Memorizing new vocabulary for the short term can be easy. For example, it is not too difficult to remember a word over the length of a one hour lesson on italki. However, remembering that same word later that week, month, or year is more of a challenge. Just as important, but harder still, is being able to use it actively (in speaking and writing) instead of just passively (listening and reading). Therefore, in order to help you improve your abilities in this area, here are five science based tips for memorizing new vocabulary words and switching them from your passive to your active memory.


Tip #1: Learn How Your Brain Works


Our brain uses specific methods to memorize new information. For example, it makes associations between what we already know and what we are trying to memorize.


Keeping this in mind, try to actively create your own associations that will help you retain new vocabulary. One great way to do this is by making sentences with new words. Another way is to make associations between new vocabulary and information that you already know or are familiar with. These associations can be with a specific memory, emotion, image, sound, or rhyme.


Try to experiment and see what works best for you. Mnemonics are another great tool that use sound and patterns to memorize words. These are just some of the main tricks you can use to help your brain memorize new things.  


Tip #2: Try to Understand Vocabulary in the Context of a Full Sentence


Remember that the key to understanding and using new vocabulary is to know the proper collocations, or combination of words. For example, we “make money” and do NOT “do money.” We “take a photo” and do NOT “do a photo.” This can be done by paying careful attention to how words and expressions are used in written and spoken contexts.


Tip #3: Make Sentences with the Word or Phrase


If you can memorize one simple sentence with the new vocabulary, it may help you recall the word later. Sentences that use common collocations or that are personally meaningful to you are especially good.


For example, if you’re learning the phrasal verb “to keep up,” you might try to memorize a sentence like “I keep up with the news by reading the New York Times” (or your own favorite news source). Or, if you’re learning the word “to sniff” and have a dog named Snoopy, you might think of something like, “Snoopy loves to sniff.” This sentence is especially good because it has alliteration, which is another useful memory trick.


The importance of this method is that it helps you to actively use the word while also helping you to remember it. Of course, if you can be more creative and make different sentences, that is useful as well (see “make it a game” below). However, be careful. It can be difficult to make sentences with proper collocations (especially with expressions). So before you decide on a favorite sentence to memorize, confirm that it is correct with a language teacher or educated native speaker.


Tip #4: Make it a Game!


Games can be important business and a key ingredient for optimal learning. Try to think of different ways that you can make learning new vocabulary fun and interesting. For example, try to use a word at least five times a day or try to write a story, song, or poem with it. The value of learning through play is often increased if it’s social, so language games that include other people are a great idea too.


Tip #5: Use it or Lose it


This is one of the most obvious, but important rules. The more you actively use new vocabulary through speaking and writing, the more it will reinforce the new connections in your brain by helping to identify this as important information that shouldn’t be forgotten. As the Russian proverb goes, “repetition is the mother of learning.” In order to keep new vocabulary fresh in your memory, you must regularly use it.


Keep in mind though that the frequency of repetition can usually decrease with time. For example, for the first few weeks, you may find it important to review new vocabulary every day, but after some time, you may need to review it less frequently as it becomes part of your long-term memory. Remember that frequency of practice trumps intensity, although some intense periods of practice can be useful as well.




These five tips are some of the most useful ways to memorize new vocabulary words and to transfer them from your passive to your active memory. If you incorporate them into your study of any language, you’ll be well on your way to more effectively increasing your vocabulary.


Which of these tips did you find most useful? Which methods of memorizing new vocabulary work best for you? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section.


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