Did you know that a native English speaker typically knows about 20,000 words? And the number goes up to about 40,000 for people who are university educated.
If you’re learning English, that number might freak you out a little.
And it’s not like English words always make sense, either. English can often feel like it’s a patchwork quilt: like someone just stuck a bunch of random sounds together and insists that it’s a language.
So I understand if the idea of remembering 20,000 words seems a little intimidating.
Fortunately, there are some strategies that you can use to help you learn words more quickly and efficiently. For all of you that are struggling to develop your vocabulary, here are some ways that you can remember vocabulary in English.
The science of learning and remembering
First, let’s talk about remembering.
There’s actually a huge domain of research in cognitive science and psychology that studies how we learn. I
Here are a few things that are important to know about memory.
The first is that we forget things on a curve called “the forgetting curve”. The more time that goes by, the more we forget... unless we remind ourselves. That’s why cognitive scientists agree that when we develop methods for reminding ourselves something just before we forget it, we remember more efficiently.
Spaced repetition is one way to do that. Spaced repetition is a technique to repeat information in such a way that you’re always repeating information you don’t know more often, and information you know very well less often.
So, for example, in English if you used spaced repetition to remember vocabulary words, you would organise it so that you practice words you know really well, (“man”, for example) less often. Words you don’t know very well (maybe, “to swerve”) would be repeated much more often.
Research shows that spaced repetition is an effective way to remember things quickly.
How can you incorporate spaced repetition into your study?
- Brainscape flashcards. Brainscape is a web and mobile flashcard application built using spaced repetition. You add flashcards for the vocabulary you want to remember and then rate how well you know the word. When you go through your flashcards, you’ll see words you don’t know as well more often, and words you know really well less often. It’s free to make an account and use, but you can pay to subscribe for access to their courses. One of their classes is a “vocab builder” class.
- Memrise. Memrise is another spaced repetition flashcard system designed specifically for learning languages. They have English courses for a bunch of other languages, including for Spanish, French, and Portuguese speakers. It’s free to start.
- Anki. Anki is another flashcard system based on spaced repetition. It’s kind of the hacker, open-source version of Brainscape. It’s a bit more clumsy and not as pretty, but it’s completely free to use, and you can customise it however you like.
Use the language
One of the best ways to remember words is extensive reading and extensive listening—exposure to them in context. The first time that you hear them, you might have to look them up and write them down in your journal. But then, by simply coming across the words in context, you will be able to remember them better.
This is supported by some research. One experiment found that those in an extensive reading group performed significantly better on a vocabulary test than those who did not engage in extensive reading. These results were confirmed in a meta-analysis of 21 studies on extensive reading. The authors conclude that the results “soundly confirms that extensive reading has unquestionably positive impact on students’ English vocabulary acquisition to a huge extent”.
Similarly, research on extensive listening finds similar results: the more you listen to a language, the better you perform on language tests, and the more words you learn. Listening while you read (for example, while you read a transcript) is one of the best ways to learn vocabulary.
Here are my suggestions.
- Read widely. Extensive reading, or simply reading a lot and a variety of native texts, is one of the best ways to both learn new words and remember them.
- Listen widely. Listening extensively, like reading, is an amazing way to learn and remember new words. One of the great things about the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast is that it’s always on a new subject, which gives you the opportunity to get exposed to new words.
- Speak a lot. Find a friend to speak in English with, and make a point to use your new words in context.
- Write. Using new words in your writing activities will help you remember them.
If you really want to remember new words, read, listen, speak, and write.
Check out our guide to creating your own immersion course for ideas about how to find reading material, listening activities, and people to chat in English with.
There are also a tonne of apps out there to remember vocabulary. These ones aren’t based on spaced repetition, so they may not be scientifically optimised to learn new words. But they’re still pretty good and they might work well for you.
- TinyCards. TinyCards is a flashcard app made by the people that do Duolingo. It’s a simple app for drilling vocabulary. You can find cards made by other people or make your own. It’s free to use.
- Quizlet. You can use Quizlet to study anything. It’s a simple application without a ton of features. It’s a bit more gamified, letting you make simple flashcards, fill-in-the-blanks, spelling, or play games. It’s free to use, but you can pay for pre-made flashcard decks.
- Cram. Cram is another flashcard app you can use to study anything, including English vocabulary. It’s free with a paid option that removes ads and gives you more features.
- Make your own app. It’s actually super simple (and rewarding) to simply make your own vocabulary app. Alastair wrote a super easy guide for how to make your own vocabulary app and all you need is about 5 minutes and a Google account and you can have your own shiny vocab app to keep track of all the new words you come across. It’s completely free.
Use a Notebook
This isn’t flashy or high-tech, but it’s actually what I use most of the time when I’m learning Portuguese. There’s something kind of romantic about writing new words in a physical notebook.
Here’s how I use it. When I come across a new word I don’t know, I simply add it to a vocabulary list I have going. Then a few times a week, I go through the list, cover up the English definitions, and try to remember what the word meant.
The more often you go through the journal, the better you will remember the words. You can tick off the words you know eventually, so you stop reviewing them.
The trick is just remembering to take the journal with you so that you have it when you learn a new word or phrase.
Here’s a video if you want to see how a teacher sets up vocabulary journals for her students. She also has a great southern U.S. accent, so it might be interesting if you’re interested in how pronunciation is different in the Southern US. Try shadowing it to practice that accent.
Finally, you can use the games to help you remember new words. There are a tonne available on your phone, and around the internet. Here are a few that I like.
- Words with friends (on iOS and Android)
- Wordscapes (on iOS and Android)
- Alphabear (on iOS and Android)
- Four letters (on iOS and Android)
What not to do
So far we’ve covered a bunch of popular options for you to use to remember new vocabulary. These are options that work.
But there are also a bunch of popular methods that don’t really work and that I would not recommend that you do to remember vocabulary in English.
- Learn non-contextual words from a vocabulary list. Simply reading through a list of words out of context will probably not help you learn the words very quickly.
- Use pre-made flashcards of words you haven’t seen in context. Again, seeing how a word is used in a real situation is important for actually remembering it.
- Make a mental note of a word (but not write it down). I do this all the time: I think I will remember a word later... but then I see it again I have no idea what it means. You need to record new words and practice them to really remember them.
- Keep switching techniques looking for a silver bullet. There isn’t a “perfect” option that doesn’t take any work. They all require some work. Just find an option that works for you and stick with it.
Conclusion: Put in the work
The most important thing that you’ll need to remember words in English is the right attitude and to put in the work.
Of course, you should keep track of the new words you’re learning. Write them down on paper, in an app, on flashcards—whatever you like best. If you can build in spaced repetition, the more the better.
But there isn’t really a magic system. None of the approaches above is “right” or “wrong”. You should find something that works for you, and use it consistently. Try experimenting with a few and see what has the best results.
At the end of the day, you need to be exposed to new words, and it’s best if that is done in context. But you’re unlikely to remember a word if you just hear the word once. All of the science says you need to see it repeatedly.
So find a method of repeating and re-exposing yourself to the words you come across, and then use that method consistently. If you do that, you’ll find you’re much better able to remember vocabulary in English.
Brown, R., Waring, R., & Donkaewbua, S. (2008). Incidental vocabulary acquisition from reading, reading-while-listening, and listening to stories. Reading in a foreign language, 20(2), 136-163.
Chang, A. C., & Millett, S. (2014). The effect of extensive listening on developing L2 listening fluency: Some hard evidence. ELT journal, 68(1), 31-40.
Liu, J., & Zhang, J. (2018). The Effects of Extensive Reading on English Vocabulary Learning: A Meta-Analysis. English language teaching, 11(6), 1-15.
Pazhakh, A., & Soltani, R. (2010). The effect of extensive reading on vocabulary development in EFL learners in Dehdasht Language Institute. Practice and Theory in Systems of Education, 5(4), 387-398.
Pellicer-Sánchez, A., & Schmitt, N. (2010). Incidental vocabulary acquisition from an authentic novel: Do Things Fall Apart? Reading in a Foreign Language, 22(1), 31-35.