Improving your vocabulary is one of the best things you can do to keep moving forward in a language, but do you ever have a rough time remembering hard vocabulary words in English? When you’re first learning basic words, it’s easy to remember them because they’re words that you hear and use all the time. It’s often more difficult to remember advanced English words because we don’t hear them as often, and we don’t have as many occasions to use them once we’ve learned them.
Basic words also have more simple, straightforward translations. For example, happy is defined as “feeling or showing pleasure.” However, jubilant, a more advanced word, has a more specific definition: “feeling or showing great happiness because of a success.” The simple word, happy, communicates the general feeling. Jubilant, on the other hand, also tells us the degree of happiness (great happiness), and the reason for the happiness (because of a success). It’s a wonderful word, but it’s harder to remember.
Don’t be discouraged if you’re having a hard time memorizing difficult words. I’m going to give you 10 of my favorite ideas for remembering hard vocabulary words in English.
1. Keep a vocabulary notebook
For me, keeping a vocabulary notebook is essential when I’m studying a foreign language. Here’s a glimpse of my Spanish journal. I like to be spontaneous in my journal and use colors and drawings to help me remember the words. Some people prefer to draw grids and follow a more organized system. There is no “best” way to keep an English vocabulary notebook, but keeping one is important.
First of all, experts agree that the act of writing something by hand helps you remember it more than if you’d typed it.
It’s also useful and rewarding to have a physical representation of all the new vocabulary you have learned in English. Can you imagine how many pages will be filled with new words after just one month? When you flip back through your journal, you will feel a sense of accomplishment as you see pages and pages filled with words that you have learned so far. This will motivate you to continue.
Lastly, having all your new vocabulary words in one place makes it easy to review past words. When you’re sitting on the bus or before going to sleep at night, you can flip through your notebook and quickly review your new English words.
2. Search for the word in context
When you’re learning an advanced English vocabulary word, it’s often beneficial to search for the new word in context in addition to simply learning its definition. This is not as important with basic vocabulary because words like “green” and “television” are fairly straightforward. However, with difficult words, it can help you make sure that you know how to use the word correctly. The act of searching for the word in context will help you remember it, too. After all, the more you read and say a word, the more you will remember it.
My favorite place to search for vocabulary words in context is the BBC news site. Type your English vocabulary word into the search bar, and read through the results to get a better understanding of the word. I never read the full article. I only read the portion of the article related to the word I’m researching. If a sentence is particularly helpful to me, I will write it down in my notebook, especially if I suspect a group of words may be a collocation, or if I notice a preposition that seems to be used with the word on a regular basis. But oftentimes, I simply read and allow myself to gain an understanding of the word without writing anything down. It’s important to remember not to burn yourself out. :o)
Let’s look at a couple of examples of searching for vocabulary words in context with some of our recent Twitter words of the day:
— Next Step English (@NextStepEnglish) September 6, 2017
— Next Step English (@NextStepEnglish) September 1, 2017
— Next Step English (@NextStepEnglish) September 5, 2017
3. Channel your inner author
At university, I took many creative writing classes. One common exercise was for the professor to give the students a list of unrelated words and then require the students to write a poem or short story using all of the words given.
This is a great exercise to help you remember new vocabulary words, too! While you write, the new English words will be swirling around in your mind as you try to think of how to use them. And once you’ve finished, the images surrounding the words in your poem or story will also help you remember them.
To get you started, why don’t you try writing a poem or short story using these English vocabulary words? To see illustrated vocabulary cards with definitions, visit the article where we introduce these words.
4. Dive into word roots and origins
The more English words you learn, the more you will start to recognize certain word roots that appear over and over again, usually as prefixes or suffixes. Learning the roots that make up a word will help you remember hard vocabulary words and help you guess the meanings of new words with the same roots.
Here are just a few word roots that are common in English:
Similarly, learning a word’s path into English can also help you remember it. Many times, a word’s origin is simply “from Old English word X, derived from German word Y, related to Dutch word Z.” However, it’s not uncommon for words to have stories behind them, and knowing these stories will not only provide you with interesting trivia for entertaining your friends, but it will help you remember the word, as well.
Here are examples of a few interesting word origins in English. I’ve looked up all of these word origins in my favorite learners’ dictionary, the Oxford Learners’ Dictionaries:
• queen = the female ruler of an independent state that has a royal family
origin = of Germanic origin, relating to quean, the word for a badly behaved woman or girl
• clue = a fact or a piece of evidence that helps you discover the answer to a problem
origin = from a variant of the Late Middle English word clew, meaning a ball of thread, which is what Theseus used to escape from the labyrinth in Greek mythology
• slogan = a word or phrase that is easy to remember, used for example by a political party or in advertising to attract people’s attention or to suggest an idea quickly
origin = from the Scottish Gaelic word sluagh-ghairm (battle cry), from sluagh (army) + gairm (shout)
• nightmare = a dream that is very frightening or unpleasant
origin = from Middle English, denoting an evil female spirit who was thought to lie upon and suffocate sleepers, from night + the Old English word mære (incubus)
Associating hard vocabulary words with their origin stories can help you remember them long-term. Plus, it will make you an interesting conversationalist, and that’s always a good thing!
5. Surround yourself with the word
If you’re trying to memorize new vocabulary, it will really help you to immerse yourself in that new vocabulary. While the most important place to write down the new vocabulary is in your trusty vocabulary notebook, also make the words visible around you.
I recommend getting a whiteboard marker and writing the English words you’re trying to learn on your bedroom window or on your bathroom mirror. Perhaps even make a little drawing beside each word to help you remember its meaning. As you get dressed or brush your teeth, run through the words in your head and make sentences with them mentally.
You can tape small vocabulary cards to your refrigerator, or paint new vocabulary words onto rocks that you find outside, keeping a growing basket of rocks that you can play with. If you’re trying to learn words for household items, you can write their English names on masking tape and label the items in your home. There are many ways to make English words visible around you, so be creative!
6. Compete with a friend
Nothing motivates me like a good, old-fashioned competition. Talk to a friend who is also learning English, and come up with weekly vocabulary lists. When you see that friend, quiz each other at unexpected moments.
To make it even more fun, place goofy little bets on the words. If you forget the word, you have to do something embarrassing, like singing a line from a pop song really loudly, or making a funny face at the next person you see, or speaking for the next 60 seconds in Darth Vader’s voice.
If one of you remembers the word, get into the habit of performing some physical action to affirm the accomplishment, like a high five or a fist bump.
7. Play around on Quizlet
One of my favorite ways to practice vocabulary online is the free flashcard website, Quizlet. You have to sign up for a free account, and it’s more than worth the effort. You’ll get to make your own flashcards (with or without images), test yourself in a variety of ways, and play addictive review games to reinforce what you’ve learned. Quizlet even has a native English voice that will read your words back to you!
This is a great way to keep an online library of your new words or reinforce vocabulary before an exam. And if you have friends trying to learn the same words, you can share your flashcards with them. This is an all-around fabulous tool!
8. Take to social media
Social media is a great place to practice vocabulary! You may not want to inundate your personal friends and family with posts about English words, so I recommend that you set up a second account dedicated solely to practicing English.
Personally, my favorite social media platform for practicing a language is Twitter. Use the hashtag #twinglish to tweet a sentence using the vocabulary word you’re trying to remember. Then, go comment on other people’s sentences under the same hashtag. With any luck, they will reciprocate by responding to your tweet, reinforcing the vocabulary and helping you to make friends with other English language learners from around the globe.
9. Activate both sides of your brain
When trying to remember new vocabulary, people often focus on left-brain activities, like flashcards for memorization. Flashcards are wonderful! However, don’t neglect the right side of your brain when you’re trying to learn hard vocabulary words. Listen to music while you study, create illustrations of the words, write a short movie script using the words, or make a Venn Diagram comparing two things that will allow you to use some of your new English words.
10. Repeat, repeat, repeat
The more exposure you have to a word, the more you will remember it. This is true of basic vocabulary words and hard vocabulary words alike. The more you read, write, hear, and say a word, the more embedded it will be in your mind.
Some of the techniques I’ve recommended have repetition built in, like searching for the words in context on the BBC News site or using Quizlet. However, no matter which techniques appeal to you, make sure that you expose yourself to the words multiple times.
Don’t be intimidated by hard vocabulary words in English! With these techniques, you can remember them every time!