There are many texts and software packages available that offer a variety of study techniques for people who want to improve vocabulary. Some of these resources are very good, but some don’t have the information you need to quickly and efficiently build your vocabulary. In fact, you might be using study methods that are actually slowing you down! It’s important to know the best ways to improve vocabulary, and apply those techniques to your study program.
For example, you might be taking lists of words and learning them one at a time. Although you may think all you need to do is memorize a word’s definition and spelling, studies have shown that this isn’t the best way to get that word into your long-term memory and make it a part of your active vocabulary. In order to do this, you need to learn the word in context. The idea of “collocation” – that is, grouping of words into chunks (phrases, idioms, or related words) – has been part of the teaching process for decades, especially with teachers of ESL (English as a Second Language). Obviously, what’s good for people who are learning English will often apply to people who are learning new English vocabulary, and that’s definitely the case here. That means that you need to find examples of the word you’re learning and see how it’s used in writing. If the word is often part of a common phrase, learn that as well. You’ll find that both the word and its meaning are easier to memorize and recall when needed.
Another drawback of simply using a list of words is that most of the time those words are relatively random, without any connections between them. Again, this makes the words harder to remember. It’s better to group words together and learn each group separately. You can group words by parts of speech, for example, and learn a group of adjectives at one time. You might also group words by topic; perhaps you’ve got half a dozen words related to physical geography on your list, mixed in with the others. Separate those words out and use visual imagery to help fix their meanings in your mind. In fact, incorporating visuals into your vocabulary study is a good idea whenever possible, because it creates one more link between your focused attention and your long-term memory, and makes accurate recall and correct use of the word more likely in the future.
Gairns, R. “Working with words.” (1986)
Hill, J. “Collocational competence.” English Teaching Professional No. 11 (1999)
Lewis, M. “Implementing the lexical approach.” (1997)