What do you do if you are in a foreign country and you want to order a drink in a café or you need to buy some soap or potatoes? You will probably reach for your smartphone or (if you still use one) your dictionary and look for a translation of the words you need. You probably won't reach for your grammar book!


Grammar is important, I'm not saying it isn't, but if you don't have the correct words (vocabulary) you can't say anything! No amount of grammar is going to help you get a coffee if you don't know the word for ‘coffee’ in the local language. An IELTS essay might be grammatically perfect but without a good variety of words, it will not score well.


So, how can you remember words? There are thousands of words, right? ‘It's impossible!’ I hear you shout! Well, here are a few ideas to help you remember all the new words you meet. Try them out and see which ones work for you.


1. Word families – why learn one new word when you can easily learn six?


Word families are words which are related. Take the word ‘happy’ (because you will be happy after you have read this!). If this is a new word to you, you look it up in your dictionary. But don't stop there. Ask yourself some questions:


  • ‘What kind of word is it?’ – adjective.
  • ‘What is the opposite?’ – unhappy.
  • ‘What about the adverb?’ – happily. - (Note the change in spelling ‘y’ to ‘i’).
  • ‘And is there an opposite adverb?’ – Yes! – unhappily.
  • ‘Is there a noun from this word?’ – Yes!! – happiness.
  • ‘Can we say ‘unhappiness’ – Yes!
  • ‘Is there a verb?’ – no! But we can say ‘to be happy’.


So from one new word, you suddenly have six!! And they are all in the same family so you are more likely to remember them. You just need to do a little bit of work with the new word that you meet. And by doing that work you have a greater chance of remembering those words – your brain has ‘played’ with the words and so will remember them better.


2. Mind maps


Learning in topic areas is another good way to remember new words. I'm sure your teacher has told you this. Great! But now that you have written down all the words related to The environment’ how will you remember them? Making a list with a translation is one way, but it's not very effective. Your brain does not work in lists. It works in patterns.



Collect together at least 4 different coloured pens. Take a big sheet of paper and write ‘The environment’ in the middle. Put a circle or a pretty cloud shape around the words. Take another colour and draw a line from the cloud and write the word ‘verbs’ along it. Now, from that line write any verbs you know that collocate with ‘environment’, e.g. ‘pollute’, ‘protect’, ‘save’. Here is mine:



Now choose another colour and draw another line coming out from the cloud. This time write the word ‘rubbish’ along it. What words do you know (or can you find) that collocate with ‘rubbish’? I can think of ‘recycle rubbish’, ‘reuse rubbish’, ‘reduce (the amount of) rubbish’, dump rubbish’, throw out/away rubbish’.


You can decide how you want to arrange the words on the paper. Maybe you do only verbs; or perhaps verb and noun collocations; phrasal verbs… you can choose. Here is mine after I added some more:



The map might get too crowded and you need to split the vocabulary into two separate maps, still on the topic of ‘the environment’. You might think that it is getting too messy and you need to start again. That's fine. In fact it is good! By working on all the words again, you will start to remember them.


3. Using your mind maps


Now that you have made your beautiful mind map, what can you do with it? If you are studying for IELTS you can use them in a few ways.


  • Find a part 2 speaking question (the part where you have to talk for 2 minutes) on the topic of your mind map. Use your map while you make notes for your talk. Don't worry about only planning for one minute at first; take two minutes or even three – the idea is to make your talk richer with all your great new words. When you have had a lot of practice, try to plan for only one minute.
  • When you are planning your answer to a task 2 essay, use a mind map on that topic to improve the variety of your vocabulary. If you don't have one, make one first.
  • For reading or listening practice, find texts on topics that you have prepared mind maps for. Review the map before you read, and then see how many of your phrases you find in the text. Maybe there are new ones in the text that you can add to your map.


Even if you are not studying for IELTS, you can do all the exercises above. Plus:


  • Have discussions with your teacher or someone else on the topics of your maps. Keep your mind map in front of you while you talk.
  • Make a quiz or a puzzle using the words and put it on the italki discussion page for others to do. They can message you with the answers – you might even find a new language partner!


4. Learn phrases, not words


What does it mean to know a word? To be able to translate it into your language? To know the plural? To know the irregular forms of verbs?


To know a word means all of these things, but also much more! One of my students was recently telling me about his day. He had been at work and was very busy. He was trying to tell me what he had done; he knew the words ‘meeting’ and ‘workshop’ but he didn't know that you hold a meeting (if you are in charge) or that you give a workshop (again, if you are in charge of it). So he couldn't tell me about his day very clearly.


When you meet a new word, you need to use a good dictionary to find out how to actually use the word in the correct context. Ask yourself some more questions:


  • ‘What verb/noun goes with (collocates with) this word. Is there more than one?’
  • ‘What is the grammar after this word?’ E.g. If it is a verb do you put ing or the infinitive after it? Do you need a noun after or noun phrase? Can you put a clause after it?


Let's look at ‘recommend’.


  • I recommend you do...
  • I recommend that you do...
  • I recommend doing…




  • I recommend you to do.
  • I recommend you should do.


This is possibly the most important tip you should remember because if you can't use the words properly, there is no point in learning them in the first place!


So, let's sum up.


There are many ways you can help yourself learn new words. It is not enough to just translate the words and make a nice long list in your notebook or in a file on your computer. You need to do some work with the words; your brain needs to play with them and you need to do this again and again.


But it doesn't need to be boring. Notice that I used the word play. Use your imagination to make up fun activities. Use colours and big pieces of paper. Get out your scissors and glue and be a child again!


Image Sources


Hero image by Per Gosche (CC BY 2.0)