4.8 Article - Strategies for learning vocabulary

Consider the previous activity when we looked at two different strategies for remembering pairs of words.  Which strategy did you find more effective?

The strategy where you have to form visual images is often found to be more effective. Was this true for you?

Forming images is helpful for our memory but the last activity looked at remembering words we already knew.  How about learning new words? Can the repetition strategy also help?

There are two key aspects to learning new words:

  • meaning →  form

It is here we see that both strategies can come in handy when learning new words:

  • visual images can help you to remember the meaning of the word
  • repetition strategies can help you to remember the pronunciation and spelling of a word

These strategies can be used together on a free online platform called Decks. You can study many English vocabulary courses on this website. While you study, you are encouraged to remember words by making 'mems'.  Mems are strategies for remembering the meaning and form of a word. You can create an image and add text to it as a way of remembering each new word that you learn.  The test could be the word or phrase or just a note about the word.   Let's consider some examples:


Mem 1

Here we have a nice visual image that we can associate to the meaning of the phrase.  However, how well is it going to help us to remember the form and pronunciation of 'thoroughly'? Which is pronounced:

Here we might use repetition and visual strategies.  If we look at the spelling, we can recognise that the word contains another word which we probably already know, but which is unrelated to the meaning of 'thorough' or 'thoroughly':

  • 'rough'

Recognising this we could repeat: 

  • t-h-o rough l-y - t-h-o rough l-y - t-h-o rough l-y

We could also form an image of the word divided into parts like this to help us remember the spelling. 

Repeating the syllables is a good way to help remember the pronunciation:

We could also use the phonemic chart to remember it visually:

  • /ˈθʌrəli/

These strategies can also be helpful for remembering the spelling of cognates. Cognates are words which have the same meaning but slightly different spelling and pronunciation across languages. Obviously, we do not need to create an image to remember the meaning here. However, we do need to remember the spelling and pronunciation accurately. Some examples of cognates between English and Spanish:

  • ability /əˈbɪlity/- habilidad
  • to access /ækses/- acceder
  • economy /eˈkɒnəmi/- economía
  • ignorant /ˈɪɡnərənt/- ignorante
  • materialism /məˈtɪerielɪzm/ materialismo

So, we see using a combination of visual and repetition strategies can help us to remember the form and meaning of new words and phrases that we learn.  Repetition strategies are particularly useful for remembering form, and visualisation can help you remember both form and meaning.

Let's consider some more mems now.  



to be caught and detained for commiting a criminal offence:

  • The cops raided a bar in Washington and the president's daughter was busted for under-age drinking. She was let off with a warning.

This mem just uses an example sentence rather than any visual image.  This is a good way to help you understand the meaning of the word.  You can find an example sentence from a dictionary or a corpus.  Seeing the sentence in context helps us to understand both the meaning and the usage. For example, we can see that the word is clearly informal as it is being used in an informal context.


take up a challenge

  • take up a challenge = aceptar un reto (Spanish)

Using translation is a quick way to access the meaning of a word or phrase. We should be careful though.  Although it might help us understand the meaning, it does not do much to help us with the form and usage of the word in English, unlike the other strategies we have looked at.  There is no reason why using a mixture of translation and repetition and finding sentence of the word in context cannot be helpful.  

Translation may be useful when dealing with what are known as 'false friends'. False friends are words which have cognates (similarly spelt words) across two languages, but where the meaning as actually different. Some examples of how you can use translation and notes to help with this area (examples using Spanish):

  • la manifestation = a protest or demonstration NOT a manifestation (this has a different meaning in English)
  • asistir = to attend NOT to assist (this means 'help someone' in English)

Finally, we can combine any of the strategies we have been looking at.  Here is an example of a strategy that combines a visual image with a sentence.  Notice that the sentence is personalised, which may also help with remembering the meaning of the word we are trying to learn:


sample mem

Last modified: Sunday, 7 July 2019, 12:09 AM