Whether you ultimately forget or remember a word
depends on how well you study it.
Read on for tips and strategies.
This post will help you if you've ever said: "I learned some vocabulary words, but I forgot them later." (Or, "I rarely or never use them.")
And this post should help a lot if you're a student who's ever said: "I swear I know these words, but I got a bad grade on my vocabulary test. I don't get why!" (Or "The test wasn't fair!")
I sympathize with these frustrations and agree that devoting time and energy to vocabulary development merits a return on your investment.
In this post, I'll show you the bad study methods that lead to forgetting words and the good methods that lead to remembering them. I'll be relying on what's known from educational psychology in general and what's become clear to me after ten years of teaching vocabulary. Along the way, I'll try not to get too giddy or worked up about all this, but sometimes I can't help it: isn't it exciting to think how we're in control of our own learning and memory? And isn't it thrilling to think how well we could command all those well-remembered words? Summoning the perfect word is powerful-- magical, even, like casting a spell. Let's do this!
You probably didn't learn the words thoroughly enough in the first place. If a word doesn't get connected meaningfully in your mind to other information you already know, it might slip right out.
People often study vocabulary in the same way they study facts: by reading, rereading, and memorizing. But these are weak strategies when what you really want to do is understand and use the words in new situations.
Why? Unlike facts, like 12 x 12 = 144, most words worth studying have depth and complexity, so memorizing something like "A = B" (WORD = DEFINITION) won't do. An example will make this clear. If you already get what I mean, you can skip over the whole box below.
Let's say I've been told that "palliate" = "to soften." And I've memorized that definition really well, so if you ask me what "palliate" means, I can tell you "to soften," or even better, if you instead ask me for another word for "to soften," I can suggest "palliate."
It's a good start!
But does "palliate" mean softening up physical objects like butter, or is it like softening a person's anger? Or both, or neither?
Should I say something palliates, like my butter palliates, or should I say something palliates something else like the microwave palliates the butter?
And do you palliate something or palliate FOR something or palliate TOWARD something... or what?
And since "palliate" means "soften," could I say "palliate" every time I mean "soften"--could I say "I palliated my voice in the library so I wouldn't bother people"?
In fact, where and when and why will I come across this word? Who uses it, and in what situations?
And how common is the word? (Will people pretty much understand it when I use it?) And is it slangy or formal? (Would it be okay to use it in a job interview?)
And does it follow all the rules for regular verbs, and do I HAVE to use it like a verb or can I have a palliation or a palliative or palliaty or palliatish thing?
And why, come to think of it, do I even need this word if I already know the word "soften"?!
A single way to express the definition, as you can see, was just the front door into a mansion of knowledge about the word.
Consider this, too. You probably won't remember the definition at all if you'd just skimmed over the word and its meaning, said "that's nice," and then moved on with your day. The word would probably drop out of your memory entirely after 20 to 30 seconds.
Heaven help you if you take a vocabulary test and encounter this question: "At this point in her life, Great-Grandma is receiving only palliative care. What does that mean?" Spoiler: it has nothing to do with her soft voice, soft skin, or preference for soft foods.
By the way, here's the "Make Your Point" issue for palliate if you're not sure how to use it. And if you happen to notice that "Hey! 'To soften' isn't even a good definition for 'palliate!'" then I totally agree, and please consider that vocabulary workbooks and other secondary sources often do a poor job of providing definitions.
Okay, so failure to remember words (and failure on vocab tests) can usually be blamed on unhelpful study methods: passive reading or rigid memorization that doesn't help you apply the words. Change your strategy, then. Start engaging in all the depth of a word's meaning. Details on how to do that are coming up in a moment.
Before we get to that, let's consider for a moment the words you're holding in limbo. They're not forgotten, because you understand them when you see or hear them, but you never use them on your own. Let me suggest that this is not necessarily a problem. Comprehending a word when you hear it or read it is a worthwhile outcome of your study efforts; you're increasing your power to grapple with more complex and specific ideas. Plus, consider that if you try to force a word into your speech or writing, you'll sound stiff, and communication will break down. (Even worse, if you use the word incorrectly, your knowledge of the word will start to warp. Meaning you're more likely to use it wrong again!) You use a word when the situation calls for it, rather than manufacturing a situation so you can use it. That's why I reject the idea that letting learned words go unused is a failure.
At this point you might say, "Hey, use it or lose it." Remembering words, you might suggest, requires using them regularly when you talk and write. That may be a good point. And in fact, the research backs you up: frequent encounters with words are definitely associated with good retention. But you use only a tiny portion of your vocabulary every day. Much like some of us--um, definitely including me--regularly wear only a fraction of the clothes in our closets, about ninety percent of the words we use on any given day are from the pool of the most common 1,000 words, even though educated adults know an estimated 10,000 to 100,000 words in total (according to various sources). So although I encourage you to use new words when they fit the situation, I have to admit that frequent use may not be the most practical way to remember them.
What should be done instead?
When you study words, go deep. Your goal is not to memorize a single definition but to create a rich mental representation of each word and to link that knowledge to what you already know. Let's think of that process as 3 essential steps:
1. Get lots of input about the word.
2. Build meaning and connections.
3. Practice bringing the word to mind.
And a final step, if you're a student:
4. Study for a test by creating realistic test conditions for yourself.
Here are some ways you can get all that done. Don't gasp in horror, please; I'm not saying you should do all of the following activities every time you study a word. Use your judgment. Work until you feel like the word belongs to you.
Here are several ways to do that.
A. Listen to the pronunciation of your word, and listen to yourself say it. Dictionary websites have audio to help with this.
B. Look closely at the spelling, and if you know that the spelling will give you trouble, then focus particularly on the hard spots. (Double letters? Sounds spelled in ways you weren't expecting?)
C. Examine how the word gets defined in more than one dictionary; that can reveal the flexibility of the concept. I like m-w.com, dictionary.com, and the Oxford English Dictionary, but that last one requires special access that you can usually get through your school or library.
D. Read lots of examples online and pay attention to context, connotation and tone, concrete and abstract uses, how the word fits into phrases and sentences, and so on. You can find good examples, among other places, at vocabulary.com and news.google.com.
That was the easy part. (Oh, snap!) Now for the real work:
A brief aside before we look at study strategies for this important step. As you probably know, it's really, really hard to remember something that's confusing or that has nothing to do with you personally. Meaning and relevance make learning anything so much easier. With that in mind, here's a gentle suggestion. If you have trouble making your vocabulary words meaningful to you or connecting them to information that's already stored in your memory, then take a good look at those words. Are they worth learning? If not, chuck them out. Who cares about super-specific terms in a field of study you'll never enter?
Unfortunately, if you're a student and someone has assigned some words to you, then you don't have that luxury. Sorry about that. Try to mentally role-play someone who would find the words important.
Here are a few quick ways to check whether your word is worth studying. First, look it up on dictionary.com and look down at the "difficulty index" feature. If it says that very few people know this word, feel free to kiss it goodbye. Second, look it up on news.google.com and see how many search results turn up. Useful words will generate hundreds of results, if not thousands or more. Useless words may turn up ten, five, or no results. Buh-bye!
You're sure your chosen words are worth the effort, so we'll get to it. Pick the methods that work for you:
A. Even though it will be hard, try to define the word in a bunch of different ways. This saves you from memorizing any rigid definition and forces you to think about the concept instead. You should at least be able to look at one version of a definition and explain the word's meaning without using any of the key words from the definition. (Obviously it's okay to use words like "the" and "of" from the definition; just don't repeat the most important words.)
B. Apply the word to your life. You can think about the past, present, and future as you use the word to describe stories you shared with a friend, to give examples of your professional abilities you might mention in a job interview, to retell events you experienced or saw or read about in the news, to describe movies and books and historical events you're familiar with, etc. Apply the word to multiple spheres of your life, your various interests, and your relationships. The goal is not to make up scripts to use later. It is to integrate the word into your experience of life.
C. Consider taking a look at the word's etymology (word history) by looking it up at www.etymonline.com. Knowing where a word came from and what its roots mean can turn on a light bulb over your head if you need help remembering the meaning, understanding why it's spelled a certain way, or connecting the word to others that you already know.
D. Make the word visual in your mind. Conjure up images and scenes involving the word. Get a feel for its color and texture. If you're not sure where to start, try searching for your word at images.google.com.
E. Try mentally searching your vocabulary and finding words and phrases to compare and contrast with the target word. You might start by saying "This word is more intense than '____' but less intense than '___.'" For certain words, you'll be able to place them along a continuum of meaning. Where would you put "palliate" on a continuum from "polish" to "fix" to "adjust" to "maintain" to "bother" to "mess up" to "ruin"?
F. Or, compare and contrast the word with your experiences. "This word describes (a certain person, place, or thing in my life) but not (another)."
G. Organize the word in lots of different ways in your mind. Are you studying "bandy," meaning to chat about something back and forth casually? Then add it to your mental list of sophisticated verbs, and to a list of words that rhyme (Andy, bandy, candy, dandy...). And add it to a mental list of things you do with friends or with classmates, and add it to a list of things you don't do with your boss or during a movie at the theater. And to a list of things that a DJ does to waste time between songs.
H. If you're studying more than one word at once, organize those words in different ways, too. Put them into categories, like nouns/verbs/adjectives, happy/sad words, casual/formal words, hard/easy words, fancy/plain words, funny/serious words, etc. Or put them all in order along a continuum: simplest to most complex, most to least likely to pop up in a blog about your favorite hobby, best to worst ways to describe your closest friend or favorite fictional character, etc. Go for meaningful categories like these so you can keep interacting with the words deeply. Superficial categories are easier to think of (organize by amount of syllables, ease of spelling, letter the word starts with) but these may be less helpful for building connections and meaning.
Should you use mnemonics, or memory tricks, to anchor words into your mind?
Sure, if you have to. But first make sure the word is meaningful to you. And look closely at any mnemonic you use or invent. Could it reveal a real relationship among words? If so, understanding that relationship makes your knowledge of the word deeper rather than dependent on a gimmick.
Example: you're trying to remember that "circa" means "occurring at a certain point in history," and you note that the word sounds like "circus" and so you make a mnemonic about the time period when circuses got popular. Not bad. But look into it a bit and you'll see that there's a close relationship between "circa" and "circus:" that "circa" means "around" and a "circus" takes place in rings. Discovering this real and highly logical relationship is better than depending on that particular mnemonic.
Let's check out an example to see how that works for remembering spelling, too, not just meaning.
For the life of me, I couldn't remember to spell "innocuous" with two ns and one c. It looked weird. I could make a mnemonic: "Something innocuous is harmless, and when you stay at an INN, it's a safe place. So put an INN in 'innocuous.'" Okay, that's not bad if I want to remember the spelling.
Set the word aside and occupy your mind with something totally different. Let yourself forget about it. And, if you can, let some time go by. Now, attempt something effortful to bring the word back into your thoughts. Depending on your study schedule, you may have time to do this only once, but it's better to do it a bunch of times. Know that your time spent on this step is well worth it; every time you work to recall your knowledge, you strengthen your ability to do it. Okay, let's check out some methods for recalling what you know:
A. Think: "Okay, so the word I was just studying is... and it means... and a new example that I haven't thought of yet is..." or "My word was... which is the total opposite of..." or "If I had to teach this word to my friend, I'd explain it like this..."
B. Head to your favorite search engine and run a search for the word. Ignore any dictionary or thesaurus entries and focus on example sentences. "Okay, so this sentence says... and so that means..."
C. If you like to make flashcards, try using them both ways: look at the meaning and try to recall the word, and vice versa. Or make a game of Concentration (also called Memory) for a handful of words: put a word on one card, put its meaning on another, repeat for each word you're studying, jumble them up, arrange them face-down, and peek at any two at a time as you try to find matches.
D. If you made a list of examples for your words, take a look at the examples and try to recall the words they represent. Or, if you made a list of opposites for your words, take a look at the opposites and try to recall the original words.
E. Try playing with a worksheet-creation program like Vocabulary Worksheet Factory. (Not free, but worth purchasing.) You can input your own word lists and create fun little review sheets to help yourself practice recalling words and their meanings. Tip: create at least two versions of each of your word lists so that you're defining words in different ways. That is, for example, define "obsolescent" on one list as "disappearing" and on another list as "becoming less and less relevant" and, if you have time, on a third list as "not totally gone but on the way out."
F. As you're living your life--eating, working, hanging out with friends and family, engaging in your hobbies--pause sometimes to call to mind all the words you've learned recently, and consider whether they do or don't describe the experience you're currently enjoying.
G. If you have a written list of your words, or their definitions, or the examples you made for them, or even better, a diagram of them that you made while finding new ways to organize them, then post that up somewhere in your home where you'll see it often. May I suggest the bathroom? Then, don't just read it: use it as a prompt to go on a mental search for the words and their meanings.
H. If you use "Make Your Point" or another word-a-day email, skim through your inbox every now and again to look at the subject lines. Once you see a word you studied, try to remember everything you can about it.
And if you're a student and you have to take a vocabulary test, then...
Take a look at any previous vocabulary tests your teacher has given you, and using those questions as a template, make up some test questions about the words you're studying now.
If it's a matching test, make a matching test. If it's a fill-in-the-blanks test, or a paragraph composition test or whatever, then create one of those. Has your teacher pulled out example sentences from stories you've read and asked you to explain the words in context? Great! Do it before your teacher does and watch how easy that test is when you take it for real. It's not cheating, I promise. Once you've written your own practice test, set it aside for a while, then go back and take it.
That method works really well for most students, but it does take some time. Alternatively, try using this checklist to find any holes in your knowledge. Then patch them up.
Can I spell and pronounce this word without doubt?
Could I explain the meaning fully and correctly to a friend without hesitation?
Can I smoothly put the word into the kind of phrases and sentences it belongs in?
Could I put it into a sentence and include enough context so that someone else could guess correctly what the word means?
Can I explain the meaning even if I see the word in a totally context-free sentence, like "This is so superannuated"?
Can I express the same idea correctly in other parts of speech? (Like if I know "surmount," can I come up with "surmountable," "surmounted," "insurmountable," etc.?)
Can I call it to mind if I'm given a clue about the meaning or an example of a situation it applies to?
Could I list a few antonyms of the word?
Am I ready to see it among close synonyms and distinguish it from them?
Can I use the word both literally and figuratively, both seriously and humorously? Can I use it to overstate or understate an idea?
Now you're totally ready for your test. Right? But if you still miss some questions, I hope you'll view them only as opportunities to add to your knowledge about the words.
That's it, the whole method for making sure you can remember a word when you learn it.
Let's pause for a moment. I hope I haven't left you swimming in details and strategies, so let's focus on the 3 basic steps. Can you recap them? (And if you're a student, that extra step that you need: what was that one?)
When you're done recapping, feel free to scoot up this page and see if you missed anything.
Those steps are rooted in what we know from research about long-lasting learning, as I mentioned, and they work very well as far as I can tell from many years of teaching vocabulary. But if you've got some objections to this method, you're not alone.
"That way of learning words sounds hard and time-consuming."
Yup, sorry. We often look for an easy way to learn vocabulary, and we get seduced into thinking we're learning a lot of it by passively reading a vocab book or effortlessly skimming a word-a-day email. But effort leads to remembering and to speed and accuracy in recalling words when you need them. The process of learning words can certainly be convenient, efficient, effective, and manageable, but if it's easy (meaning you didn't have to think much or work hard), then you might forget the words later.
"But my teacher assigned me 75 words to learn this week. And there will be a test. I don't have time to do all this extra stuff you recommend."
Yikes. It's a tough situation when you're forced to sacrifice quality for quantity. Maybe pick the 10 or 15 words you think are most useful and learn those deeply, then wing it for the rest. Or study them all for real if you're a Type A person like me, but spread out your work over the week.
"But my teacher gives me a workbook packet on Monday with 20 words. I have to do the exercises in the packet and take a test on Friday." Or, "But my teacher always gives me a list of words and tells me to look them up and write a sentence for each one. That's all I have to do."
Okay. But regardless of what gets assigned, it's still you who's in charge of your vocabulary learning. Do the assigned stuff with an active mind. (That is, try not to zone out; keep talking yourself through it, like "This answer is B because it shows how the word means ___!") Then go do your real studying after that. You've probably realized that real learning often requires doing more than what your teacher assigns.
"Okay, I used your method and everything, but sometimes I see the word and I KNOW that I know the meaning but I can't think of it. Or I know the meaning and I KNOW that I know the word but I can't think of it."
You can usually prevent this struggle by making lots and lots of meaningful connections as you study so you'll have more mental pathways to use when it's time to recall. But right when the word or its meaning is on the tip of your tongue, try mentally time-traveling to when you learned the word or when you saw it, heard it, or used it. Where were you? What were you doing? What made you laugh, what made you scrunch up your face in annoyance or confusion, what gave you the creeps? What was an example that you made up to go with the word? What was its opposite? What was the word shaped like when you saw it written down--long or short? Any double letters? Any prefixes or suffixes? That whole process can help you grab a little knot of your net of knowledge about the word so you can yank up the rest.
If you have other objections, questions, or comments, please let me know.
Lastly, if you're not already a subscriber to "Make Your Point," let me persuade you to try it.
If you want to learn good vocabulary words in lessons that are brief, clear, structured, and convenient, then study with me by subscribing to "Make Your Point." Yes, I write it and I'm biased, but to my knowledge it's the only word-a-day email that relies on the principles of good learning described above. (Others out there are great; Dr. Goodword in particular will dive deep into etymologies with you and provide plenty of input--but then studying is up to you.)
Each issue of "Make Your Point" provides lots of input about the word, then prompts you to think actively to build some personal meaning and connections. We tie up the issue with some recall activities. You can check out a sample issue here and sign up here.
At the risk of clobbering you with this idea, I'll repeat: Mental effort, not skimming or memorizing, helps you remember words. So don't approach vocabulary learning like I approach Pilates, skipping all the hard parts to lean back and say "Meh, too hard, maybe next time." Get into it. Think actively. It'll pay off--by which I mean, as you'll be chatting with a good friend or typing up an important email, you'll reach into your memory for the perfect word, and it'll burst to the forefront of your mind right along with a satisfying frisson of accomplishment. Like magic.
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