How do I remember words?

Words! They are everywhere! So. Many. Words.

You see them, learn them, then forget them! Why? Why? What is the secret to memorizing words?

Two types of memory

The brain has two kinds of memory – short-term memory, and long-term memory.

When you look at a phone number on a piece of paper, then dial it – that’s short term memory. You only remember it for as long as you need it.

Your home address, your cousins’ names, the letters of the alphabet … these are all in your long-term memory. You aren’t likely to forget them.

So if you are learning a new language (or improving your vocabulary for your first language!), most words stay in your short-term memory. How do you move words from short-term memory to long-term memory???

The two most important factors in remembering words are elaboration – thinking deeply about the word, and repetition – saying the word many times. When you think deeply about the word, you study its meaning, the words that are associated with it, the parts of the word, and you connect the word with an image, smell, event, or something else in the real world. When you repeat the word, you read it, say it, write it down, or listen to it again and again. This helps keep it in your mind.

Elaboration – Many Ways

When you elaborate your knowledge of a word, you think about it many ways. The reason this works is that our mind remembers things by associating them with other things. The more things the word is associated with, the stronger it will be in your memory. Here are some ways to study a word deeply:

  • Write down (or think about) what the word means (the dictionary definition of the word). If you are a language learner, use a learner’s dictionary such as Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary. (A learner’s dictionary uses simpler words to explain meaning compared to a regular dictionary.) It’s also helpful to write down or think about the meaning in your own words.
  • What does the word mean in your language? Frequently words in different languages are used differently, so the word in English might not be 100% the same as the word in your language. However, associating the word with a translation will help you keep it in mind.
  • Is there an image you can associate with the word? Research shows that when a word and a picture go together, it is easier to remember the word.
  • Have you ever had a taste or smell remind you of an event, place, or person? Our sensory memories are very strong. Was there a sight, smell, or feeling you noticed when you learned the word? Think about it to make the association stronger.
  • What words are associated with this word? There are many types of associations:
    • Synonyms (what word means the same thing?)
      • light – bright
    • Antonyms (what means the opposite thing?)
      • light – dark
    • Type-of relationships (what kind of thing is this?)
      • red – color
    • Same types (what other things are this type?)
      • red – black
      • red – pink
    • Thematic relationships (what does this thing relate to?)
      • light – sunshine
      • light – outside
      • light – warm
    • Collocations (what words are used frequently with this word?)
      • turn on the light
      • bright light

Studying, writing down, brainstorming in a group… these are activities you can use to find many ways to remember the word.

Repetition – Many Days

There is a Russian proverb, Repetition is the mother of learning, and this is particularly true for language learning.

The more times you repeat the word, the stronger your memory will be.

Ways to repeat the word:

  • Notice when you see the word again.
    • If you learn a word and then see or hear it again (in reading, conversation, television, etc.), notice the word. Think, “Oh, that’s a word I just learned! It means _______________.” The more you focus your attention, the better.
  • Use the word in writing or conversation.
    • There is a difference between receptive knowledge (you know the word when you see it) and productive knowledge (you say or write the word). Receptive knowledge comes first, but productive knowledge is stronger for memory. Using the word will help you remember it.
  • Deliberately study the word (this is called to drill).
    • Study the word with flashcards, a vocabulary list, a vocabulary notebook, or an app like Vocab Victor.
    • Say the word out loud when you see it, practice writing it.
    • Set aside time each week to drill the words you learned that week, and to review the words you learned the previous week.

Become a memory master

You can master your words and become a vocabulary winner!

Learn the word many ways, and practice it many days!

by Heidi Brumbaugh, PhD

Vocab Victor helps improve your vocabulary by strengthening word associations!

Download now!