How do I Learn Vocabulary?

To understand what you’re listening to and to produce sentences that convey your thoughts, you need vocabulary. The question I aim to tackle here is how to most effectively learn vocabulary as an adult learner. To that end, I’ve bought a couple of books on this topic which were thorough in summarising research findings and offering suggestions. See the references below for more information.

I will first tackle the idea of taking in lots of input to gain fluency. Then I’ll explore some techniques that are offered in the language learning community before finally systematically putting these techniques altogether coherently.

I want to emphasise again that none of this is my original work. I am simply summarising the latest research in a way that will be easy for people new to language learning to understand. In many ways, this page is also a note to myself so that I can refer to it for vocabulary learning.

Can I read my way to fluency?

Reading material in your target language is a way to gain exposure to words, but out of every 10 words you notice, you are likely to remember only 1 word. You’ll also have to read hundreds of thousands of words a year, preferably a million, for enough wide and deep exposure to frequent and rare words.

Unfortunately, as an adult, you probably do not have the time to read a million words a year, nor are you likely to have the inclination to read all sorts of material. Even if you read widely on many topics, you probably would not want to read about, say, the water cycle all over again.

This problem is further compounded by the fact that you need to understand at least 95% of words in the text, preferably 98%, to comfortably figure out the meaning of the unknown words. When you first start, you likely know 1-2% of words, and those only from English cognates or imports.

What techniques do people use to learn vocabulary?

  • The most famous technique is using flash cards to learn vocabulary. Here, you take a blank flash card and write the word in your target language on one side and in your first language on the other side, which is English in our case. If you prefer, you can use a picture or a more detailed explanation if it relates to a concept. Research finds that even simple one word translations are effective for language learning.
  • You might be encouraged to summarise what you have just read. This is a kind of ‘retelling activity’ and is effective, but you need to at least know the appropriate words for retelling or summarising.
  • You might have heard of using mnenomics or using stories to remember vocabulary. An example of a mnenomic is the famous 1-to-10 list, one-sun, two-shoe, three-tree, four-door.

We will be using these techniques and more. Each has their place in vocabulary learning.

How to learn vocabulary: Noticing, Retrieval, and Elaboration

Let me expand on these 3 steps.


The first step, noticing, refers to you noticing the word that you have trouble with. This step seems trivial, but when you’re reading a text or listening to a speaker, you will usually be more focused on discerning the meaning and intent of the speaker. When you’re focused in this way, it’s normal to ‘throw aside’ the words you don’t know as long as you’ve understood the gist of the speaker or author. Therefore, you can help yourself notice words by focusing on words when reading instead of the meaning of the text/speech

You can also help yourself notice words that you don’t know by speaking or trying to express yourself. You will almost definitely be unable to express what you want. Make a note of what you express and find appropriate words for the concepts you need in that situation. We will talk about using these words in sentences in the final step, elaboration. In summary, you can notice words by noticing gaps when you try to speak in the target language.


Retrieval is the act of asserting mental effort to recall a word, either individually or in context. Retrieval is often contrasted with recognition, which is when you visually recognise and understand a word that is presented to you. Research shows that people recognise more words than they are able to use or recall.

Retrieving words from your memory is like doing a search for a word in Whatsapp, Telegram, and other social media channels. You encounter a situation where you need to express a concept and your mind goes to look for the word, or you see a word and have to do a mental search for the concept.

Naturally, retrieval takes time. If you fail to retrieve a word, meaning you forget it, it does not mean you have failed to learn it, it’s that you simply need a reminder, after which you will remember the word better.

Your goal in retrieval is to be able to quickly recall words and their meanings.

This is when you use flashcards and have yourself recall the word when you see the meaning and recall the meaning when you see the word. There are flashcard programs like Anki that uses spaced repetition methods to optimally time when to show you a flashcard.

Once you read a text, you can also summarise and retell the story. I used to feel like I was cheating by lifting sentences and words directly from the read text, but this is an effective way to test how many words you recall. There’s a balancing act here between understanding the story and understanding the words used in explaining the story, so this is killing two birds with one stone.

If you’re taking a class online, say on italki, ask the teacher to review the vocabulary that was used during the lesson before you finish.

Some language books you buy may have fill-in-the-blank exercises. These are opportunities for you to recall the word in a new language context. I recommend using them after you have retrieved the word a couple of times.


Your goal in elaboration is to build associations between words and enrich your knowledge of words. Knowing various aspects of word morphology and grammatical features will help you.

The example used by the book is in working with working with the morphology of the word ‘portable’. This example is used in the context of classroom teaching, but is easily transferred to language learning by yourself.

You might find out that ‘port’ means carry. You might then wonder if this root ‘port’ is used in other words. After some searching and recall, you find the words ‘transport’, ‘porter’, and ‘export’ and realise they are all related. you then think about how these examples use (instantiate) the ‘carry’ concept.

You can also practice writing and speaking activities made to promote elaborative processing. An example is in using new words in original sentences, forcing you to use different grammatical forms or change verb suffixes.

You can also write stories or essays using these words, which force connection between that word and other words, ideas, and personal experiences that differ from the original language context in which you learnt the word.

If that seems difficult, you can give your opinion on the content, or retell the events from a different perspective, or come up with a different ending to the story.

Finally, you can use the keyword mnemonic mentioned above.


“Focus on Vocabulary Learning”, 2019, Marlise Horst, available on here

“How Languages are Acquired”, 5th ed., 2021, Pasty M Lightbown & Nina Spada, available on here. The 5th ed. might come out on