Promoting learning-to -learn: 12 top tips for effective vocabulary learning



Once a month I stage one-to-one conferences with my students in which we address the issues in their language learning  brought up in their reflective journals and/or any other concerns they may have (e.g. a recurring error that is annoying them or a grammar rule they cannot seem to grasp). Last week a couple of my students asked me what they could do to improve their retention of words. My first answer was that they could use my website ( ) or others like Quizlet or Memrise. ‘But what if I do not want to use any language learning websites or online games, sir?’ they replied.

Although I was puzzled and disappointed to learn that my website was not seen as a useful or stimulating means to learn vocabulary, it was refreshing to find that some students are not dependent on language websites for their learning but are eager to find autonomous ways to propel their language acquisition further. After all, the best learners are those who seek self-direction and autonomous mastery.

Personalizing one’s learning experience pays enormous dividends as it involves more cognitive and affective involvement on the part of the learner. But when the learner draws entirely on her cognitive and emotional resources without the help of specialised websites, her effort and investment are likely to be even greater as she is being totally self-directed in her language learning management, without following a pre-determined instructional path dictated by others.

As a result, these very pedagogically sound requests prompted me to set up a little workshop on vocabulary learning strategies which I will deliver to my students next week and which I intend to follow up every so often with short and snappy reminders to use those strategies. This post was written whilst brainstorming the vocabulary learning strategies to include in my workshop. In selecting the tip-top strategies I largely drew on the techniques I myself used as a learner of English, French, Spanish, German, Swedish, Latin, Greek and Malay.

2. 12 tips for self-directed vocabulary learning

The following are the tips I am planning to give my students in the workshop (in more simplified language). They are but a few of the vocabulary learning strategies available in the literature; the reason why they were chosen over others is because (a) they require minimum preparation in terms of resources; (b) do not involve any financial commitment; (c) have high surrender value; (d) for most of them there is plenty of research pointing to their effectiveness; (e) I use them on a daily basis and they have helped me learn 7 languages.

        1.Phonological hooks

Jot down the to-be-learnt words and associate (drawing a mind-map) them with as many words starting or ending with the same sounds. These do not necessarily have to be words in the target language; you may use words in your L1 or L3, too. The retentive power of this technique can be enhanced by creating logical sentences using the rhyming words. Example: target word ‘fair’ – my hair is fair; target word:  ‘hired’ – he was hired then fired.

This tip is based on the principle that words in the brain are more closely connected with words they alliterate, chime and rhyme with. So, on learning a word, give yourself a time limit and brainstorm as many words as you can recall that rhyme with the target items. You can turn this into a competition with your classmate(s).

  1. The Key-Word Technique

This is a memory strategy that has never failed me and that I have been using over the years with all of the language I have learnt.  It involves using synergistically phonological and/or graphological hooks  along with visual imagery to creatively come up with a mnemonic (memory device). Example:  in Malay, the official language of Malaysia, the word ‘sedia’ means ‘ready’. To remember it I hooked it phonologically to the Italian word ‘sedia’ meaning ‘chair’ in my first language whilst associating it with the  image of one of my students ‘Balaj’ who is always ready to leap up out of his chair whenever I ask a question, super eager to answer it. At the early stages of learning ‘sedia’ I would think of Balaj ready to leap out of the chair to answer my questions and never failed to retrieve the correct meaning of the word.

This technique is especially useful when one is dealing with long words . Example: the word jidohanbaiki  (‘vending machine’ in Japanese) could be anchored to the three words ‘judo on bike’ whilst one would visualize a massive bright red drinks vending machine dressed up in a judo outfit on a bike. I learnt this word  through this imagery twenty-five years ago and still remember it .

This technique is effective because it engages the brain through  visual (the imagery and the spelling) and auditory (the phonological  hook) processing whilst at the same time involving the brain in higher order thinking (creativity) and deep processing through elaboration (i.e. establishing complex semantic connections between two or more items). Another learning principle at play here is Distinctiveness – the more we make a word or concept stand out in our memory, the more we increase working memory span and its likelihood of retention.

  1. Emotional associations

When you are learning new words try to associate them with people or objects that are very meaningful to you. So, for instance, on learning about physical or personality attributes in English, use them to describe people that mean a lot to you and whose personality has deeply affected you – possibly by virtue of those very attributes. If your father has often argued with you over pocket money issues you would make up sentences like: ‘My dad is tight or stingy’. If your younger brother is always unwilling to do his chores: ‘My brother is lazy’, etc. You can do this using celebrities, too (e.g. Kim Kardashian is annoying).

This strategy’s effectiveness is based on the principle that an emotional investment in learning any information increases its distinctiveness and consequently the chances of its retention.

  1. Categorizing by meaning and word-class

Sort the words you are attempting to memorize in as many categories based on their meaning as possible, using your imagination as wildly as possible. Do as many rounds of categorizations  with the same words as you can; by doing more rounds you will force yourself to process the words semantically over and over again from different angles therefore following different neural pathways each time. Remember that (1) the heading of each category can be in your first language; (2) there is no right or wrong, as far as the categories make sense to you.

Example (adjectives again): you are trying to memorize the words ‘stingy’, ‘argumentative’, ‘noisy’, ‘talkative’, ‘lying’, ‘poor’, ‘lazy’, ‘active’, ‘toned’, ‘smart’, ‘hard-working’, ‘petty’, ‘cheerful’, ‘amusing’, ‘bright’, ‘well-built’, ‘slim’, ‘stunning’, ‘overweight’, ‘bad-tempered’, ‘treacherous’, ‘unstable’, ’dodgy’(slang),  ‘choleric’, ‘fit’, ‘affluent’, ‘muscular’, ‘depressed’, ‘elated’, ‘underprivileged’, ‘sneaky’(slang); frustrated’, ‘vindictive’, ‘ecstatic’

In the first round you may simply divide them into 2 categories: Positive and Negative; in the second round into Physical Appearance, Personality, Emotional states; in the third round you may want to narrow it down further, as follows:

(a) Physical fitness: toned, fit, well-built, muscular

(b) Uplifting emotions:  elated, cheerful, ecstatic

(c) Money: poor, affluent, rich, underprivileged, stingy

(d) Dishonesty: sneaky , dodgy, treacherous, lying

(e) Negative emotions: vindictive, frustrated, bad-tempered, choleric


The reason why this approach works is because it requires cognitive investment; creates connections between the words you are processing whilst at the same time involving creativity, all of which results in deep processing  of the target items.When the words do not belong to the same word-class but you have a mix of nouns, adjectives, verbs, prepositions, etc. a further type of classification you can perform is by grammatical categories. This metalinguistic activity is much more important than teachers give it credit for, as  (a) words belonging to the same word class seem more strongly linked in the brain (as studies of aphasic patients have shown) and (b) because when we try to comprehend target-language input via listening the brain uses its knowledge of the grammar to analyze it (a process called by psycholinguists ‘parsing’).

  1. Ordering, arranging by size, weight, length, intensity, etc.

During evolution, assessing the dimensions of things and the intensity of phenomena has played a crucial role in our survival. Hence any operations involving sorting people, objects and their attributes are perceived by the brain as important and distinctive; moreover, since they involve evaluation they elicit a fair degree of cognitive investment and higher order thinking. Example: in learning the following adjectives ‘ugly’ , ‘unattractive’, ‘horrible’, ‘cute’, ‘beautiful’, ‘disgusting’, ‘stunning’, ‘pleasant looking’; you may arrange them in ascending order from least attractive to most attractive. Another example: in learning geographical terms, you may arrange them in ascending order of size: pebble –  rock – cliff  – mountain – mountain chain – planet.

  1. Building semantic associations with existing material in Long-term memory

Every learning is highly enhanced the more associations you build between the to-be-learnt information and any information currently existing in your brain. For every new L2 word you intend to learn, search your brain for any L2 words you have already learnt which you may associate with them in terms of meaning – any! . If you know words in other languages that relate in meaning to the target words, add those in too. To enhance the effectives of this technique, explain (even in your own language) how the existing words relate to the new words.


New word: affluent

Related words I already know: (1) money (an affluent person has lots of money)

                                                             (2) rich (an affluent person is rich)

                                                              (3) poor (an affluent person is not poor)

                                                              (4) Taylor Swift (she is very affluent)

A way to make such associations even stronger is to connect the target words with their antonyms and synonyms (if you know any).

The learning principle at play here is that the neural connections between words which are closely associated in meaning are stronger.

As a younger learner, either alone – yes, geeky me ! – or with friends learning the same language I would do a word-chain challenge. This consisted in connecting two words very distant in meaning by connecting them through a chain of words logically associated with each other.

Example: link ‘old lady’ and ‘pollution’

Word chain: old lady – pet – kitten – cat – canned food – alluminum – non biodegradable waste – pollution

If you do this with friends as a competition, give yourselves a time limit and the person who will have come up with the longest word-chain will be the winner.

The potential for learning of any semantic association is strengthened when it is reinforced by sound; hence, as already suggested above, try to find words which alliterate and rhyme or chime as well as having semantic connections.

  1. Word activation in context

If you do not process receptively or use a word/phrase within the first week of learning it is likely to be lost for ever. Hence, try and use it as often as you can. The best way would be with native speakers in face-to-face or phone conversations or online chat. What I used to do when no native speaker was available, was to make up meaningful sentences using the new words – as many as possible – then get a native speaker or one of my teachers to give me some feedback.

To keep the memory trace of the new words alive and kicking over the weeks and months to come until it is fully acquired, you will need to practise over and over again at spaced intervals. Read the next point.

  1. Be mindful or memory decay

As you can see from the curve of forgetting rate below, the time where most of the forgetting occurs is within the first 24 hours from first processing it. Hence, this is when most of the memorization work has to be done; use as many of the above strategies as you can! During the remainder of the first week you should go over the target words over and over again, a few minutes for word-set. Better a few minutes per day than one hour once a week.


  1. Get the pronunciation of the word as close to right as possible from the beginning

Words are activated in the brain by their sound, even when we are processing them silently, as we read. This entails that we must try and get their pronunciation right from day one or you may confuse them in the future with other words that sound similar with harmful consequence for your processing ability even for reading comprehension !. You could learn the IPA (the international phonetic alphabet) as this will allow you to work out the pronunciation of any lexical item you are learning by interpreting its phonetic transcription in the dictionary. I did and it was the best thing I have ever done for learning languages. There are plenty of free websites listing the IPA alphabet characters and recording of how each of them is pronounced. What is important is that you do a lot of independent listening  – don’t simply learn words through the written medium.

  1. Have a storage space for key vocabulary

What I do when I learn a language is creating a vocabulary booklet which I divide in as many sub-topics as I can think of. Whenever I encounter a word or phrase I think is worth remembering I write it down in as many sections of the booklet I feel it may belong to. Example: the word ‘flight’ would fit in the ‘transport’ section as well as in the ‘holidays’ section. Once I have chosen the section(s) I will select one or more existing  words in that section that  I associate the target word most closely with and write it next to them, explaining why the two words are associated. So, for instance, ‘flight’ would go next to ‘plane’ (a flight is a journey by plane) and next to ‘to fly’ (they sound similar and a flight is the result of flying) – again, the connections can be written out in the first language.

  1. Google search the target words

If you are a die-hard vocabulary geek, like me you may  want to find out alongside which other words the target lexical items are most frequently used. The quickest way is to place the word in google search which will result in the search engine giving you a range of predictions, as shown in the picture below. This will give you an insight in some of the most frequent collocations that word is associated with and teach you a new word or two


  1. Use songs

There are beautiful songs in every single world language. The beauty of the Internet is that there are plenty of websites with the translation of those songs in your own language(s).  Songs are extremely useful in terms of vocabulary learning as they repeat key words several times over and the music – especially when it is catchy – provide distinctive, memorable and recurring sound patterns which promote memorization.

What I do is focus on the refrain as it is the part of the song I am most likely to retain by virtue of its ‘catchiness’ and repetition in the song. Moreover, refrains typically contain ‘cool’ and ‘interesting’ words or phrases which often have high surrender value.

4. Concluding remarks

Training the students to learn autonomously is ideally what we should do day in day out. However, it is not always easy nor viable in view of the time constraints imposed by the courses we teach on. The above strategies do have high surrender value, though, and are mostly ‘no brainers’. If we plan to impart them effectively, however,  we must be mindful of the importance of not limiting our input to a one-off session. If we do not, we will have simply raised our students’ awareness of their existence but not developed their intentionality to adopt them, their expertise in their deployment and their self-efficacy as strategy users. Hence, we must keep them ‘alive’ in our students’ focal awareness by embedding them in our daily teaching; by reminding the class to use such strategies in preparation of a mini-vocabulary test you are staging next week; by eliciting their use in class every so often; by providing them opportunities to experience success in the deployment of as many as possible of those techniques,etc. Thus, my workshop is but the beginning of a longer process that will unfold on and off over the next three o four months at least. For  a principled framework on how to implement learner training (learning-to-learn), please refer to this blog.

It goes without saying that all of the above strategies can be used by teachers and material designers in their lesson planning and in creating instructional materials. I always do and I have based my whole website and most of my most popular vocabulary revision resources (e.g. here)  on the above principles.


9 thoughts on “Promoting learning-to -learn: 12 top tips for effective vocabulary learning

  1. Good article! thanks for sharing.
    I have a question for you: I keep learning words per day and I write them down in a notebook with their meaning, examples and transations (sometimes) and also I relate them with their synonyms. So, my question is How many word should we learn each day? is there a limit?( for example I tend to find 5 words each day)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good article. Thanks for sharing
    I have a question for you.
    I keep learning new words every day, I write them down in a notebook with their explanation, example, transaltion(sometimes) and with the words related. I’d like to know how many words we should learn each day, I mean, is there a limit with the words we should learn every day? for example. I tend to learn 5 word every day!
    Thanks for your answer

    Liked by 1 person

    • there are many levels of learning a word. So you can only say a word has bee learnt after You have processed them many times over in different contexts . I cannot specifically set a number of words to learn for you you are the best person to decide how many. If you only set out to memorise the meaning of a word as found in the dictionary as from a word list I know people who learn up to thirty a day. I used to set myself about 20 a day but the issue with that is that you have to keep going back to them and use them frequently one way or another. Thanks for dropping by and good luck with your language learning 😀


  3. Hello, Mr. Gianfranco. I recently stumbled across your blog by chance, which is amazing by the way.
    I’m a learner of English, currently I’m preparing for the CAE exam and by reading this post, one question come up about learning new words. what do you think that would work best: To learn a group of words, that are similar in meaning (For example, words related to difficult situations: nouns: harship, verb: afflict – adjectives: distressed) or to try to learn words that are different in meaning (for example when reading I found different words like: Diligent, indolent, dawn on, divert, inflict, etc. and I look them up in a dictionary)

    Thanks for your reply
    Have a nice day!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to Gianfranco Conti, Phd (Applied Linguistics), MA (TEFL), MA (English Lit.), PGCE (Modern Languages and P.E.) Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s