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A Simple and Fun Way to Actively Use the New Words You Learn

Select and use them so you won’t lose them

Image of an open dictionary
Photo by Gabriel Gusmao on Unsplash

“Putting words to use, preferably in some interesting way, is the best way of ensuring they are added to long-term memory. It is the principle popularly known as ‘Use it or lose it’.” (Thornbury, 2006:25)

You can study vocabulary lists, check words in a dictionary, highlight them on Medium articles, keep a vocabulary notebook, and use apps to expand your repertoire of expressions.

That’s great — keep doing that.

However, none of these activities require you to actively use vocabulary.

So, what can you do to put new words to use in order to remember and internalize them?

Language teachers often suggest writing sentences including the words you want to remember. I’ve suggested this to my students too in the past.

But there’s a more interesting activity that you could do.

It’s simple, it’s fun and it’s super easy to integrate into your busy life. I discovered this activity when I was teaching English in New Zealand.

I call it Select and Use.

Here’s how it works and how you can do it.

What’s “Select and Use”?

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.

graduation ceremony
Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

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:

  1. Open the English dictionary to a random page.
  2. Pick the first word in the top-left corner.
  3. Make the word 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.

You can play the same game as my colleagues in Auckland with the new words you have learned.

Select them and use them intentionally.

Here’s how.

Apply “Select and Use”

It’s super easy. If you know that you are going to have:

  • a conversation
  • a meeting
  • a phone call
  • a lesson
  • a discussion

…in the language you’re learning, select 3 to 5 words or expressions that you’ve recently studied and find a way to use them while communicating with others.

Only you will know what these words are.

Compete against yourself and do your best to win.

Not only will this little game help you remember new words, but it might even make boring work meetings more interesting.

You can play Select and Use when writing too. For example, you can select and include new words into:

  • an email
  • a social media post or comment
  • a Medium article
  • a book or movie review
  • a text message
  • a private journal or diary

Decide beforehand which of the new words you want to use. Then go out there and use them.

Final thought on “Select and Use”

You’re not learning words because you want to become a walking dictionary. You’re not learning words to participate in a quiz show where you have to answer $10,000 questions about word definitions and spelling.

You’re learning words to communicate your ideas, opinions, and stories with more precision.

You’re doing all this to connect with others and express who you are.

Select and Use can help you do this.

Not only that.

In my experience as a teacher, language learners often complain about not remembering new words.

I’ve heard this a million times.

I suspect this happens because too often they leave the words they learn in their books, notebooks, apps, and dictionaries.

So, if you are studying a language, don’t let it die inside your book. Instead, use it intentionally and make it come alive.

Select and Use can help you do that too.

“Words which have not been produced are harder to recall than those which have been produced.” (Webb & Nation, 2017)

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

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  • Webb, S., & Nation, P. (2017). How Vocabulary is Learned. Oxford University Press.
  • Scott, T (2016). How to teach vocabulary. Pearson Education Limited

Fabio Cerpelloni is an English language teacher, writer, author, and podcaster from Italy. You can find out more about him and his work by clicking on his glass of beer in the photo.