How to improve vocabulary quickly and effectively

How to improve vocabulary quickly and effectively

Published: Feb 21, 2024 | By: Lucas Weaver

From my experience with language learners, I’m assuming that if you want to learn how to improve your vocabulary (and you Googled this in English), then you want to do so for one of two reasons:

  1. You are learning a new language

  2. You’re a native English speaker who wants to sound like the Great Gatsby

In this post, I’ll attempt to help both groups by explaining proven techniques for learning new words and developing an extensive vocabulary in any language.

Before we dive in, let me tell you the good news.

Improving your vocabulary skills is not difficult. It’s usually the easiest part of language acquisition for most learners.

But this doesn’t mean it’s without effort. To learn new words to the point that you don’t have to stop and think of them when you’re speaking in conversation, you will have to give your brain the repetitions it needs to encode and store the information into your long-term memory.

So, while these techniques won’t be difficult, they will take some effort and consistency on your part. 

If you’re ready for that, then let’s dig in.

How to Improve Vocabulary for language learners: Find word lists

Learning new vocabulary is all about being exposed to new words and then memorizing them. But before we get to the most obvious solution or this – reading – let’s talk about some ways you can shortcut this exposure.

Expand your vocabulary with word lists

There are many resources available today for vocabulary learners. All you need to know is what type of vocabulary you want to learn.

For example, “vocabulary for business meetings” returns almost 15 million search results on Google, and the first page is full of helpful lists of words.

This is a shortcut for reading independently because instead of reading a bunch of texts on your own and then making a list of all the common words you come across, these lists will just give you the most common vocabulary for whichever subject you’re interested in.

Searching “vocabulary for ordering coffee in Vietnam” returns over 2 million results, so this is not only an effective technique for English learners.

Starting with word lists will help make sure you’re equipped with the most useful words in the situations you’re interested in.

And there’s almost no limit to the groups of vocabulary words you can find. Everything from vocabulary about psychology to words used to talk about football, they’re all over the internet.

How to learn the words in the lists?

Finding the lists of words is only the first battle. Next, we have to organize all the words in a way that we can study and memorize them.

Sticking with the ordering coffee in Vietnam topic (admittedly on my mind because I’m going back to Hanoi for two weeks in about one month), let’s find a particular word list to work from that has the vocabulary we need.

The second result on Google at the time of my writing this is from Kavey Eats “how to order coffee in Vietnam.” 

vocabulary for ordering coffee in vietnam 

Scrolling through I see some helpful vocabulary words like:

Nóng: hot

Đá: cold / iced

Now how do I get these into a place where I can learn them? Well, since I built a flashcard maker here at the Weaver School myself, I’m going to use it to study these new words.

First I’ll download the webpage as a PDF. 

To do this, you can go to any web page and then go to “File -> Print” and then instead of sending to a printer click on “Save as PDF”.

how to learn vocabulary words from a file

Next, I’ll go into the flashcards tool here in my Weaver School dashboard and create a new set called “Vietnamese Coffee.”

After I’ve created the new flashcard set, I’ll go over to the action button on the right, open the menu, and then click “Create from File.”

Next, I’ll choose whether I want the definitions or translations, then input my target language, my native language, and select the file.

building vocabulary skills

After clicking upload, we’ll need to wait a couple of minutes until the AI has created the flashcards for us. Once it’s finished, we’ll see all of our new flashcards populated in the flashcard set we created, just like this.

learning many new words at one time

Now that the flashcards are all populated in the set. We can do even more fun things like add AI images or voice pronunciation to the flashcards.

Just choose the language and the gender of the voice, and you’ll have accurate example for you also practice speaking your new vocabulary words instead of just reading them.

using voices to improve your vocabulary

Now compare the flashcard on the left with the one on the right. 

The one on the left contains an AI generated image showing us hot black coffee with sweetened condensed milk in it, and it also has a “sound” icon we can click to hear how it’s pronounced.

expanding vocabulary techniques

Pretty slick huh?! Okay, admittedly I’m a bit (a lot) biased, but I think this is one of the best tools on the internet for improving your vocabulary because of all these awesome features.

Even cooler, you can just click one button and create audio for all the flashcards in a set, or create AI images, and it will all happen for you behind the scenes, completing all the flashcards for all the vocabulary words.

Creating a study routine to memorize the vocabulary words

Now that we’ve got all the vocabulary words from our word list set up as flashcards, let’s talk about how to create a study routine that will help us memorize all the new words so we can use them when we need them.

How to study vocabulary words

Let’s talk about the activities that are necessary for us to do to commit new words to our long-term memory.

The first step is we need to activate the hippocampus to encode the new words as information into our brain. This is necessary before any memorization, or long-term memory storage can occur.

When we study new vocabulary words for the first few times, we need to expose our hippocampus to the new words (the stimuli) enough times that it can fully process them so they can be stored effectively in the phase.

Luckily, there are a few ways we can take advantage of how our brains work to help the hippocampus process the information as quickly and effectively as possible.

neuroscience behind improving your vocabulary

Activating more parts of the brain to enhance vocabulary encoding

The first technique we can use to enhance vocabulary encoding is by adding visual imagery into our routine.

Adding visuals

By also looking at visual representations of our vocabulary words, like we put on our flashcards, we activate the occipital lobes (responsible for visual processing) in addition to the language centers and hippocampus, speeding up the process of encoding the vocabulary words.

Adding in visuals also gives us an advantage later when we want to use the vocabulary words (recall them from memory) because associating words with images can create dual coding (both verbal and visual) in the brain, which provides two paths for retrieving the same piece of information when we need it.

All of this combines to make adding visuals to our study materials something like a cheat code for word acquisition.

Emotional connection   

Engaging with content emotionally or finding personal relevance in the material can enhance memory formation. This builds off the visual effect, as the images can stimulate certain emotions when we see them.

Emotional content is more likely to be remembered because it engages the amygdala, which plays a role in processing emotions. The amygdala can modulate the strength of memories stored in other brain areas, making emotionally charged information more memorable later.

The engagement of the amygdala alongside the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex has the effect of making the information prioritized for encoding and storage.

This is why you often hear people give advice like “tell a story about the word you’re learning” or “tie it to something in your real life”, as these are proven to help encoding.

Auditory Processing and Memory Encoding

When you hear words spoken out loud, it activates the auditory pathways in your brain. This process starts in the auditory cortex, located in the temporal lobes, which is responsible for processing sounds. 

Hearing words engages not only the auditory cortex but also the language-processing areas of the brain, such as Broca's area (involved in speech production and processing) and Wernicke's area (involved in understanding spoken language).

Dual Coding Theory

According to the dual coding theory, information is more likely to be remembered if it is encoded both visually and verbally (auditory in this case). 

Hearing words out loud while also seeing them (e.g., listening to the pronunciations on your flashcards out loud while studying them) can create a more complex and interconnected neural representation of the information, making it easier to recall the vocabulary words later when you’re speaking in real-life situations.

Dual coding theory is another reason why writing vocabulary words and their definition can be so effective. The old-school way that some teachers in elementary schools used to teach is to write example sentences from words in the dictionary, along with their definitions, over and over.

It might sound boring, but the sheer repetition alone can be enough to help in building vocabulary.

tips to expand your vocabulary

Enhanced Engagement and Attention

Listening to words spoken out loud can also increase engagement and attention, critical factors for effectively learning any new skill. The variations in tone, pace, and emotion conveyed through speech can make the learning experience more dynamic and interesting, thereby enhancing memory encoding.

Contextual Learning and Encoding

Using context to encode information is a powerful technique for enhancing memory and learning efficiency. This approach leverages the brain's natural inclination to understand and remember information better when it is integrated into a meaningful framework or situation. 

Here's how using context works in the process of encoding information and the underlying cognitive mechanisms:

Rich Contextual Cues 

Learning new information in context provides additional cues and associations, making it easier to recall the information later. For example, learning a new word by reading it within a sentence or story allows the brain to form connections between the new word and the surrounding content.

This is why we include an “example” field on every flashcard we create for you with AI. It gives you added context for the word, helping speed up and improve your encoding process.

Situational Context

Encountering information in varied contexts, such as different locations, emotional states, or times of day, can also enhance memory. This variety creates multiple retrieval paths, making it easier to access the information later because the brain has more cues to trigger recall.

Repetition

Last but not least, let’s talk about the mighty repetition, also known as “the Father of learning”, and for good reason.

Repeating new words several times can strengthen the neural pathways associated with those words, making them easier to recall.

Each repetition activates the same neural circuits, making these pathways more efficient over time. Ensuring you get enough repetitions with your vocabulary words engages the hippocampus for initial encoding and also involves the neocortex, where repeated activations help in transferring information to long-term memory.

I wrote a whole blog post dedicated to discussing the role of repetition in language learning.

using reading to learn new words

The Impact of Reading

Now as I mentioned before, every article or blog post about vocabulary will mention reading as a technique, and there’s a great reason for that.

There’s no better way to expand your vocabulary than reading consistently.

This is especially true for people in Group #2 that I mentioned in the first paragraph: native English speakers who want a sophisticated vocabulary like the Great Gatsby.

But hey, reading The Great Gatsby and learning all the words you don’t know would be a great start!

Think of your brain as a sponge; the more you expose it to water (or in this case, words), the more it absorbs. 

Choosing Reading Material That Challenges You

Now, don't get me wrong. Reading anything is a good start, but to really turbocharge your vocabulary, you've gotta step out of your comfort zone. 

Picture this: if you always lift the same weight, you stop seeing progress. The same goes for reading. 

Mixing it up with a dash of classic literature, a pinch of technical articles, and a sprinkle of poetry not only challenges you but also keeps things interesting.

-
Classic literature: These treasures are a goldmine of rich, complex language. Yes, they can be a tough nut to crack, but oh, the rewards!
-
Technical articles and journals: If you're thinking, "But those are so dry!", hear me out. They're packed with specialized terms that can give your vocabulary a serious edge.
-
Modern literature and blogs: They're your go-to for contemporary language and slang. Plus, they're a blast to read.

how to use latin roots to improve your vocabulary

Contextual Learning

I’ve mentioned the word “context” probably 100 times already, but it’s such a huge part of creating effective learning routines.

Recognizing Keywords in Context

First things first, when you're reading or listening, there are always a few words that are more important than the others. These are the keywords – the stars of the show. They hold the essence of the message. Spotting them is like finding clues on a treasure map; they guide you to the meaning of the sentence or conversation.

Imagine you're reading a novel, and you come across a sentence like, "The sun dipped below the horizon, casting a golden hue over the landscape." The keywords? "Sun," "horizon," and "golden hue." Just by focusing on these words, you get the picture of a beautiful sunset, even if you didn't know what "hue" meant before. That's the power of keywords in different contexts.

Using Context Clues to Infer Meaning

So, how do you figure out what new words mean without looking them up every two seconds? The secret sauce is context clues.

Let's break it down with an example. Say you read, "The arduous journey was worth it when they reached the breathtaking summit." Maybe "arduous" is new to you. Look around! "Journey," "worth it," and "breathtaking summit" suggest it was a tough but rewarding trip. Bingo, "arduous" means difficult!

Sometimes this comes in crucial when you need to eliminate a word's other meanings rather than understanding the one you're dealing with at a specific time.

Context with Latin Roots

If you're trying to learn English vocabulary, or any other language that comes from Latin, you can use the latin roots of words to help figure out the meanings of words.

Words in latin have what are called "roots" which are the base of the word before it gets changed depending on what form you're using.

For example, let's take the word "illuminate."

Illuminate in English comes from the Latin word "lumen", which means "light."

So to "make something full of light" is to "illuminate" it, as a verb. As a noun, we would call the light in the room "illumination". And then as an adjective, we would describe it as "illuminated."

By using the context clues given to us by the Latin root of the word, we can usually learn 4 or 5 words at one time when learning any European language.

Why context is key

Incorporating contextual learning into your routine isn't just effective; it's engaging and fun. It transforms the daunting task of expanding your vocabulary into something more like a hobby. 

Words start making sense in a way they never did when you were just staring at a list. And before you know it, you're not only understanding but also using these new words like a pro. 

So, next time you come across a new word, take a moment. Look around. The clues are all there, waiting for you to piece them together.

Digital tools for expanding your vocabulary skills

Learning new vocabulary can be an exhausting task. There are just so many words out there, and keeping up with them all in an organized way can start to feel complex.

I’ve known language learners in my life with spreadsheets full of 1000s of words that they import and export from tons of different websites and tools. 

They put in so much effort that it almost seems like a full-time job!

I built my flashcard tool here so you don’t have to worry about any of those headaches. Just use it and keep your vocabulary word learning simple and easy, even if you don't enjoy reading.

Not to mention the fact that it helps you learn faster!

No matter which method you choose, I wish you the best of luck in your learning journey.

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Lucas Weaver from the Weaver School

Lucas Weaver founded The Weaver School in 2016. He's passionate about using the latest learnings in neuroscience and education to create the best language learning experience possible for our students, so they can quickly build effective language learning habits that will last for years. Lucas is a graduate of Texas A&M University and after 7 years of living in the Netherlands, he is currently traveling through Southeast Asia while learning their languages along the way.

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