5 Scientifically Proven Ways to Learn and Remember New Words
What research tells us about learning vocabulary
I’ve read a few books about learning vocabulary and second language vocabulary acquisition.
Reading these academic texts might make you fall asleep if you’re not a teacher, but they present key concepts worth knowing if you’re a language learner.
I decided to summarize some of the main points in this article.
Most of what you’re about to read comes from 2 great books:
- How Vocabulary is Learned by Paul Nation and Stuart Alexander Webb.
- How to Teach Vocabulary by Scott Thornbury.
No matter what language you’re learning, I hope this knowledge will help you expand your vocabulary .
5 conditions for remembering and learning vocabulary
Researchers agree that there are, among them, 5 conditions that contribute to learning vocabulary in a second language.
- Affective depth
Generally, the more often you meet a word, the higher the chances that you’ll learn and remember it. You may ask, “How many times do I need to encounter a word in order to learn it? 5? 15? 500?”
Research doesn’t give a clear answer to this question.
Some studies say 7, others 12 or even more. Sometimes 20 times is not even enough.
I’m a non-native English teacher and still haven’t learned what the verb “yield” means. I always have doubts when I meet this word and need to look it up in the dictionary every time.
This is because although there’s a connection between repetition and learning, there are other factors at play too.
One such factor is how “learnable” the word is for you.
For example, a term that looks or sounds like a word in your first language is easier to learn and remember.
So don’t worry about the number of times you need to encounter a word. Just keep in mind that repetition is a key condition for learning to happen so you should try to increase it.
How to increase repetition:
- Use graded readers. These are books written for language learners where the same words are likely to repeat throughout the book. Reading a graded reader can help you encounter the same words again and again.
- Re-reading the same texts, re-watching the same movies, and re-listening to the same podcasts. This can help expose your brain to the same vocabulary.
- Do linked skills activities. This means working on the same piece of material using a variety of language skills (reading, listening, speaking, and writing). For example, you can speak about the topic of nutrition with a friend, then read an article about nutrition, and finally summarise the article in writing using your own words.
- Expose yourself to lots of language input through reading and listening. Read several texts about the same topic. Listen to several podcasts about the same topic. Just make sure you can understand what you read or listen to otherwise you’ll soon get frustrated.
- Use the 4–3–2 technique (I wrote about it in this article).
To notice a word means to pay close attention to it.
It’s good to only want to understand the main message when listening to a podcast, watching a YouTube video, or reading a book.
But, from time to time, stop and pay attention to the words you hear or see. This can help you notice them.
It’s the first step in learning vocabulary.
How to increase noticing:
- If you’ve seen or heard a word you don’t know, look it up in a dictionary. I wrote a blog on the use of dictionaries (for English learners).
- If the person who’s talking to you has used a word you don’t know, ask them to explain its meaning or spell it out for you, or both.
- When you meet a word you don’t know, stop and try to guess its meaning using the surrounding context.
You might know that the verb “retrieve” means to find and get back data that has been stored in the memory of a computer.
Our brain is, in a way, a computer.
So retrieving a word from memory means recalling a word that you have previously encountered. This can make it easier for you to remember the word again in the future.
In general, the more you retrieve words, the more you remember them.
How to increase retrieval:
- Transfer the words you’ve recently learned onto word cards. Put the cards on the table and classify them according to your own personal categories (words I like, words I don’t like, words to talk about sports, words I never remember, etc). You’ll need to retrieve the meaning of these words in order to put them into the correct category.
- Test yourself using flashcards. You can use paper flashcards or apps like Quizlet or Anki — whatever works best for you. You can put the word on one side and its translation or definition on the other side.
- Type a list of words you’ve recently learned into Chat GPT and ask it to put them into a 50-word story. Then type, “Substitute the words from the list with a gap.” Can you fill in the gaps?
- Again, use the 4–3–2 technique.
Language students often complain about not remembering words.
I’ve heard this a million times.
I suspect this happens because they leave the words they learn in their books, notebooks, apps, and dictionaries.
Using words is a great way to add them to your long-term memory.
So, if you are studying a language, don’t let it die inside your book. Instead, use it intentionally and make it come alive.
How to increase use:
Yeah, yeah, speak and write as much as you can — fine.
But the following personal story might give you some more actionable advice.
In 2015 I was teaching English at a small language school in Auckland, New Zealand.
Every Friday, teachers and students would gather in the hall to attend an informal graduation ceremony for those students who had completed their courses.
The teachers would chair this weekly event in rotation.
One of them would call the students to the front, say a few words to them and hand them a certificate.
To make the event more fun for themselves, the teachers would secretly play a vocabulary game.
Before the ceremony, whoever was going to present had to open the English dictionary to a random page, pick the first word on the top left corner and make it known to all the other teachers.
That was the word the presenter had to slip into one of the sentences during the event.
At times the term was easy to include. Other times almost impossible. But most times the teacher-presenter was able to win the challenge.
I think this is a clever game that you too can play using the new words you have learned.
Use these words intentionally.
For example, if you know that you are going to have a conversation, a meeting, a phone call, or a lesson in the language you are learning, select some words and expressions you’ve recently studied and find a way to use them in a sentence.
Compete against yourself and do your best to win.
This will not only help you remember new vocabulary, but it might even make you enjoy those boring work meetings you hate to attend.
5. Affective depth
If a word is important and meaningful for you, it’s easier to learn and remember.
If a word evokes strong emotions, it’s easier to learn and remember (ever wondered why you’re so good at remembering swear words in another language?)
The only Spanish word I remember from three Spanish classes I took in 2016 is “papel” (paper).
The teacher handed out sheets of paper to everyone in the class, but she forgot about me.
“Can I have one too?” I asked.
When she gave me the sheet, I then asked her, “How can I say ‘paper’ in Spanish?”
That was a meaningful word for me. It was a word I was curious about, a word I really wanted to learn.
It’s a word I still remember after only one encounter.
This is because emotional and intellectual information is stored together in the brain.
How to increase affective depth:
- When you learn a new word, you can reflect and ask yourself what you like about it and what emotion it evokes. Do you like the way it sounds? Does it remind you of anything personal?
- Tell or write meaningful personal stories. You’ll be likely to need some words you don’t yet have in your brain, so you’ll need to research them. Chances are that these words will be easier for you to remember because you need these to tell your story. You’re more likely to be emotionally attached to them.
In 1972 David Wilkins, a British linguist, said,
Without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed.
I agree with David.
Imagine walking into a bar and saying, “Me wants coffees.”
The grammar of your sentence is incorrect. But those 3 words will be enough to express your desire to have coffee.
Learning grammar is important.
But learning vocabulary is even more so.
I hope you found this helpful. Please feel free to send me any questions or send me your comments in the comment box below. I reply to everyone.