Strategies for Learning Vocabulary: Notes

CSCC Language Institute Micro-Class

How Big Is Your Vocabulary?

2020-12-02 NOTE: This page was made for use with adult learners of English in the USA. Their “L1”, or native language is assumed to be not English. If you are a native English speaker learning another language, the advice here will still be very helpful. BUT, just be aware that when I talk about “the English word”, I mean the word in the new language that you are trying to learn.

We will take a few minutes to see how big our vocabularies already are. You can come back to these web sites in a few months to see how much your vocabulary has improved.

  • Test Your Vocab (my score: about 32,700 words)
  • Optional: Do this if you finish early or if you can't use the other site. Vocabulary Test (my score: 81%)

Learning Vocabulary

Please answer these questions, briefly:

  1. Where do you find new vocabulary words?
  2. How often do you use vocabulary cards? Everyday? Once a week? Never?
  3. What software do you use to learn vocabulary?
  4. Do you know and use “prefixes” and “suffixes”?

Types of “Remembering”

English has the word “remember”, but there are several kinds or types of “remembering”. We mostly care about two of them here: “recognition” and “recall”.

You know a word when you hear it or see it. Everyone knows more words than they can use. The words you recognize but can't use is your “passive vocabulary”. The vocabulary test sites (like the ones we just looked at) check this vocabulary.
You can find a word that you need. For example, if I give you a definition, you can “remember” the word it defines. This is not as easy as simple recognition.
The next step is to be able to use the word in conversation. This is your “active vocabulary” — the words you know and can use.

Think of it like this: you know a friend when you see them, but can you draw them or describe them when they are not with you? That is the difference between “recognition”, or passive vocabulary, and “recall”, or active vocabulary.

When learning new vocabulary, you want to move words from unknown to can recognize to can use (recall).

Strategy 0: Vocabulary Cards

I call this “strategy zero” because it is so important that it is really is not a strategy — you should be using vocabulary cards even if you don't use any of the other strategies we talk about today.

Vocabulary cards (also known as “flash cards”) have the vocabulary word on one side and the meaning or other information on the other side. Often, you will have the new English word on one side and the same word in your language (Spanish, Somali, Japanese, etc.) on the other side.

More advanced learners might have the English word on one side and the definition, in English, on the other side. This is great for learning, but you shouldn't do it until you have a strong English vocabulary—you need to understand the definition!

Sometimes, it is just easier to do it with your native language, especially for simple nouns or other words for things that are the same regardless of the language. I know what “The United Nations” is, so I don't need a definition in Japanese when I want to learn the word 「国 連」. It is faster and easier to just put “The United Nations” (in English) on the other side. For me, in this situation, this is totally okay. If I was studying at a Japanese university, though, I might want to use Japanese for the definition. It just depends on your level and your needs. Both are okay!

Strategy 1: Start with the definition

When learning new words, first you should get used to the words and the definitions. Don't worry about trying to remember (recall) the words or the definitions. Just read through them until you can recognize them.

After you are familiar with the new vocabulary words you want to learn, look at the definitions and try to recall the word itself. Recalling one word is easier than trying to remember an entire sentence.

Only change to reading the word and trying to recall the definition after you are okay with reading the definition and recalling the word.

If you are using your native language on the other side of a vocabulary card, start with looking the English word. Try to remember the word in your language. After you are comfortable recalling the word in your language, then change to look at the word in your language and try to remember the word in English.

Below is the same thing, in slightly easier to read format.

If you use L1 words

  • step 1: look at the English word and trying to recall L1 word

after you can do that, then switch to …

  • step 2: look at the L1 word and try to recall the English word

If you use English definitions

  • step 1: look at the definitions and try to recall the word

after you can do that, then switch to …

  • step 2: look at the word and trying to recall the definition

After you are okay doing this, move on to using “Spaced Repetition”.

Strategy 2: “Spaced Repetition”

When using vocabulary cards (paper, in an app, or online), spaced repetition is the best way to learn new words. “Spaced repetition” means that you study some words and then, once you are okay with them, you review them again later. The more you review them, the more time you wait before reviewing them again. You can do this with paper cards, but it is much easier to let your phone or your computer keep track of the times for you.

For example, maybe you learned the word “repetition” today. You think you know it pretty well. So, you might not look at that word again for a few days. Then, when you see it again, if you still know it, you might wait a week or two before trying again. Then, if you are still good with the word “repetition”, you might not check yourself on it again for a month or more. The idea is that the more confident you are with a word, the less likely you are to see it (when you are practicing your vocabulary cards), but you will still see it eventually.

The reverse is also true — the less confident you are with a word, the more often you will see it.

You can see how this may need a lot of record keeping. Computer programs (or phone apps) can do this record keeping easily. That is why many people use spaced repetition software to help them learn new vocabulary.

Strategy 3: Use the words in sentences

One of the best ways to remember words is to use them. This is not easy, of course. It is okay to start by seeing the word used in many sentences instead of trying to make your own all the time. A great way to do this is to look at the examples on dictionary web sites.

Another, more advanced, way is to search for the word online and read some of the web pages where the word is used. You don't have to read the whole page, of course, just read the sentence or the paragraph where the word appears. I prefer to check news sites, because they are more likely to use the words correctly. Random personal blogs, you can't always be sure about.

Strategy 4: Learn prefixes and suffixes

If you know the word “do”, you can easily learn several new words by using prefixes and suffixes. For example:

  • redo — to do again.
  • undo — to change back to how it was before.
  • doable — it can be done
  • undoable — something that cannot be done

If you know one word and a few prefixes or suffixes, you can probably guess the meaning of many words that use those. This is a very easy and useful way of learning “new” words.

So, learn prefixes and suffixes, and then go looking for them attached to words you already know.

A good site This is a European site, so it may have British English. That is okay — most prefixes and suffixes are the same in British and American English. to get started is They have lists of prefixes and suffixes with their meanings. Maybe start with just the “examples” lists. Don't study the medical and scientific lists (unless you need them for work) until you are okay with the others.

Files (Don't forget to download!)

These files are for this micro-class. Please download them so you can review this content later. Also, please make sure to save this web page (ctrl+s on most browsers).

S4LV = “Strategies for Learning Vocabulary

Thank You

Thanks for attending class today. I hope you learned something and I hope that the resources from this class are helpful. Please email me if you have any questions or comments about the class or anything else. My email address is: Be careful — is an _ between esl and teacher. (By the way, the _ is called an “underscore” in English.)

Good luck with your studies!