Different students have complained to me that they can’t seem to remember the words they need when they talk in English. I’m not sure there are really secrets to learning vocabulary, but I do think that each learner needs to discover what study practices work best for him or her. Perhaps the key is to guide them by explaining what kinds of practices they need to develop.
Here are some ideas to share with learners:
Study the context. It’s helpful to recall the context in which you heard or saw a new word. Not only will this help you piece together the meaning, but you’ll also be able to get a feel for when the word is used. Who used it and what was their relationship with the listener? What was the subject of conversation? A playback of a film clip or a flashback to a page in a novel can be mentally attached to a word. It’s like a multimedia vocabulary notebook stored in your mind. Visualize the word and its spelling. Replay the original example in your head. Pay attention to pronunciation and grammar. How was the word used?
Engage in reflective study. Having a real vocabulary notebook is a great idea, whether it’s kept on paper or in some digital form. You can’t store too much new information in your head. If you have key points written down, such as the word, its definition, and an example, you can review more easily. Eventually, it will stick. And when you forget a word in conversation, be sure to look it up later in your notebook. The privacy of your own mind allows for a do-over. Go through the conversation again and restate your ideas using the words you want. Refer to your notebook as needed.
Combine speaking and writing. Writing prompts reflection. In my recent series of small group conversations, I’ve had students do a short post-class writing assignment. They write a paragraph answering one of the several questions I posed during class. They’ve already discussed the topics, so I’m asking them to rethink their answers and articulate one thought to the best of their ability. In class, I offer corrections and suggested wording, so they can draw from my feedback when they write their paragraphs. In the process, their confidence with vocabulary and grammar generally increases.
A less formal way to combine speaking and writing is with social media platforms. Text and audio are being combined more and more. Interaction through social media can be in real time without being rapid fire. There’s a helpful delay between exchanges, giving learners time to pick and choose their words. One of the apps I’ve been experimenting with for the past few months is HelloTalk. I like the concept behind it so much that I’ve listed it among the student resources on my own website. Basically, it’s a robust texting platform for language exchanges, allowing text or audio with the support of translations, pronunciation models, and correction tools.
As I said, there aren’t really guarded secrets to learning and retaining vocabulary, but it will take effort to discover and implement helpful practices. Encouraging learners to share their practices with one another will facilitate those discoveries.