Learning Vocabulary

Learning Vocabulary – Top tips for vocab memorisation

By Vika Kukovenkova (adapted by Anna Sobell)


She’s got the memory of a…….ummm what’s that expression again?!

The memorisation of new vocabulary is often identified as the Achilles heel of the language learner, many struggle with the task and soon give up all together. It can drudge up dreary memories of learning dry lists of words by rote at school with very little success. Fortunately, things have moved on and the experts have come up with more interactive techniques of memorising new words; these new words are the essential building blocks of all language. Acquiring and retaining new vocabulary is an integral part of learning a new language. Imagine yourself in a supermarket in a foreign country and you want to buy some flour. You don’t know the word for flour. Despite all your grammatical knowledge of the future, past and present, it is nonetheless impossible to explain to the shop assistant what it is you want to buy…some flour! After all, when we go on holiday it is not a grammar reference book we take with us, but a handy phrase book.

Not only does a boosted vocabulary add to increased confidence and communicative skills, it also leads to a number of other useful skills and abilities. Such as, being able to understand the meaning of an unknown word from context; understanding the gist of conversations or documents; and being able to predict the content, opinion or mood of speech/writing by looking at key words only.

In order to aid those in need, experts have devised a number of techniques to boost vocabulary retention. Here are our most recommended:

1.Creating clusters

Focus on a single theme each week. The mind naturally clusters connected words together, so learning, say, types of weather in one lesson, and parts of the body the next, works in tune with your brain’s natural system for classifying information.

2. Dissecting new words

When encountering a new word, take a look at its structure. Many words consist of prefixes and suffixes, and an understanding of these parts of speech is advantageous. This knowledge can lead to understanding whether a word is positive, negative, a verb, a noun, an adjecitve etc.

3. Reading, reading, reading

Reading helps you revisit learned vocabulary, and see those words in new sentences and contexts, thus becoming more memorable.

4. Focusing on phrases

Linguist Michael Lewis encourages language learning in lexical chunks, rather than on a word-by-word basis. Lexical chunks are groups of words that are often found together as they are strong collocations. For example, what word do you immediately associate with ‘shrug’…..I’m guessing it was ‘shoulders’. This proves Lewis’s theory that learning lexis in chunks can really boost vocabulary, have a look at these Business English examples, and have a think about any equivalents in your language:

  • The company operates an airline in Mexico.
  • That’s no way to run a business! 
  • Let me give you a deal on a new PC.
  • We’re bidding on two contracts at the moment.
  • We’ve got to be the best around to convince customers to part with their hard-earned cash!

5. Reviewing often

The goal is to transfer the short-term knowledge of new vocabulary into your long-term memory. Review is essential – in the first few days or weeks after learning new vocabulary, recycle those words and you’ll entrench them in your memory.


Don’t have the time? Think again! How about instead of losing yourself in social media apps on your commute, you flip through your vocabulary flashcards? Think about chores or habitual activities you do at home which require no thought power, e.g. brushing your teeth, dong the washing up. Why not pin a list of new vocabulary up on your kitchen/bathroom wall? Every little counts!

World Record!

In 2015, Simon Reinhard successfully managed to memorise 125 random words in 5 minutes. This is particularly impressive as the words were completely random and had no relation to one another. Presumably Mr Reinhard created his own links to each item in order to commit them to memory. This brings us to some advice on autonomy and self-study techniques:

  • Always record new vocabulary from your lessons somewhere- a good old fashioned notebook (used solely for this purpose), your tablet, a spreadsheet, flash cards, voice recording etc.
  • Try out and finally choose your favourite method of recording and ordering the new vocabulary; for example:
  • Colour coding
  • Categorisation
  • Alphabetise
  • Creation of images/symbols


Now, read the following questions, close your eyes and answer them as quickly as possible!

  • What was the item needed at the supermarket?
  • What was the first in the list of recommended techniques for vocab retention?

Which was the easiest to answer? And what does this tell you about memory? Context is key.

A solid vocabulary can help in many situations, but is essential for business language learners – find out more about the courses we offer.

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