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Five steps to enlarge your English vocabulary

Updated: Jun 13

Five Steps to Enlarge Your English Vocabulary

Learning new vocabulary as adults can feel daunting. How do we learn new words and remember to use them? The answer is to learn them the way we learned our native language. In context, with associations, and with relevance to the world we are living in. Follow the principles below to build your vocabulary effectively, quickly, and with long-term retention.

When learning a new word or phrase,

  1. Get it in English and in context.

  2. Learn to spell and pronounce it first.

  3. Visualize it.

  4. Find a personal connection with it.

  5. Review it using spaced repetition.

You will spend a few minutes preparing each new word by visualizing and connecting with it. This will save you lots of time in the long run. Instead of reviewing on and on, looking words up again and again and forgetting them when you need them, you will retain words more quickly, efficiently, and long-term. Read on for how to implement these steps.

Note: To learn new words, you can make virtual flashcards (see bottom for suggestions), use a spreadsheet, or note the information mentally. The steps are most clearly illustrated with flashcards, so that is how they are shown here.

1. Get it in English and in context

New language should come from conversations, listening, watching things, and reading; if you’ve never encountered the word, you probably don’t need it.

To get the meaning of unknown words use the context to guess. You can also look words up in an English-only dictionary. Don’t stop to look things up on the first pass, though. Instead, just note the words you want to come back to and finish listening, watching, or reading. When you finish, go back and look the words up.

On the front of a virtual flashcard, write the word and what part of speech it is: noun, verb, adjective, adverb. On the back of your flashcard, write a short definition. Example: Freedom—no restrictions or obligations.

Next, use the context to connect you to the meaning. On the front of your card, write or copy a sentence from the topic where you encountered the word. For example,


To adults childhood may seem like a time of freedom, but to children it is full of rules.

2. Learn to spell & pronounce it

It’s easier to remember a word if you can say and picture it. So learn the spelling, and note the pronunciation phonetically on the front of the card. Be sure to note the main syllable stress in the word. A tool such as will give you phonetic spellings to copy and paste, or write your own. For example,

FREEDOM (n) [free-duhm]

To adults childhood may seem like a time of freedom, but to children it is full of rules.

3. Visualize it

We get visual connections when we learn words as children and the same is true for us as adults. Even abstract nouns like “freedom” can have mental images associated with them. What image can you connect to the meaning? Try going to Google images and search under your word or phrase. Find a visual that reminds you of the word. Place it on the back of your flashcard. If the word is concrete, like "pond", then simply find a picture of a pond. For example,

No restrictions or obligations

A small lake

4. Find a personal connection

Feeling is remembering. What does it make you think of? When did you feel free? When was the last time you saw a pond? Do you have any memories or associations with it? If you used to visit your friend Oscar at his pond, then write, "At Oscar's place" on the back of your flashcard. Or remember that time in Costa Rica when you felt free and write: "On the beach in Costa Rica in 2018.” If you don’t have a connection with the word, invent one!

The finished cards will look like this:





5. Review using spaced repetition

Use your flashcards to review and quiz yourself. You don't need to review every day because you might get bored, not pay attention, and waste time. Some apps have spaced repetition built in to keep track for you. Try or You only need to review words just before you forget them. Start with twice a week at first and go less often as you remember consistently. Eventually you will only review your words once a month, and then once in six months.

By gathering words from natural contexts, visualizing, and connecting with them, then reviewing regularly, you will be recreating the natural way we learn vocabulary as children; that is because in fact, as adults we learn the same way!

Resources mentioned Thanks to Gabriel Wyner for the inspiration!


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