So often we can memorise new vocabulary for an hour (a typical lesson) or even a day, but making those words stay in our memory for the long-term is a challenge. For this reason, I’ve been thinking hard about what vocabulary learning techniques have been most effective in my own language learning journey and that of my students…
So below, I’ve listed a range of techniques to memorise vocabulary. These involve more than simply recording it, hotch-potch fashion, in a notebook (which is OK as a start or if you need to write down a new word quickly, by the way). The way I now see it, is that there were two essential elements missing from this method and by the end of this post you will know what they are….
Visual and/or Tangible Vocabulary Learning Techniques
I love using a visual element in my language teaching and learning. If it can be made tangible too, so much the better! Here are some of my favourite techniques for learning words which involve imagery and real-life objects:
Shopping with a Native Speaker
One day, when I was backpacking in Chile, I went shopping with some newly-made Chilean friends. They took me around the supermarket, held up various fruits and vegetables and told me their names in Spanish. Seeing and even holding the object, whilst hearing the word, meant that I acquired this vocabulary more quickly than if I had just read the words. Another time we visited a crafts market where, thanks to this method I quickly learnt that ‘madera’ was ‘wood’ and ‘lana’ was wool.
So if you’re out with someone whose first language is the one that you’re learning, ask them to name items for you in this way. There is a reason why ‘realia’, as it’s called, is so popular in the classroom. Not only is it effective for learning, but makes a refreshing change from paper and pen.
How to illustrate your vocabulary
Words and pictures just go together. It’s also another ‘hook to hang your learning on’ as I learnt whilst doing my teacher training – this was a favourite saying of our tutor. In other words, the accompanying image creates one more association that consolidates what you have learnt.
Record the word with a picture
Do your word list if you like, but why not add an an illustration beside each word? Your pictures could be simple outline drawings, your own photos or why not even take yourself back to your primary school days and cut pictures out of magazines and stick them in your word book! This technique is excellent for learning the topic of ‘weather’.
This arty method was included in Part 1 of my post on developing your writing skills. Choose a word, take a postcard-ish size piece of card, write the word on it and decorate every bit. Illustrate the card in a way that represents the word’s meaning. So a card with the word ‘fruta’ (‘fruit’) could end up truly beautiful! Creating the word graffiti takes time, but your learning will take off when you place it on your wall and absorb the vocabulary by immersion.
Half-way between pictorial and textual, I just love mind-maps for organising thoughts and then looking back at them in their joined up form. I use these mind-maps to plan longer blog posts and essays, yet they work equally well for increasing your repertoire of words.
Pick a topic, then at the centre of your mind-map write the name of it, i.e. ‘healthy living’. From there draw lines to create categories of related words, then more lines connecting to sub-categories. I’m currently creating a mind-map on the topic of ‘food and drink’, I will add it here soon as an example.
Traditional, but effective. You could use flash cards in many ways, i.e. testing yourself or playing games with others. I’ve put them under visual because my favourite is to have a picture on one side and the word on the other. However, with some vocabulary it might be trickier to think of an illustration, so you might write a word on one side and its translation overleaf. If you do use images, I advise you to not have the word in the target language (that’s the one that you’re learning) on the same side – the more you practise recalling the word the better, so put it on the reverse.
Going back years now, to the time when I bought books on learning languages in 10 minutes a day, they included stickers to place on items around the home; such as the mirror, the door and the table. Being faced with the word ‘espejo’ (‘mirror’ in Spanish) every morning really did work and provided a welcome distraction! I don’t know whether these books still exist, but you could make your own stickers.
If there’s a word that’s especially hard for you to learn, think of a nonsensical but visual association. For example, one of my students was struggling with the word ‘quince’, which is Spanish for ‘fifteen’. He had mentioned how it made him think of that old-fashioned and aromatic fruit, the quince. I suggested that he visualise a quince with a number ’15’ on it. Now, I can’t get that out of my head either! Another example, is that the word ‘egg’ is ‘Ei’ in German, so I imagine an egg that has a large eye – weird!
You don’t have to draw these associations by the way, visualising them in your mind is enough.
Writing the word in a way that represents its meaning
This is one of many techniques that I learnt during teacher training at Canterbury Christ Church. The image of ‘espantoso’ (‘frightening’ in Spanish) in a scratchy red font is one that stays. So here you can play around with scripts, the distancing or proximity of letters, size of font, shapes, colours and pictures. One of my secondary school students wrote ‘ojo’, (‘eye’ in Spanish) with a beautiful and detailed eye as the final ‘o’.
Another gem I picked up at Canterbury Christ Church, and which is mentioned in my developing your writing skills post, this one traverses the visual, textual and auditory. Choose a theme that you want to work with, i.e. ‘the environment’, then write a word representing one extreme at the top, i.e. ‘polluted’ and another, i.e. ‘clean’ at the bottom. Then work through your diamond including vocabulary that relates to the other extremes, so in on the middle line you should have more words and then gradually less words towards each extreme. The auditory element comes in if you read your poem aloud and record it.
Here you just need to find another student or students, a piece of paper and a pen (though a dictionary/thesaurus might be good too). Choose a place, event or thing to describe. If writing about a place, you could include a photo as a prompt. If describing a ‘thing’ you could use any prop you like. After all, the Chilean poet Neruda wrote a poem about an onion! If about an event, this could be a festival that you’ve visited.
To create the poem each student writes one word on the paper and then folds it over so that the next student cannot see. The following student writes a word and folds the paper again. Continue until you arrive at the bottom of the page and it is folded over many times. You will end up with a list of words/poem on the chosen theme which could be moving, interesting or ridiculous!
A variation on this technique could be for each student to write two words, one under the other. Each time, they leave the second word visible, so that the following student can use it as a prompt for their word. This further collaboration could give the poem greater flow.
Turning vocabulary lists into sentences
Here, lists of words on a particular theme, i.e. describing a pet, are organised into a table with columns called a ‘writing frame’. When reading across the frame horizontally and choosing a word from each column, you will then be forming a sentence. Therefore, when using your frame to describe a pet, you will be practising and memorising vocabulary on animals, size and colour, as well as connectives.
Bringing the words to life
Translation in Real Time
I came across this just the other day in Talk Spanish 1 (Book/CD Pack): The ideal Spanish course for absolute beginners. On the topic of ordering food and drink, the author suggests that ‘Every time you buy a drink in a restaurant or supermarket, try to think of the word in Spanish’. This reminds me of the time when I was learning shorthand and our teacher suggested that whilst we commuted to college, we write the name of each station in shorthand, in our heads, as we saw the signs on the platforms. I still do this unintentionally! It’s a powerful technique.
Create a mime/gesture
Children especially love this one. As you learn a new word, i.e. ‘tiger’, create a movement that goes with it. Do the movement each time you say the word. Using movement in this way creates a deeper connection in our minds. Maybe it relates to that ‘muscle memory’ that sports people talk about.
One word a day
I’ve left the simplest idea for last. However, there’s nothing to stop you choosing a tricky but beautiful word as I’ve been doing recently. I’ve been inspired here by Robert McFarlane, author of The Lost Words, who I follow on Twitter. He features a little-used word every day which relates to the natural world. These tweets are always accompanied by a picture. The latest I’ve learnt is ‘shivelight’, which I will write about in another post.
You could carry your word of choice and its definition, synonyms and any other info. on a card in your wallet. Look at the card when you have a spare moment and use the word where you can. Simplify further if you wish, by having just one focus word each week. You will be absorbing other vocabulary along the way.
So what are the three key elements to learning vocabulary then?
Well, going back to the little note-book we mentioned at the start, noticing and recording new words is the first.
In this age though, where there is so much emphasis on marking progress and doing things quickly (especially in schools) we forget that with language learning we need to do a lot of consolidation work for real learning to have taken place. Therefore, repetition is the second element. Though this doesn’t have to be ‘repetitive’ as it can be done in a variety of interesting and fun ways, which leads us onto the third element….
We’re back to those ‘hooks to hang your learning on’ and the need to form associations. Recording and practising vocabulary in as many ways as possible, with pictures, sounds and real-life objects. I’m talking about the visual, the auditory and the kinaesthetic.
Most importantly though, while you’re learning your vocabulary choose the methods to record, repeat and associate, which give you joy and most inspire you.
Feel free to comment with your views on how we best learn vocabulary and the techniques which are your favourites.