Wednesday, June 1, 2011

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No Magic Please, part 1 (Learning Vocabulary)

There is no magic trick to learning vocabulary.  I’m sorry.  Maybe you want to stop reading now. :-)

Like all language learning, you have to do some work but there is certainly efficient work and work which is mostly a waste of time.

There are nearly 7 billion people in this world which probably means there are nearly 7 billion different ways to learn vocabulary!  Everybody is different, everybody remembers different things and everybody has different priorities about what words are useful to know.  BUT, there are some methods which are good ideas for everyone. 

L1 to L2 and L2 to L1
(L1 = Your native language, L2 =Your foreign language, English, for example)

When we studied Beginners Spanish at St Andrews we were given a goal by the professor.

“You must learn 30 new words a day.”

You have to learn twice.
Now you might think that is a lot, but actually, it wasn’t that bad and all I needed was 5-10 minutes maybe three or four times a day.  But that wasn’t the only thing we had to do because he also said,

“You will have to learn it twice.”

What he meant was that anyway we learned our words, they would need to be learnt English to Spanish and Spanish to English.  Understand?  I'll explain.

You can’t just learn in one direction because if you just learn L1 to L2 then only your Speaking and Writing will really benefit.  If you only learn vocabulary L2 to L1 then you will improve your Reading and Listening skills but your Speaking and Writing will not improve very quickly.

You need to do both.

Index Cards (I used them and I think they are great!)

I wrote 5 or 6 words on each card, one side in English, the other side in Spanish.  Then I would look at the English and try to remember the Spanish.  If I got it right, good, if I didn’t remember correctly, I put a tally mark next to the English word.  I then when to the next word and did the same thing.

With 6 cards I had my 30 words for that day.  I looked through them four times a day and quickly I knew which words I needed to focus on.  For every time I remembered the word, I could rub out (erase) one of my marks.  Once the word had no more pencil marks, I would highlight it.  Once the car was clear of pencil marks I would turn the card over and do the whole thing again, this time looking at the Spanish and remembering the English.

It worked very well.  Remember you’ll need to recycle these cards over a few weeks before you have completely memorized these words – remember the 75 times! ;-)

English side (the marks show how many times I forgot the Spanish)
Spanish side (these marks show how many times I forgot the English)
This method can work with phrases as well as individual words.

Learning in Categories

Another important thing… try to keep your vocabulary together in categories.  You see all the words on my cards are computer-related.  These things are already connected in your brain.  It helps to learn things in groups – it is how our brain works.

Last week I recommended blog article by Berni Wall, 10 ways to increase your vocabulary.  This is from the article,

“…for example animals, can you, hand on heart, say that you know the English word for all the animals? Think of all those you don’t know and look them up in your own language. Do the same for other [groups of things].”

To help you get started look at this website, Language Guide, and select one of the groups.  Try to record the words you don’t know on some index cards and see how quickly you can learn these words.

Vocabulary Circles

If you are studying on a language course right now, you could try Vocabulary Circles.  I must credit this idea to Caroline Gwatkin and I think it is a great way to learn groups of words from groups of people!  The benefit of this way of recording vocabulary is you immediate see what you already know (good for confidence) and see what you can learn from the other students in your class - you don't always need to learn your English from the teacher.

That’s all for now.  There is plenty more think about when we learn vocabulary and I’ll talk about that more in part 2.  I look forward to your comments and opinions.



  1. It's a very nice idea to learn lexical sets, such as your computer example. And I agree, a little and often is the way. I hope your students benefit from your advice.

  2. I remember learning in my TEFL course that the max number of new words people could learn a day was 10. Not sure if this is true or not. I also remember that if you write the word, you'll have to do it about 10 times more than if you speak it. Too often students end up staring at the paper and never actually using the words.


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