How To Tackle Vocabulary (And Actually Remember!)

The groans I hear when I ask my students to memorize a new list of vocabulary words makes it seem as if I have asked them to do some impossible task akin to carving a replica of Michelangelo’s David with a dull set of dentistry tools. “It’s so tedious!” they say. To me, it does not seem more tedious than trying to slingshot exploding birds into precariously designed structures harboring evil green pigs, but what do I know? The question remains: what is the best way to learn vocabulary?

In order to address this question, let’s talk a little bit about how to form memory. If you are just trying to remember something for a second (like if a foxy lad or lass tells you their phone number and you need to remember it long enough to put in your phone) your brain can hold on to most information for a few seconds before it gets dumped.  If you desire to remember something longer (like what this lad or lass is into so you have something to talk about later) this requires memory that stays longer, which requires focus, repetition, or activation of multiple brain areas.  These are the techniques that can be utilized to form memories.

FOCUS. Trying to go over your vocabulary while listening to the new Taylor Swift album is not the best way to learn.  People need concentrated focus to add information to the brain. The brain is so powerful, but is really only good at consciously focusing on one thing at a time.  Let the focus be on learning, not on “The Evolution Of Dance”.

REPETITION. Repetition really is the easiest way to build long term memory.  You can think about the brain as a dense forest.  I need to get from point A to point B so I blaze a little trail and I have arrived! There is a connection in the brain and this connection is the memory.  If we never use that path again it will become overgrown and covered up and we won’t be able to find the trail again; we will have to blaze a new memory.  If, however, we use that trail sporadically then the trail grows more visible.  The more we use it, the more it becomes a distinct pathway until it is etched into the wood permanently.  The brain works similarly.  Take a word and a definition that you don’t know.  Look at it once then wait one minute.  Now look at the word and try to think of the definition.  Its tough right?  Now take that same word and repeat the definition seven times.  Now wait one minute.  Maybe a bit easier?  Did you get it?  If not try it again.  Repeat the word seven times.  Now wait two minutes.  I bet you can still recall the definition! This process can be used for a whole list of words. For some reason, seven seems to be a good number of repetitions to make things stick.

STORY & IMAGERY. Memory is aided by activating different parts of the brain.  The language area is most used in memorizing novel words, but anything that creates a narrative (story) or picture (visual) will help to create memories that stick much easier.  As an example, let’s take the word dogmatic, which means holding fast to beliefs. The sounds in this word can be associated with some image that both conveys sound and definition. When I think of this word I picture a bulldog hanging from the ceiling because it is biting into an attic door. Dogmatic: holding fast to a belief.  As another example, let’s look at supercilious, which means haughty or arrogant. Again, the sounds can be used to create pictures.  “Super” conjures images of a super hero, while “cilious” brings forth images of a one celled organism with lots of cilia (hairlike structures used for moving), so the image may be a paramecium with a superhero costume and a top hat and monocle (which I associate with haughty aristocracy).  The more silly or memorable the image, the better!  If it sticks in your mind, it will help you to remember the word.

All of these techniques can be used relatively quickly and effectively.  My recommendation is to start with repetition and see what sticks, then use picture memory tricks for the words that you don’t remember. You can do this with groups of words (maybe ten at a time) and in just a few minutes you have created a fairly good start toward creating long term memory.  The good news is every time you review these learned words you are strengthening the memory further.  Over the course of a few weeks you can learn hundreds of words without having to spend hours staring at a sheet of definitions.

As a final note, memory does a funny thing when you sleep.  Every day you experience so many things which create countless connections in the brain.  This means that every night your brain takes ALL the new memories and weakens them a little.  For most memories, this weakening reduces them to nothing, but the memories we create using repetition and narrative remain.  More importantly, the brain can focus on the remaining memories more effectively because all the less useful stuff has been removed.  This means, however, that it is REALLY important to review new words the next day.  It will really to strengthen that memory and get you going towards a permanent memory.  Put the words in your phone on a free flashcard app and review them when you are tired of playing “Candy Crush.” You’ll be very surprised at how quickly you retain these words.

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David Greenslade is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor based in New York. His passion for education began while tutoring students in underrepresented areas during his time at the University of North Carolina. After receiving a degree in Biology, he studied language in China and then moved to New York where he teaches SAT prep and participates in improv comedy. Read more of his articles here, including How I Scored in the 99th Percentile and How to Effectively Study for the SAT.