How to build your vocabulary: part 1

When learning a language, it’s obviously important to learn grammar and to practice speaking and listening. But without vocabulary, you won’t get anywhere. To be able to communicate effectively and understand what people are saying, you need to know lots of words. For many people, this is the single biggest challenge.

There are lots of ways to learn vocabulary, and different things work for different people. For most people, a combination of methods is most effective. Whichever ways you choose, remember to buy a good dictionary and to bookmark WordReference in your web browser.

In this first post about building vocabulary we’ll look at two of the possible approaches:

Vocabulary lists and flashcards

Many people use vocabulary lists. They write a list of words they want to learn, study them and then test themselves. Some people use flashcards to help them. These days, lots of programs and websites offer digital flashcards.


  • It’s a good way to get started, because you can focus on learning the most basic words.
  • It can be an effective way to learn new words related to a specific topic – animals, parts of the body, computing, sport, etc. It works particularly well if you use the words in real life soon after learning them.
  • You can study when you would otherwise just be wasting time – sitting on a bus, waiting for something to finish cooking, in the waiting room of your doctor or dentist, etc.


  • In the long run, it becomes very boring reading and repeating long lists of words.
  • You generally forget the words quite soon after learning them. They enter your short-term memory, but not your long-term memory.
  • You end up spending just as much time practising the words you know as the ones you don’t.
  • Once you get past a certain level, it becomes hard to make lists of suitable words. You can’t just start at the beginning of the dictionary with “aardvark” and carry on from there!

Spaced repetition

Spaced repetition is a bit like a flashcard, but much more sophisticated. It uses the same principle of matching up a word/phrase with a definition. However, instead of repeating all of the words at random intervals, you repeat selected words at specific intervals. The interval is based on the forgetting curve, which tells us how long it takes to forget new information if you don’t do anything to keep it alive.


  • You review the words you have learned before you would otherwise forget them, which means you don’t waste time learning new words and then forgetting them.
  • How often you repeat each words depends on whether or not you remember it. The words you forget are repeated sooner, because they haven’t sunk in yet.
  • Each time you correctly review a word, it sinks slightly “deeper” into your memory, so you can wait a bit longer until you next repeat it.


  • You need to study quite regularly to get the full benefit of spaced repetition.
  • You need access to a smartphone/tablet/computer and specialist software. Luckily, some of the software is free, and even the paid software is relatively cheap compared with English classes.

Olive Green, the English course that we publish, uses a system of intelligent spaced repetition that adapts itself to your personal learning patterns. Spaced repetition is really relevant to language learning, so we’ll probably talk more about it the future.

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