Question and Answer: Vocabulary Retention

People sometimes email us questions and post questions on the English Language Skills Facebook™ Page about spelling, vocabulary, writing, and other English-related topics. We occasionally answer questions here on our website for everyone to read. Today's question comes from Yuri, who asks about how she can possibly remember all the new words she learns.

The question

Yuri asks:

  • If we learn ten words a day, ... how do we remember all of those words and keep increasing our vocabulary if we don't use many of those words in everyday life? I need to learn 5000 SAT words but if I don't use these words in everyday conversation, then I will forget them and so learning them is a waste of time.

Tip: The vocabulary-improvement software Ultimate Vocabulary* comes with a free Advanced Memory eBook by Andrew Stuart Gray. According to the author, the memory techniques in the book are "weapons in your arsenal of keeping all that information in your head. You would probably have to buy many books to be able to find all the information that you would find here in just one easy-to-read volume". You will want to read that book if you decide to buy Ultimate Vocabulary).

The answer

The main ways of remembering your new words are through repetition and elaboration.

Remembering New Words Through Repetition

Repetition is a proven technique for remembering new words. If you repeatedly use and practise a word in different ways, then knowledge and understanding of the word eventually sticks.

Apparently, we need to use a word up to 40 times before we can be confident that the word has been retained in our memory.

The trick is finding interesting and different ways of repeating your use of the word so you don't get bored repeating the word over and over.

I have suggested below some different ways of repeating your use of new words.

Remembering New Words Through Elaboration

Elaboration means linking the new word to relevant information at the time of learning the new word.

For example, you might think of some example sentences that use the new word, or think of a context in which you might use the word.

Again, I have listed below some specific elaboration techniques for remembering new words.

Specific Ideas For Remembering New Words

Here are some specific ways of remembering your new words through repetition and elaboration.

Use Flash cards

Flash cards are a proven technique. Flash cards show the word on one side of the card and information about that word on the other, such as the word's definition, an example of its use in a sentence, antonyms, synonyms, and origins. Go through the Flash cards until you’ve learnt the word. Test yourself. Combine Flash cards with other techniques. You can find electronic Flash cards in good vocabulary-building software such as Ultimate Vocabulary.

Trace the word

Trace the word your are learning with your finger while pronouncing each syllable until you can write the word from memory.

Colour the word

Write each letter of the new word in a different color, starting with green for "go" to show the beginning of the word and red for "stop" indicating the end of the word.

Draw the word

Draw around the letters in your new word to emphasise the letters' shape and length.

Create collections of words

Keep a personal collection of words to read and study whenever you get the chance (if you use Ultimate Vocabulary, your collection of words can be easily stored in your custom word lists). Read some of our own word lists to get your collections started. Also, read this answer to a question about collecting words.

Read, read, read

Read as much as you can. Reading is linked with vocabulary-improvement in several ways. A good vocabulary helps with your reading and reading helps with your vocabulary.

Beep the word

When you find a new word in your reading, say "beep" for the unknown word and finish reading the sentence. Think of a word that makes sense in the beeped-out space. Use context to help you.

Act the word

Act out the meaning of the word to a friend.

Sing the word

Write a song that uses your new word or words; write the song to easy tunes such as "Old McDonald" and "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star".

Speak the word

Use your newly learned words in daily conversation.

Engage with others

Engage and interact with other people who have a good vocabulary or who are learning the same words as you.

Play with the word

For example, many websites, including our own, have free word games and puzzles.

Use good vocabulary-learning software

Good vocabulary-learning software such as Ultimate Vocabulary makes the learning and retention process much easier. Ultimate Vocabulary is smart vocabulary software because it uses repetition and elaboration in several ways:

  • by providing usage examples of each word (more examples than any other program I know)
  • through synonym tests, antonym tests, and definition tests
  • by describing the history of the word
  • through visual "word webs", flash cards, images, and audio pronunciation
  • through a unique and innovative optional feature called "Word Messenger", which periodically reminds you of your new words
  • with a highly configurable screen saver that reinforces your new vocabulary while your screen is in standby mode

Keep persisting

Learning vocabulary gets easier as you go. The more words you learn, the more adept you become at working out the meaning of other words, seeing relationships between words, and making connections. All this helps in the repetition and elaboration techniques that build vocabulary and help make sure you remember the words you have learnt.

What tips do you have for remembering words? Leave a comment below to share your ideas.


Janet Towell, "Fun with Vocabulary" (1997) 51(4) The Reading Teacher 356

*Denise and I recommend only products that we have tried and tested. These include Ultimate Vocabulary. We have agreed to receive a commission from some sales of Ultimate Vocabulary because we are happy to endorse that software.


Last modified on Tuesday, 17 November 2015 05:21
English Language Skills (Troy)

English Language Skills (Troy)

I have a law degree, I've run an award-winning business, and I am a published author.

My most popular book is Funny English Errors and Insights: Illustrated.

My new book is The Funny Dictionary.

I have a particular interest in vocabulary improvement and speed reading.

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