Top tips for learning vocabulary

Whether you’re learning English with a teacher, a course book or through self-study, one of the hardest things is learning all the new words and phrases you need. Which words should you learn? How should you record them? How often should you practice? Here are my top tips for vocabulary-learning success.

Find a system

When learning a language we hear and read lots of new words and phrases. Before we can memorise the words, we need a way to record them. There are lots of systems people use to write down their vocabulary. There is no right or wrong system, but here are some examples:

  • a traditional vocabulary book:  a list of English words and either translations in their language (sometimes translations are not possible!) or descriptions
  • flashcards: the new word of phrase on one side of the card and a description, picture or translation on the other
  • mind maps: the topic in the middle of a page and related vocabulary sorted into categories, e.g. ‘restaurants’ and then the categories ‘verbs in a restaurant’, ‘phrases to order food’, ‘food types’, ‘objects in a restaurant’, ‘adjectives to describe restaurants’, etc.
  • spreadsheets: a list of English words and the translation or description in the next column.
  • apps: there are lots of apps available to help with vocabulary. Some let you add your own words; some already have set categories.
  • post-its: label objects around your house with post-it notes, or have a wall/door where you stick up words you are trying to learn. The words can be colour-coded according to word type or situation.

Start small

Take five new words you would like to learn, the most important words for your job or everyday life. Every day when you are eating breakfast, sitting on the bus or cooking dinner, make a sentence with each new word. Repeat this every day for a week or until you know the words very well. The next week you can try new words. If five words are too easy, try eight or ten words. It’s better to start small and then make it more difficult if needed.

This is a good method because we remember new words and phrases better when we actively use them. It also means that you don’t need to find extra time in your day to learn vocabulary. You can practise when you are doing something else. Follow the link to read more about practising English you don’t have much time.

Practice makes perfect

When we have worked hard to learn new words, we want to remember them for a long time. It’s good to regularly review vocabulary using the systems above, for example, by covering the English words and then testing how many you remember. Instead of just saying the word or writing it down, try to put it in a sentence. You can also try to make a story with groups of words. Learning vocabulary is an active process.


Do you have any more tips for learning vocabulary? I’d love to hear them in the comments below! Also, let me know if you try out any of these methods.

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