too many new words and I didn’t have time to look them all up in the dictionary.”

“I wrote down all of these new words and I tried to learn them, but I can’t remember any of them now!”

Sound familiar?

Here’s a fact about your brain: your brain is very good at throwing away things it doesn’t need.

Vocabulary learning starts when you choose which words and phrases to learn or not learn.

This is where many English learners go wrong, by making one of these mistakes:

  • Trying to learn too many words.
  • Trying to learn words you don’t need.
  • Trying to learn big lists of words.
  • Trying to learn words you don’t know how to use.

To avoid these mistakes, you need to choose the vocabulary you study carefully.

Most importantly, if you want to remember new words and new English vocabulary, you need to learn things which are useful or meaningful to you.

If you read a text, and you try to look up every word you don’t know, of course you’ll forget most of them. Most of the words you look up probably won’t be useful to you, and so your brain won’t hold onto them.

If you write down a list of 100 new words and try to learn them, the words won’t mean much to you. They’re just a list on a piece of paper—totally abstract, and also boring! Our brains don’t like boring. Boring gets forgotten, fast.

So, what’s the solution?

Only learn a word or phrase if it’s really useful or meaningful to you in some way.

For example:

Your teacher keeps using a word that you don’t know. You hear it several times, but you can’t work out what it means. Then, you hear other people use the same word. You’re curious: what is this word you keep hearing?

You’re reading a really interesting article. You don’t know every word, but you can understand the general ideas. In one paragraph, there’s a word which you don’t know, and which makes it difficult for you to understand the idea of the paragraph. You think the paragraph is important to the article, and you’re interested to know what it means.

You’re on holiday in a country where English is widely spoken. There’s one kind of food you really want to order, but you don’t know the word in English.

These are situations where a new word will have meaning to you. If you look up words in situations like these, you’re more likely to remember them.

Firstly, you’ll remember them because these are words you need to use.

Secondly, you’ll remember them because these are all situations which involve your feelings in some way. In the first example, you’re curious about something. In the second, you’re interested in the article you’re reading. In the third situation, you’re (hopefully) having fun on holiday.

So, this is the first and most important point. Learn words and phrases which are useful and meaningful for you. This gives you the best chance to remember and use what you learn.

Now, another important point: when you say, “I learned a new word,” you could mean one of two things.

You could mean that you learned to understand a new word, or you could mean that you learned to use a new word. Those two things are different.

Let’s talk about that!

2. Learning Active Vocabulary vs. Learning Passive Vocabulary

You might have heard the terms ‘passive vocabulary’ and ‘active vocabulary’.

Your passive vocabulary means words you can understand, but you don’t use.

Your active vocabulary means words you can use in your speech or writing.

It’s normal that your passive vocabulary is larger than your active vocabulary in any language, including your native language.

Many English learners say, “I can understand words but I can’t use them.” To some extent, this is normal. However, what can you do if you want to develop your active vocabulary in English?

There are two important points here.

First, you need to use different techniques to build passive or active vocabulary. Many English learners have problems building their active vocabulary because the techniques they use to learn vocabulary only increase their passive vocabulary.

Secondly, building active vocabulary takes a lot more time and work. If you want to build your active vocabulary, you need to spend a lot more time studying and practising each word or phrase you want to learn.

Let’s look at the first point. Here are some good techniques for building passive vocabulary:

  • Looking up a translation of a word in your language.
  • Guessing the meaning of a word from the context.
  • Looking up a definition of a word in a monolingual dictionary.
  • Finding example sentences.
  • Reading and listening.

How to Learn English Vocabulary (and remember it!) - dictionary image

So, if your vocabulary learning consists of translating everything into your language, don’t be surprised if you can’t use what you learn. This is an okay technique for building your passive vocabulary, but it won’t help you to use the words and phrases you study.

What about building active vocabulary?

Here are some good techniques for building your active vocabulary:

  • Writing stories or other things which are personal to you.
  • Using a new word several times in several different conversations.
  • Making example sentences which are personal to you.

You can see that these things are not necessarily complicated, but they do require more effort.

It’s much harder to write an example sentence which is personal to you than it is to read someone else’s example sentence.

It’s much harder to write a story which means something to you than it is to read something which someone else wrote.

But, if you want to build your active vocabulary, this is how!

Most English learners are more interested in developing their active vocabulary, so in the rest of this lesson, we’ll focus on specific techniques you can use to build your active vocabulary in English.

Let’s start with a very important and powerful idea.

3. Learn Vocabulary in Meaningful Phrases and Sentences

Here’s a question: what is vocabulary?

Did you say ‘words’?

Many people think that ‘vocabulary equals words’. Of course, words are part of vocabulary, but they’re only a part. Vocabulary also includes collocations, phrases, and even full sentences.

Even when you’re learning words, you rarely need single words when you’re speaking. You need to combine the words into phrases and sentences if you want to use them.

So, it makes sense to learn vocabulary in the same way: learn phrases, combinations and sentences, because this is what you need when you’re speaking and writing.

Let’s do an example.

Imagine that you see the word challenge and you want to know what it means. So, you look it up and find the meaning.

Next, your goal is to write five sentences using the word challenge. Each sentence should be different, and each sentence should mean something to you.

Try to write things which relate to your life, your feelings and your thoughts.

You can (and should) also try to use different forms of the word, like the adjective challenging.

You should also research other examples before you write yours. Look for common collocations—word combinations—with the word you want to learn. For example, what adjectives are commonly used with the word challenge?

Think about it. What phrases or sentences could you write with this word?

We’ll give you an example, but remember that you should make your own examples, because they should be personal to you.

Here are five possible sentences:

  • I’m bored at work. I need a new challenge.
  • Teaching teenagers is fun, but it can be very challenging.
  • Running a full marathon was one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced.
  • I set myself a challenge last year: to learn German to a native-equivalent level.
  • My sister is a really determined person; she’s not someone who’ll run away from a challenge.

We’ll say it again, because it’s the most important point here: whatever you write should be personal to you.

Don’t write a sentence about your sister if you don’t have a sister. Don’t say something about your sister which isn’t true. Make it true, and make it personal.

If it’s personal to you, you’ll remember it. If it isn’t, you’ll forget it. Simple, right?

At this point, there’s one more important thing you should do.

Ask a teacher, a native speaker or a friend who’s very good at English to check your sentences.

You want to make sure you’re learning your new vocabulary correctly, and you need feedback to do that.

You can also see that writing sentences like this lets you learn several useful phrases at one time.

For example, here you have the collocations a new challenge, to face a challenge, a big challenge, to set (yourself) a challenge, and run away from a challenge.

So, if you follow this strategy, you won’t just learn one word, like challenge. You’ll learn several words and phrases together, in a natural way.

Remember that this strategy is personal on both sides: you’re starting with words that are meaningful to you personally, and then you’re learning those words by writing examples which are also meaningful to you personally.

Yes, this needs work, and it might be very different from what you do now. However, if you want an effective way to learn and remember vocabulary, this is it.

If you do things this way, nothing is abstract and nothing is boring. Your brain will remember what you learn because it’s relevant to you, your life and your feelings.

However, if you’re trying to learn a lot of vocabulary, it’s also important to review what you’ve learned regularly. Regular review helps to keep vocabulary fresh in your mind, which will help you to remember the words and phrases you need when you’re speaking or writing in English.

Let’s look at the most effective ways to review your vocabulary.

How to Review and Remember English Vocabulary

How to Learn English Vocabulary (and remember it!) - thought bubble

If you have a lot of English vocabulary to review and remember, it’s a big, complex job.

But, we have good news! There are several free tools and apps which can make this easy.

You need a digital flashcard app. These apps are designed to help you memorise and review large amounts of information.

Two of the most popular are Anki and Quizlet. You can find links below the video. We aren’t recommending any particular product or company, but many students have used both of these with good results.

We hear that Quizlet is a little easier to use, while Anki is more powerful and has more options, but is also more complex. Try both, or find another program, and see what works for you.

All of these programs work in the same way: they allow you to set questions for yourself.

You create a card with a question and an answer. You can write whatever you want for the question and the answer.

After you see a question and the answer, you decide if the question was easy or difficult for you.

If the question is easy, the app will ask you again after a longer period.

If the question is difficult, the app will ask you the same question again after a shorter period, maybe even the same day.

This is very effective, because it allows you to focus more on the things you don’t know, and it doesn’t waste your time reviewing things you already know well.

You can often download packs of questions that other people have made, but you should make your own questions, using your own, personalised example sentences.

Let’s see how.

Look at the five sentences we wrote before to learn the word challenge:

  • I’m bored at work. I need a new challenge.
  • Teaching teenagers is fun, but it can be very challenging.
  • Running a full marathon was one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced.
  • I set myself a challenge last year: to learn German to a native-equivalent level.
  • My sister is a really determined person; she’s not someone who’ll run away from a challenge.

Let’s make five questions from these five sentences.

  • Question: I’m bored at work. I need ________.
  • Answer: I’m bored at work. I need a new challenge.
  • Question: Teaching teenagers is fun, but _________.
  • Answer: Teaching teenagers is fun, but it can be very challenging.
  • Question: I ________ last year: to learn German to a native-equivalent level.
  • Answer: I set myself a challenge last year: to learn German to a native-equivalent level.
  • Question: Running a full marathon was _________.
  • Answer: Running a full marathon was one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced.
  • Question: My sister is a really determined person; ________.
  • Answer: My sister is a really determined person; she’s not someone who’ll run away from a challenge.

Can you see what’s going on here?

The questions are getting progressively more difficult. For the first question, you only have to remember three words: a new challenge. For the fifth question, you need to remember a whole clause.

After you’ve made your questions, what next?

Review your vocabulary cards or questions every day. We recommend you install Anki, Quizlet or whatever you use on your phone.

This way, you can review vocabulary when you have nothing else to do, for example on the subway or during your lunch break.

Try to use your app and review vocabulary every day, but don’t overload yourself. Limit the number of new questions or cards you see each day. Five new questions per day is a good target.

Again, this takes quite a lot of work. You might think, “Do I really have to do all this just to remember one word?”

Let me ask you some questions in return: do you want to really build your English vocabulary? Do you want to remember new English words that you study? Do you want to learn to use new English vocabulary?

If you answered ‘yes’, ‘yes’, and ‘yes’, then this is how. It takes time and effort, but it also works.

Let’s review the steps you need to take:

  1. Choose words which are useful and meaningful to you personally; don’t learn big lists of words, and don’t learn words which you won’t use.
  2. Decide if you want to just understand a word, or if you want to use it. Use different vocabulary-learning techniques depending on what you want.
  3. If you want to add words to your active vocabulary, then write 3-5 example sentences, using the new word. The sentences should be relevant to you, your life, your thoughts and your feelings.
  4. Get feedback on your example sentences, from a teacher or friend, to make sure you’re using your new vocabulary correctly.
  5. Add your example sentences to a digital flashcard app like Quizlet or Anki. Make questions of different difficulty, so that some questions are easier and some are harder.
  6. Use your digital flashcard app daily, or as often as you can!

Follow these steps and your English vocabulary will increase, you’ll remember new words in English, and you’ll be able to use the new English words you learn.

Next, learn how to use a vocabulary notebook to expand your vocabulary in this free video lesson!

Thanks for watching!

Oli RedmanHow to Learn English Vocabulary (and remember it!) – Video