Strategies: How to learn new words

Vocabulary Learning Strategies

I've listed a number of ways you can study vocabulary. Have I missed anything? What do you do?

There is a form at the bottom of this page where you can write and tell me what you do. I thank you for any new ideas and I will add them to the list.

These are all useful strategies, but they vary in how much mental energy they take. Generally speaking, the harder your brain has to work, the better you will be able to recall and use the word.


  • Make a list of new words from something you have read or listened to. Write down the English word or phrase and the Chinese meaning. Write an example sentence or two. You may want to record other information too, like part of speech, and pronunciation.
  • When you study, fold the paper in half so that you can only see either the English words or the Chinese words. Try to recall the meaning in the other language. Practice using each word in a phrase or sentence.

Word Cards

  • Write the English word on one side of a business card and the Chinese meaning on the other side. Don't put too much information on each card. Depth of meaning needs to be learned in context. Keep each pack small. If you are having a hard time learning the words, make your packs smaller. Shuffle your cards; words in the middle don't get learned as well as those at the beginning and the end. Carry your cards around with you and look at them often for short periods of time.
  • Try using your word card vocabulary to make up a story. Shuffle the cards and look at each card one at a time. Continue telling a story and fit the word in. Once you have used that word, look at the next one and fit it into your story.
  • Use your cards both passively and productively. By this I mean, look at the English word and try to remember what it means in Chinese; that's passive knowledge. But also look at the Chinese meaning and try to remember the English word; that's productive use.

Look It Up in a Dictionary

  • Notice the meaning. Which meaning fits the context in which you found the word?
  • Notice the part of speech -- noun, verb, adjective, adverb, etc.
  • Notice the spelling so that you will be able to write it. Try to see the relationship between the spelling and the pronunciation.
  • Notice the pronunciation so that you will be able to use the word in conversation.
  • Notice how it is used in the example sentences. Are there some common phrases you should learn?

Sort Vocabulary into Related Groups

  • This helps you think about the word's meaning and how it relates to other words you know. What other words that you already know could be added to this group? You could sort your word cards, or you could draw a mind-map.

Make a Sentence

  • This is productive use. You are recalling the word and giving it context again. If you don't use your new words, you might remember them when you read them, but you won't be able to remember them when you want to use them in conversation or writing.

Search a Concordance

  • Concordances let you see the word in many different contexts. Pay special attention to collocations -- words that are often used together. Try learning some of the most frequent phrases.

Extensive Reading

  • Reading for pleasure should be at or below your level. If it is too difficult, you won't read enough. If you read a lot, you will meet the words you are learning in natural contexts. You will have to work out their meaning in the context in which you find them. Extensive reading will help you review words you don't know well and deepen your understanding of them.

Guess From Context

  • This is a good reading strategy, especially for less common words. However, you will have to see that word many times before you will be able to remember it. If the context is rich with meaning, you are more likely to be able to guess the meaning. The many contexts you find with a concordance search increase your chances of making the right guess.

English Conversation

  • When you have the opportunity to use English in conversation, try to steer the conversation to topics you are studying so that you will be able to hear and use your new words.

The Key Word Method

  • Think of the sound of the new word. Does it sound like a word in your own language? Does it sound like another English word? Link the meaning to the word you already know that sounds similar. Do this by imagining a picture in your mind. Crazy images are easier to remember. Here's an example:
  • Your new word is 'applaud'. It reminds you of another English word, 'abroad'. To help you remember the meaning of 'applaud' (to clap for someone's good performance), you imagine yourself coming back from a trip abroad. You studied and got your degree overseas and became very successful. Now everyone applauds you as you get off the plane in Taipei.

Submit A Language Learning Strategy:

Would you like to share a strategy? It could be about how you learn vocabulary, or it could be about any aspect of language learning -- listening, speaking, reading, writing, overcoming fear, etc. If I like your strategy, I will display it on this site for everyone to see. Thanks!

Your Strategy:
* English Name:  (or Romanized Chinese)
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