Vocabulary & Memory

10 Tips for ESL Vocabulary Acquisition and Retention

We all know you can’t speak a language without knowing the right words – words are quite literally the building blocks of language. That’s why learning and retaining new vocabulary is such a fundamental part of learning to speak fluently.

Are you looking for business English training? In the Netherlands or online? Request a free intake appointment.

But retention is, for most people, the most difficult, time-consuming, and at times discouraging part of second language acquisition. There are just so many words to be learned and remembered. It can seem hopeless, like climbing a mountain that is so tall you know you will never reach the summit.

But the process starts easily. You read or hear a word, your practise saying it, maybe write it down, and recall it a few minutes later. That’s your short-term memory at work. But if you want these words to stick, you need to commit them to long-term memory. 

And what’s the best way to do that? Well, let’s see what science has to say.

Not a reader? More of a video watcher? Then check out this TED Women video with ready-to-use, practical advice and insights about your memory from brain expert  Wendy Suzuki. The video is entitled: The brain-changing benefits of exercise

How does memory work?

According to Scientific American, the process by which information in our short term memory converts to long-term memory happens through physical changes in our brain.  When long term memories are formed, the hippocampus takes information from the working memory and changes the brain’s actual physical neural wiring. A long term memory means our brain now has brand new physical connections!

The good news is that these new connections between neurons and synapses stay as long as they remain in use. And that’s the bad news: they stay in place as long as they stay in use.

Yes, use it or lose it.

Vocabulary use is the key to retention

Language retention is not a passive sport. You have to receive (read or hear) and then produce (speak or write) the words to retain them. Ideally that means that you receive them, speak them and or write or type them, and then use them in spoken or written language in a context that will build memory structures. And then you repeat that after some time has passed (spaced repetition).

But let’s start with acquiring the vocabulary in the first place.

10 Tips: Best practices for vocabulary acquisition and retention

1. Set aside a time and space to focus

While it’s tempting to multi task, studying a sticky note on your mirror while brushing your teeth, science shows that new words will sink in far better if you can devote some undivided attention to your learning session.  Create a dedicated space and time for vocab-learning, and stick to it.

2. Get a vocabulary notebook

The pen is mightier than the smartphone…?

A 2021 study involving Japanese university students shows that information is retained better when taking notes on paper than typing on a phone, tablet or computer.  While digital devices are temptingly convenient, it may be worth slowing down and writing by hand.

Consider investing in a dedicated notebook for your vocabulary learning – it can be anything from a cheap, plain exercise book to a beautiful leather bound journal with lines – and you use it consistently.

3. Use spreadsheets

Don’t own a pencil? OK, we get it. Spreadsheets are a smart, active place to keep your shiny new words.

Spreadsheets are a fantastic way to keep all of your vocabulary in one place, and make it easy to find specific words quickly. You can reorder your lists however you like, print them out, save them in notebooks, use colour, and play around with them in whatever way feels right. Over time, you may want to group words of similar themes together, according to context.

We suggest this easy to use pattern:

Column A: the word or words. For example: investigate, investigation, investigating, investigated

Column B: translation of the core word into your native language. You may choose to use a Google spreadsheet with a formula for auto translation.

Column C: short definition, synonyms, mnemonic devices, and sample sentences. Whatever will help YOU remember this word are the best things to put in this column.

4. Use a “karaoke” English learning app–English Central

English Central is a multi sensory, interactive online platform for English language learners, from beginner level to advanced, with 10,000 courses and videos to help you expand your vocabulary in an “authentic media,” focused context, such as job interview English, social English, business English, travel English and much more.

English Central uses spaced repetition, something we’ll speak more about later. But for now, this is how we use English Central with our clients. You can use this app independently or as part of a course. Contact us to learn more.

• Step 1: WATCH the short, authentic video and click any words you don’t know for an instant definition.

• Step 2: LEARN the words. By listening and typing in the new words. In just a few minutes you have read, heard and typed new words, and you’ve done it all in a meaningful context. That’s active, multi-sensory. contextual learning and that’s great! There’s just one thing that’s missing–

• Step 3: SPEAK the video. Now, like karaoke, you become the star, saying all the lines from the video. The system records you and gives you instant feedback on your pronunciation and fluency. This way you are sure your pronunciation is correct! And you can listen to yourself and re-record anything that you’re not happy with.

Conclusion: English Central is the ideal way to expand your vocabulary, both receptive (reading/listening) and productive (speaking/writing).

Ask us about placing you in a course with supervision from an English Center teacher to get the most value from the program.

5. Define your vocabulary goals. Choose some categories and work them!

The point of learning words is to use them, right? Consider what kind of vocabulary you are most likely to need in everyday social and professional situations and focus on that.

Or choose a book you love and dive into the author’s world.

Or choose a levelled ESL vocabulary book, such as Cambridge English Vocabulary in Use. For business English, we love MacMillan Business Vocabulary Builder.

Ask your language trainer to help you source well written articles. Because we work with lots of business English students, we love the Economist and Harvard Business Review. They are great sources for smart, challenging reading. Note all the words you don’t know and learn them while reading and rereading and watch your understanding explode!

Finally, keep your eyes open. The most relevant language is the kind you come across naturally. When you encounter a word or expression you want to know, make a note of it, look it up (or ask your teacher at the next lesson), and incorporate it into your learning – and then use it!

6. Maintain your brain

Keep in mind the organ responsible for all this memorisation – your big, beautiful brain.  While remarkable in its abilities, it’s also just a squishy blob of flesh with needs like the rest of your body – needs like hydration, nutrition and sleep.

Memory relies heavily on your overall physical health.  Do you feel forgetful and unable to focus when down with the flu?  That should be a clue – memorising lists of information just isn’t a priority for the body when it’s fighting infection, hungry, stressed or exhausted.  We know this, yet how often do we run ourselves ragged keeping up with everyday life or chasing our ambitions?

What’s more, studies show you can unleash your brain’s full memorising potential just by giving up alcohol!  According to NIH (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism), moderate to heavy drinking impairs long-term memory.  So even if you don’t have a drinking ‘problem’ per se, try one month alcohol free and see how it affects not only your language learning, but your everyday brain function, too.

Finally, if you did not watch the Wendy Suzuki TED video yet, check it out now. The video is entitled: The brain-changing benefits of exercise.

7. Use spaced repetition for better vocabulary retention

This technique is well supported by research and works on the principle that we remember chunks of information best by allowing some time in-between study sessions, to allow it to ‘sink in’.  Remember, memory relies on actual, physical changes happening in your brain, and this needs time to occur and reoccur.

Here’s a simple approach to spaced repetition:

• Phase 1 – Learn the new vocabulary (along with pronunciation and definition).  Incorporate mnemonic devices! (see next section)
• Phase 2 – Try to recall all of the new vocabulary.  Give extra attention to the ones you struggle with.
• Phase 3 – This is not the day after Day 2, but rather three days after.  Yes, leave three whole days in-between!  As with Day 2, see which words are easy to recall and which still need attention.

You can read lots more about spaced repetition online, but just try phase 1, 2 and 3, and see how it goes.

8. Make it memorable with mnemonics

This word alone seems difficult to memorise, doesn’t it?  Pronounce it with a silent m and a schwa sound in the first syllable. If you are Dutch, this word translates as “geheugensteuntje” or “ezelsbruggetje” (a donkey bridge).

A mnemonic is a pattern of letters, ideas, or associations that assists in remembering something. A great example is “fanboys” for remembering the most common English conjunctions: for, and, not, but, or, yet and so.

If you are Dutch, you know this tasty mnemonic: soft ketchup, which is used to teach children (and foreigners like me ;-)) the spelling rule for d and t word endings in the past tense.

And here are some more memory enhancement ideas….

9. Use your ears and your mouth, not just your eyes

We tend to think of study and memorisation as a quiet activity, but it’s better to involve sound when you’re learning a language . After all, you’re learning these words to speak them, not just to know them when reading, eh? If you’re not sure how to pronounce a word, just type it in to hear a quick audio clip.  Listen to the word and repeat it a few times until you get the hang of it, and say it whilst writing it out.

Our smartphones are also handy recording devices.  When you learn a new word in an English lesson, don’t be shy!  Whip out your phone and record either yourself or your teacher saying the word out loud, so you can remember it later.  If you’ve forgotten to do this during the lesson and are racking your brain trying to remember how to say that one frustrating new word, drop your teacher a message and ask them to say it in a WhatsApp voice note – then bring them a small gift at the following lesson to say thank you (just kidding!  Or am I…?).

10. Visualize and tell stories

Human brains love stories.  That’s why our film and television industry is so enormous?  Even if you don’t consume much fiction, I bet you still have an interest in history, true crime or biographies.  We remember elements of a good story because they’re necessary elements of something that matters to us.

Like the example with “mnemonics,” creating a visual to go with a word is a powerful technique for remembering it long-term.

Then take it a step further and use your list of new vocabulary to create a whole story. Storytelling is something you can do on your own, or during a session with your English trainer, taking turns working the new words into an original story. Be creative and engage your imagination and sense of humor to make your story visual and memorable. Be sure to type, write or record the story as you go along, so you can remember it (and the vocabulary) later.

In conclusion

There’s no substitute for a big beautiful vocabulary; expanding your vocabulary is one of the most rewarding, but challenging, aspects of learning a language. Fortunately, there are many ways you can make it easier.  Why not try one of these 10 tips today?  Or try a few, and see what works best.  The results may surprise you!


Alexandra Roberts and Brenda de Jong-Pauley for The English Center, 2023

Are you looking for an English trainer in Amsterdam, Amstelveen or Den Haag? Or an online trainer? Our team customizes lesson that fit your life and your profession. Contact us to learn more. Or call +31 20 823 0569.

Do you want to focus on Business English vocabulary?

Are you a Nederlander looking for some quick vocabulary gains? Check out our 50 Zakelijk Engelse woorden die je al kent with audio.

chevron-down linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram