5 Research-Based Facts About Vocabulary Learning to Help You Learn Faster

Vanessa Teng
Vocabulary learning is hard, and this article is here to provide 5 tips based on research to help learners learn more efficiently.

Acquiring vocabulary is an essential part of learning English. Just imagine: you could be a master of grammar and sentence structure rules, but without knowing the vocabulary, you wouldn’t understand a single word.

The list of vocabulary words to learn might seem overwhelming, and some of them even have several meanings depending on the context.

Many learning tips exist, but here we will focus on methods that are backed by language learning research conducted by respected academics. The science shows that these methods will make your vocabulary learning more efficient.

1. Exposure is Important

What is exposure in the context of language learning? It’s the amount of contact you have with the language you’re learning.

Naturally, you need to see and hear words to learn them, but how many times do you need to be exposed to a word to learn it?

The number of exposures needed depends on the learner and ranges from 5 to 20. Generally, 8 to 10 exposures are necessary for you to have a good chance of recognizing and understanding a new word later on. In order to both understand and be able to use those new words, more exposure is needed.

To get more exposure, reading is a great activity because you are likely to see the same words appear multiple times in the text you are reading.

2. Context Matters

One universally known (and annoying) fact about vocabulary words is that they often have many meanings.

According to a study conducted by Professor Schmitt, you have to see and use words in different contexts to have a well-rounded knowledge of those words.

For example, the verb “to hold” could mean “taking something in your hands,” but it could also mean “keeping someone so that they can’t leave.” If you only know one of the meanings, you won’t be able to understand the word when it shows up in other contexts.

To see and hear words in different contexts, it is good to read and listen to many different sources. That means instead of always reading your favorite genre of novels (be it sci-fi or romance), you could also read news and blog articles that you find interesting. This way, you will be exposed to a wider range of vocabulary and see those words in different contexts.

3. Review Soon, Review Often

There’s this thing called memory decay, which is a fancy term for “forgetting”. The saying “out of sight, out of mind” applies to vocabulary learning.

According to many studies, memory decay usually happens soon after a word is introduced, which means it might be forgotten right after class or shortly after you looked it up in the dictionary.

To prevent this from happening, make it a point to review new words shortly after you encounter them. Also, reviewing them once is not enough. It is best to review new words several times because as we have said, several exposures are needed for new words to be remembered.

If this new word is in a textbook, then review it after class several times, and try to write sentences with it. This way, you have a better chance of remembering it, and you get to practice using that word.

4. Pay Attention to Word Form

Many people believe that understanding word meanings is the only important thing in vocabulary learning, but learners often have problems with the form (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and so on).

Word form could be a challenge because not only do you have to learn the meanings of words, but you also have to develop a new way to process forms in a foreign language. Since words might look similar in different forms (some even look the same, like the word “gift”), it is easy to get confused.

Word form charts, especially ones with example sentences, can help with clearing up which is which. If there are no example sentences, then make them yourselves! This way, you get to practice how to use words in different forms, and it will help you with identifying and remembering them.

5. You Cannot Only Rely on Passively Picking Up Words

It is true that you will learn new words by reading, but a lot of reading is needed to learn this way. It was estimated by researcher Hill and Professor Laufer that you need to read over 8 million words, which is about 420 novels, to add 2,000 words into your vocabulary this way.

According to Professor Schmitt, learning actively almost always helps you learn more words than learning passively, and you learn faster this way. You also have a better chance of remembering the words and making them part of your active vocabulary (words that you both understand and use).

One thing you can do to learn actively would be to make a vocabulary list and dedicate time to look them up and write some example sentences. You can also look up unknown words while reading (instead of guessing their meaning) and use flashcards.

Final Thoughts

Vocabulary learning takes time and lots of effort, but if you follow these research-based tips and try some recommended vocabulary learning methods, you can learn more efficiently, and soon, you will see your hard work paying off.

Written by Vanessa Teng for EnglishClub December 2020
Vanessa Teng speaks English, Chinese, Taiwanese, and is learning German and Spanish. She has a master's degree in TESOL Pre-Service from UCL, and she writes about language learning at Vocab.chat.


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